South Africa: Financial ties with China

The Standard Bank of South Africa joined last month with China’s Industrial and Commercial Bank (ICBC) to create a $1 billion fund to develop mines, energy projects and metal manufacturing in Africa, China and elsewhere. China’s largest overseas investment institution already owns 20 percent of Standard Bank.

The two banks will each contribute $200 million to the fund, the remainder to come from outside sources. Nairobi’s Business Daily said the fund is expected to yield a 20 percent return on investments in private rather than government projects, the latter typified by ICBC’s recent $5 billion loan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in return for access to minerals.

Argentina: Agricultural strike divides nation

The 44 percent hike in taxes on food exports imposed by the 100 day old government of President Christina Fernandez provoked a nationwide strike by farmers and distributors that started March 13.

The strike resurrected class divisions, rural-urban tensions, and memories of financial collapse and shortages from Argentina’s recent past.

Taxing soy, wheat and corn exports, source of half the government’s income, had been crucial to Argentina’s financial recovery, Reuters said.

Social movements marched in Buenos Aires March 26, protesting agribusiness’ spurning of national interests and profiteering from rising food prices. Food shortages brought middle-class consumers into city streets for noisy anti-government demonstrations.

Afghanistan: Money disappears

A report released March 24 by the Agency Co-coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (representing 94 agencies) charges that since 2001, foreign consultants and private contractors have consumed $6 billion out of $15 billion in foreign aid. Official records can’t account for $5.3 billion.

Additionally, some $10 billion pledged as foreign aid has not materialized, including half of the U.S. $10.4 billion commitment. The Daily Telegraph quoted an Afghan member of Parliament: “In every dollar, only 11 cents is going to Afghans.” A refugee asked, “Every Afghan should be a millionaire, but where is the money?”

Around 90 percent of public outlay in the occupied country derives from foreign sources.

Indonesia: No free ride for international corporations

Protests involving unionists, students and women’s groups have engulfed Indonesia. Demands center on sovereignty over natural resources, food and access to education.

Workers demonstrated outside Exxon’s Jakarta offices March 12 for nationalization of oil production.

In the eastern city of Ternat, labor activists joined the Coalition for Women’s Concerns in rallying for state control of mines. Five students were wounded.

In Makassar in Sulawesi, students confronted the PT Inco Company, notorious for land evictions and pollution of land and waters.

Hundreds demonstrated in North Sumatra, Maumere, and Palu City during March. The Reuters report attributes a leading role in the protests to the National Liberation Party of Unity and the National Student League for Democracy.

Greece: Anti-worker pension plan passes

A motion to censure the right-wing government of Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis over pension reforms Parliament passed last month failed, 138-152 with 10 abstentions, March 28. The motion, introduced by Socialist leader George Papandreou, opposed the government’s plan to merge 130 pension funds into 13, cap some pensions and eliminate most early retirement plans.

Re-elected on a promise of pension reform last September, Karamanlis has since faced dozens of work stoppages and three general strikes, the last involving millions the day before the final vote.

A union-sponsored opinion survey suggests 71 percent of the Greek population oppose pension reform, which, according to The Associated Press, has been urged by the European Union.

Cuba: Reports favorable on development, energy use

At a press conference in Havana last week, Susan McDade, representative in Cuba of the UN Development Program, said that according to that agency’s annual report for 2007, Cuba ranked 51st among 177 nations, and sixth in Latin America. Criteria included life expectancy, literacy, secondary school completion and gross domestic product.

Cuba got high marks for “rational use of energy,” a theme emphasized in the report, along with plans relating to climate change.

Speaking at a recent energy conference, Jose Manuel Presa, deputy minister of basic industry, said Cuba has cut oil use by one million gallons over two years.

World Notes are compiled by W.T. Whitney Jr. (