It was New Year’s Eve and I was looking back over my favorite headlines of 2004 when I found what just might be the best one. It’s not that it’s a deeply moving Oprah-style human interest story, or laugh out loud knee-slappin’ funny. It is, actually, a very depressing report and forecast. But it is most telling.

According to the Guardian of London (online edition), HIV is spreading at its fastest — to the surprise of many — in areas of the former Soviet Union. A study by the United Nations Development Program, released back in February 2004, found that nearly one out of every 100 Russians may have already contracted the virus. The study also pointed to the dreadfully realistic possibility that up to 20.7 million Russians could die from AIDS by 2045.

It’s not just Russia either. Experts have also pointed to rapidly rising infection rates in Estonia and Ukraine.

The situation had gotten so appalling so quickly that Kalman Mizsei, director of the UN Development Program for Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, has openly said: “It is too late to speak of avoiding a crisis in Eastern Europe.” Clearly the crisis is already very much under way.

Another study, conducted back in 2002 by Imperial College London, paints a truly dismal picture: 5 percent of Russians are likely to be HIV positive by 2007. Scary — that’s only two years away!

Now compare that to the 0.07 percent infection rate in Cuba — a “third world” socialist country under constant threat from U.S. imperialism. So, how does that work? Some little poor “undemocratic” socialist nation down south of Florida has a lower HIV infection rate than big “free” capitalist Russia. Hmmm, sounds suspicious.

The truth is: Cuban President Fidel Castro predicted way back in the early 1980s that AIDS would be “the disease of the century.” Preparations were made and — armed with one of their greatest weapons, a proactive system of universal health care — the Cuban government launched a no-holds-barred campaign to combat the disease, before most of the rest of the world was even thinking about it.

A long time ago, in a far off land, there was another population that benefited from a universal health care system. Citizens of the “bloody,” “repressive,” “Stalinist” Soviet Union had access to quality health care free of charge, provided courtesy of their “tyrannical” government.

It’s interesting to note that the rapid rise of infections in present-day Russia is due, in large part, to the sharing of needles by drug addicts — a widespread problem. And a new problem at that. While there were troubles with alcoholism in the USSR, there certainly wasn’t much else in the way of drug abuse. The desperate, cutthroat chaos of the “free market” brought the drugs in, and prostitutes too.

The Russian government doesn’t seem to mind. There have been some television ad campaigns to create public awareness around the issue. However, apart from that, the Kremlin has done very little to stop the spread of the disease. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin seems more concerned with consolidating his own power than fighting this killer of his people.

HIV/AIDS is an increasingly important issue on a global level, but Russia’s ruling class could care less. Correspondingly, this particular story received very little play in the U.S. corporate media.

These things don’t get thoroughly reported on, because they bring up real questions and sometimes irrefutable facts.

That is the case here: Capitalism spreads HIV.

Numbers don’t lie.

Shane Brinton (comradebrinton@moscowmail.com) is a high school student, community activist, and member of the National Council of the Young Communist League, USA. He lives in Northern California.