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Sunday, August 22, 2010

The US and/in Bangladesh

Melissa Hussain

WHAT does the reproduction of capitalism in peripheral economic formations have to do with the US? Of course, as I have pointed out, the US has been present in Bangladesh since—and even before—its birth as a nation-state. To speak of the US is to speak of the US government as well as the current phase of imperialism—US imperialism. This imperialism, as I suggested, is both economic and cultural, and its economic operations cannot be dissociated from the operations of the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, and even from so-called ‘donor’ agencies and NGOs invading and intervening in peripheral economies under capitalism. My earlier account of the World Bank did not directly mention the role of the US there, but I should point out here that the World Bank in Bangladesh, from time to time, has sought assistance and suggestions from the US while the US also gave suggestions to the World Bank since the days of the so-called ‘green revolution’ in Bangladesh (the then East Pakistan) in the 1960s, an initiative which actually began with both support and suggestions from the US.
Here I will dwell on other aspects of US imperialism, while keeping the connections between US imperialism and international financial institutions in sight. Let me then begin by historicising the nature of US imperialism in Bangladesh. When India was partitioned by the British in 1947, the region known as East Bengal became East Pakistan. Resistances to rule by Pakistan and to US imperialism grew in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), particularly headed by the East Pakistan Communist Party. In the 1960s, as Badruddin Umar relates in volume two of his The Emergence of Bangladesh: Rise of Bengali Nationalism, 1958-1971:
At this [1968] Congress [of the East Pakistan Communist Party] a programme of the East Pakistan Communist Party was adopted. It was prepared on the basis of the documents adopted in the conference of eighty-one parties in Moscow in 1960. The principal strategic objective of the programme was to end the exploitation by the US imperialists and the exploitation and rule of monopoly capitalists, to complete the anti-imperialist, anti-feudal and anti-capitalist national democratic revolution and to advance along the path of non-capitalist development with a view to attaining the socialist stage. (131)
The East Pakistan Communist Party aimed for a broad-based alliance of ‘workers, peasants, middle-class intellectuals and a section of the national bourgeoisie’ (131) in order to oppose—as Umar puts it—‘US imperialism, the big bourgeoisie, feudal landowners, and the central government which represented their interests’ (131). The objective of this alliance was, then, to establish an independent, socialist nation-state.
From the very beginning, Washington was unambiguous in its support of Pakistan and opposition to the movement for independence in East Pakistan. The US government simply did nothing to intervene, then, while hundreds of thousands—and some say millions—of Bengalis were brutally killed by the Pakistani army in Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence. Rather, the US remained solidly on the side of Pakistan. In a phone conversation with secretary of state Henry Kissinger on March 29, 1971, President Nixon had this to say of Bangladesh: ‘The real question is whether anybody can run the god-damn place’ (US Dept of State, South Asia Crisis 36). And in another phone conversation with Kissinger the next day, President Nixon said, ‘The main thing to do is to keep cool and not do anything’ (US Dept of State, South Asia Crisis 37). It was around this time that Kissinger famously characterised Bangladesh as ‘an international basket case’ (Hitchens 50). While these statements were made in casual conversations, they are indicative of the Nixon administration’s position vis-à-vis Bangladesh. It should be emphasised here that when the Bengali freedom-fighters were sacrificing their lives to achieve a new nation-state and were indeed in the midst of their liberation war, the US government did not merely diplomatically oppose the liberation movement, but even militarily opposed it by sending its seventh fleet to the Bay of Bengal in support of Pakistan as a direct threat to Bangladeshi freedom-fighters.
Despite the pronounced and increasing US imperial opposition to the national liberation movement of Bangladesh, the country finally achieved its independence in 1971 in exchange for millions of lives and a war-devastated land. Indeed, the land was not only devastated and the economy completely ruined, but a widespread famine also broke out soon after independence in 1974. That famine killed 27,000 people according to official estimates, although the toll was probably closer to 100,000, as Rehman Sobhan relates in The Crisis of External Dependence: The Political Economy of Foreign Aid to Bangladesh (44). While Sobhan argues that the politics of external dependence on aid was to blame for the famine, he also points to the fact that the US government made the decision to withhold food shipments to Bangladesh in 1974, in order to register its disapproval of Bangladesh’s trade ties to socialist countries, particularly Cuba. And in her essay ‘Food Politics’—which appeared in Foreign Affairs in 1976—Emma Rothschild even argues that the US government played a decisive role in the widespread extent of the famine by withholding desperately-needed food aid at that critical point. The New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst Devinda Sharma has more recently documented this history thus:
At the height of the 1974 famine in the newly born Bangladesh, the US had withheld 2.2 million tonnes of food aid to ‘ensure that it abandoned plans to try Pakistani war criminals’. And a year later, when Bangladesh was faced with severe monsoons and imminent floods, the then US Ambassador to Bangladesh made it abundantly clear that the US probably could not commit food aid because of Bangladesh’s policy of exporting jute to Cuba. And by the time Bangladesh succumbed to the American pressure, and stopped jute exports to Cuba, the food aid in transit was ‘too late for famine victims’. (‘Famine as Commerce’ par. 14)
The fallout of the restricted flow of aid meant that Bangladesh turned to the World Bank in desperation, and made the pact to trade in its original ideals of socialism and nationalism that had been established in the constitution for economic liberalisation and the development of the private sector. In other words, it is because of the pressures of US imperialism and the World Bank—and also in the interest of the national ruling classes—that the ideals of socialism in particular, the ideals that at least partly informed the liberation war of Bangladesh, were all abandoned.
The initial nationalisation efforts were abandoned as well in the direction of de-nationalisation, rather privatisation. Since the time of Ziaur Rahman (from the mid-1970s onwards), the privatisation efforts gathered momentum and kept progressively increasing through each successive government. Indeed, as Naila Kabeer points out in ‘The Quest for National Identity: Women, Islam and the State of Bangladesh’, ‘The rapid de-nationalisation of the economy under Zia created a newly rich class of entrepreneurs and traders whose interests were tied to those of the government in power and who became its allies’ (42). Indeed, the de-nationalisation of the economy under Zia involved a number of elements. For one, there was a massive increase in foreign aid. Because Bangladesh dropped its declaration of socialism and of secularism, it garnered more donors from the West (for the move away from socialism) and from the Persian Gulf (for the religious posture). Secondly, international agencies—which were already present in Bangladesh since the early seventies—began to play a larger role in state governance, while the role of the state became rather marginal.
In fact, the role of the state—although marginal—is nevertheless not inconsequential in the sense that it has remained willingly subservient to the dictates of US imperialism and the World Bank and other financial institutions, and even NGOs. As far as the bourgeois government is concerned, it has always been an ardent ally of the US. As Azfar Hussain maintains emphatically in his Bengali essay ‘Markin Shamrajjer Shamprotik Bakyaron [The Contemporary Grammar of US Imperialism]’,
Not a single bourgeois administration of Bangladesh since 1971 has been able to say no to the pressures, dictates, suggestions, and recommendations of the US, while in many instances each administration has even welcomed the interventions of the US and the World Bank and other financial institutions, linked as they are, from time to time. For instance, even the so-called founding father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, despite his initial socialist postures and pronouncements, became increasingly pro-American, while Ziaur Rahman was an open boot-licker of the US administration. The two major bourgeois parties in Bangladesh that have alternately run the country since 1971 have been equally pro-US imperialist and thus themselves have threatened the sovereignty and security of the country itself. But who are anti-imperialists in Bangladesh? The answer is simple: the people—the toiling masses whose so-called cheap labour is routinely exploited by multinational corporations or US imperialist capitalism. (36)
Indeed, the US has either refused to provide aid to Bangladesh in critical times, or it has stepped in to provide ‘aid’ with strings attached, aid that set Bangladesh up for exploitation, an imperialist relationship with unequal power-relations and production-relations. Consider these observations, for instance, from Badruddin Umar in his relatively recent foreword to Mahfuz Chowdhury’s book, Economic Exploitation of Bangladesh. Umar maintains that the United States is
the most important factor in this process [of exploiting the people in Bangladesh] as an imperialist country which in pursuit of its ‘new world order’ and ‘open market policy’ is pressurizing the Bangladeshi ruling classes and their governments to systematically dismantle and destroy industries, to throw millions of workers out of employment and push the country’s economy towards rapid ruination. (‘Foreword’ xv)
Umar has been writing—and organising—in resistance to US imperialism in Bangladesh for almost forty years now, and his basic critique of US imperialism has been consistent. In 1972, for instance, just after the formation of Bangladesh, Umar made the following observations in Politics and Society in Bangladesh, in the chapter unambiguously titled ‘The Ascendancy of US Imperialism in Bangladesh’:
No sensible man [sic] in this country can any longer deny the fact that within seven months of the overthrow of Pakistan, Bangladesh has fallen under the grip of world imperialism, particularly its leader, the United States of America. But uninformed persons, men used to stupid political rigmarole, anti-social elements and lackeys of the ruling classes still continue to believe and propagate that it is not so. They also charge and openly make accusations against all sections of political opposition by saying that they are trying to frustrate all anti-imperialist, particularly anti-US, policies of the government of Bangladesh. These latter groups of men still continue their talk about anti-imperialism, socialism, etc. and without the slightest scruple of conscience proceed to build ‘socialism’ with money and commodities supplied by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, etc and their patron and principal, the government of the United States. (60)
Umar makes an explicit connection between the World Bank, the IMF, and US imperialism, a point that I have already dwelt on. But Umar is also talking about the functioning of hegemony here: the ruling class in Bangladesh talks of socialism, while reproducing capitalism. Also, a number of left intellectual-activists from Bangladesh—such as Serajul Islam Choudhury, Anu Muhammad, and Nurul Kabir—have all variously examined and interrogated the history of the changing but continuous relationship between US imperialism and the national ruling classes in Bangladesh.
US imperialism in Bangladesh also has to do with how US multinational corporations keep exploiting the domestic markets, the labour markets, and natural resources in Bangladesh. My purpose here is not to provide an exhaustive account of the involvement of US multinational corporations in Bangladesh, but to point out certain trends. A number of US-based multinational corporations have invested in Bangladesh, such as Chevron and the former Unocal Corporation (which merged with Chevron in 2005) which invested in the natural gas sector, a number of US-based clothing industries, with Wal-Mart being the giant among them, which have invested in the Export Processing Zones. Since 1971, the role of US multinational corporations has increasingly gathered momentum, targeting the country’s ‘cheap’ labour—in other words, the labour of women and even children—as well as the country’s natural resources, particularly oil and gas reserves.

The New Age. Date: 22.08.10

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