The Multinational Monitor

  December 2002 - VOLUME 23 - NUMBER 12

B E H I N D    T H E    L I N E S

Argentina Defaults

The Argentine government in November defaulted on debt payments owed to the World Bank.

The government made payment of only $79 million on $805 million due, as a means to protest the demands placed on the government by the Bankís sister institution, the International Monetary Fund.

"The countryís level of reserves prevents it from paying the total of the quotas that expire today," the Financial Times quoted Alfredo Atanasof, chief of the cabinet, as saying.

The IMF is demanding a range of intensified austerity measures ó which the government believes will worsen suffering and further constrict the shrinking economy ó to boost foreign reserves. The measures include increasing taxes, increasing the price of services, and denying people the right to withdraw money from banks in direct contradiction of an Argentine Supreme Court ruling.

If payment is not forthcoming within 60 days, the World Bank is required by its rules to cut off Argentina from further credit.

Although Argentina has over the past year defaulted on billions due to private creditors, it has not previously missed any payments to international financial institutions.

"In the short term," says Soren Ambrose of the 50 Years Is Enough Network, "Argentineans benefit from this decision because the government will have more money on hand for social programs. If in the medium-term the government is indeed completely cut off from credit and capital, it could have a very damaging impact on the most vulnerable sectors of the Argentinian population."

"In the long term, and for other countries, the impact could be very positive," Ambrose comments. "This unique challenge to the power of the World Bank and IMF to dictate both macroeconomic policy and debt repayment terms could change the perception of their infallibility. That would ... begin to reduce the gross imbalance of power that has caused so much unnecessary death and suffering over the last 20-plus years."

Pre-Paying for Water

Hundreds of organizations and individuals in December called on three major companies that manufacture pre-paid water meters to stop meter production immediately because of the public health impact on families who cannot afford to pay for clean water.

Water companies consider pre-paid meters to be efficient and cost-effective, because they automatically cut off consumers when they use all the water they have paid for. But the public health impact of pre-paid water meters can be devastating.

"Pre-paid meters are strategically designed to deny water and electricity to those who cannot afford to pay," says Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizenís Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, which spearheaded a sign-on letter to the three major pre-paid meter producers, CONLOG, Meinecke and Atlantic Meters.

Pre-paid water meters are often installed in indigent communities and replace regular faucets that switch on and off. The devices require people to pay for water before they use it by purchasing a pre-paid card that is inserted into the meter with a tap below. As service is delivered, the balance is adjusted, and the remaining credit displayed.

Pre-paid water meters were declared illegal in the United Kingdom under the UK Water Act of 1998 after water cut-offs were linked to increased cases of dysentery and other diseases related to lack of clean water.

The major companies are hawking the meters to governments and private companies in the developing world. The major companies boast new contracts in Namibia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Brazil, Swaziland and Curacao.

Critics say the metersí purported efficiency conceals the transfer of costs to consumers and society.

"Being efficient on one end," says Trevor Ngwane, of the Anti-Privatization Forum in South Africa, "only leads to a backlog of expenses on the other end when people who canít afford clean water get sick from drinking dirty water and then seek services at public health clinics."

Disabled Moviegoer Rights

A U.S. federal court in Los Angeles ruled in November that the AMC movie theater chain violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) by offering patrons who use wheelchairs and their companions only inferior seating in the front rows of its new stadium-style movie theaters.

U.S. District Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper stated that patrons who use wheelchairs are routinely left to sit in the few rows of seating on the sloped-floor closest to the screen, outside the stadium section. Those seats are less popular, offer poor views of the screen and isolate persons who use wheelchairs from the rest of the audience.

The court concluded that AMC violated the ADA by failing to provide its patrons who use wheelchairs with comparable lines of sight to the movie screen in its stadium-style movie theaters nationwide.

Several issues, including the damages to be awarded disabled moviegoers who were discriminated against by AMC, are still pending before the court. Also pending is the United Statesí motion for an order requiring AMC to remedy other ADA violations that do not involve line of sight issues (such as concession counters, companion seating, wheelchair ramps and parking lots) at its stadium-style theater complexes. AMC currently owns and/or operates over 80 stadium-style movie theater complexes in the United States. n