Monday, May 2, 2005

Michael M. Phillips and Matt Moffett

Brazil refuses U.S. AIDS funds, rejects conditions

Brazil refused $40 million in American AIDS grants to protest the U.S. requirement that recipients first sign a pledge condemning prostitution.

Brazil's decision escalates a global fight over the moral strings President Bush and his conservative allies in Congress attach to foreign assistance, especially when it comes to sex, drugs and AIDS prevention in developing nations.

Brazil is seen by some as a model in the battle against the spread of AIDS, and Brazilian officials say that is in part because they deal in an accepting, open way with prostitutes, homosexual men, intravenous-drug users and other high-risk groups. The Brazilians say it would hobble their work if they complied with U.S. demands and forced groups that implement AIDS programs — including prostitutes' associations — to condemn prostitution.

"We can't control [the disease] with principles that are Manichean, theological, fundamentalist and Shiite," said Pedro Chequer, director of Brazil's AIDS program and chairman of the national commission that made the decision to turn down further U.S. money as long as the antiprostitution pledge requirement remains in place. He said the commission members, including cabinet ministers, scientists, church representatives and outside activists, viewed U.S. demands as "interference that harms the Brazilian policy regarding diversity, ethical principles and human rights."

Brazil appears to be the first major recipient nation to take such a definitive stand against U.S. efforts to link billions of dollars in foreign aid to conservative responses to social ills. Some Republican lawmakers in Washington are pressing to cut off federal grants to those who don't support the president's views promoting sexual abstinence, condemning prostitution and opposing clean-needle exchanges for drug-users. Meanwhile, the White House has steered more federal money to groups that bring a religious orientation to overseas health programs.

"Obviously, Brazil has the right to act however it chooses in this regard," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R., Kan.), one of the leaders of the conservative cause on Capitol Hill. He said he hoped the money would be redirected to countries whose AIDS policies are more in line with those of the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress. "We're talking about promotion of prostitution, which the majority of both the House and the Senate believe is harmful to women," he said.

Last week, Brazilian authorities wrote the U.S. Agency for International Development, one of the main distributors of official American aid, explaining the decision to reject the remainder of the grant, which began in 2003 and was to run through 2008 for a total of $48 million.

The American money was a small part of Brazil's overall anti-AIDS push. About 90% of Brazil's total funding for AIDS programs comes from its own revenue, with 7% or 8% coming from the World Bank and the rest from the U.S. and other governments. Dr. Chequer said the Brazilian government would increase its funding to make up for the lost U.S. funds.

USAID spokeswoman Roslyn Matthews said yesterday the agency is still reviewing the Brazilian decision. "This is an evolving situation," she said. "We are in the process of determining next steps."

Prostitution isn't a crime in Brazil, and prostitutes' associations are among the most active groups engaged in anti-AIDS work. The U.S. money was to have included $190,000 for eight prostitutes' groups around Brazil, according to Gabriela Leite, coordinator of the Brazilian Network of Sex Professionals and a former prostitute. Ms. Leite said she participated in lengthy discussions with USAID to ensure that American money went only to AIDS education and prevention, and not to other prostitutes' rights issues. The result was a 50-page agreement, she said, but it broke down because her group was unwilling to condemn prostitution.

Brazil's approach to the AIDS epidemic is considered a model by some scientists and public-health specialists. The government encourages abstinence and sexual fidelity, but its prevention efforts focus more on condom education and distribution. In addition, since 1996 the country has provided free, life-extending antiretroviral drug cocktails to anyone infected with HIV.

The result is a spread of HIV far less serious than had been feared. In 1992, experts forecast 1.2 million Brazilians would carry the AIDS virus by 2002. Instead, there were an estimated 660,000 cases. World-wide almost 40 million people are thought to be infected with HIV.

"Why should we adopt a different orientation if we have been successful for the more than 10 years?" asked Sonia Correa, a Brazilian AIDS activist and co-chair of the International Working Group on Sexuality and Social Policy, a global forum of researchers and activists.

The antiprostitution pledge requirement came out of two 2003 U.S. laws, one dealing with AIDS and the other with forced prostitution or sex trafficking.

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Created: June 27, 2005
Last modified: June 27, 2005
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