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Liberty, equality and fraternity for some; miniature French flags for others!

Most people barely know what exactly the International Monetary Fund does. At least here in Europe, it is seen as an institution that does “stuff”, related to banks? Economy? Corporations? The perception most people have of the IMF is, at best vague if not completely ignorant of its workings. It just doesn’t register much in the lives of ordinary folks.

Me? I cannot remember not knowing about the IMF. Because, you see, for those of us who hail from the South, the IMF is part of our pop culture narratives. It evokes nightmare scenarios involving people who lost the fruits of their lifetime labor, all their savings gone overnight due to new “adjustment packages” demanded by the IMF as a condition to renegotiate international debt. We all know someone who lost it all, including their homes, in one of these rounds of economic re-organizations. We all know (or have been victims ourselves) of the policies imposed by the IMF to approve a new line of credit for our countries, to accept delayed payments, to renegotiate interest rates. The visit of an IMF delegate can be the subject of headlines for weeks, months even. A negative rating or comment by such delegate can bring down governments. So actually, I do not remember ever not knowing the intricacies of how the IMF operates in our region.

(Flashbacks: My father, in his deathbed, worried because of possible fluctuations in dollar exchange rates as a result of IMF demands that would further deplete whatever little we had left at that point; Christmas of 2001, my mother unable to buy food because there was a revolution due to the population refusing to accept further IMF “adjustments”; me, at the other side of the world, unable to do anything that would help her buy said food due to the Argentinian banking system that collapsed and the impossibility of issuing international money transfers; my grandmother and her meager retirement pension, her life -and death, in almost poverty because the IMF demanded that pensions had to be reduced to cut deficit; the story of my life entangled with IMF interventions and poverty or wealth as a result).

Media is adept at grandiose metaphors. I am not saying anything novel here. They are also adept at metaphors that often can (and do) promote rhetoric violence. They like to bring out imagery that causes an impact. And sometimes, such metaphors enter pop culture and never leave. They become part of the mainstream discourse, unchallenged. So, I’ve been following the Strauss-Khan saga with a mixture of dread and, honestly, triggered emotions. Because, you see, ever since I can remember, I’ve seen the IMF associated with metaphors of sexual assault.

The Raped Nation/ La Patria violada”. Again and again, South American media would use these metaphors to refer to the policies imposed by the IMF. Media, and more specifically, tabloid media, whose target demographics have always been the working class and the poor (who also happened to be the most affected by these policies) has been drawing on rape comparisons ever since I can remember. Our resources depleted, our children and youth deprived from basic healthcare and education as a result of policies that benefited the international financial industry (implemented with the complicit, necessary help of corrupt local government officials): every time, we would see headlines that portray our countries as women who have been assaulted, raped, stripped of their dignity.

And really, we should have a feminist Goodwin law to name this phenomenon because economic measures imposed by an institution that responds to international, neo-colonial financial interests do not equate rape or sexual assault. At least, until reality trumps bad tabloid metaphors and we come full circle. Because, as French sociologist Michel Fize by way of Le Monde (for those unfamiliar with French media, one of the most important newspapers in the country) reminds us (emphasis mine):

Whether or not Mr. Strauss-Kahn is guilty, it is unacceptable to treat a man in this way – first of all because he is a human being, and second because he was the general director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Listen to me well: like everyone, I believe in and am therefore committed to the principle of equality of all citizens in the eyes of the law. Nevertheless, I think that there are certain individuals (Mr. Strauss-Kahn is one of them) who, by reason of his or her distinguished responsibilities, or for the services they rendered to their nation or the world, have the right to a certain respect that would neither mean impunity from their acts nor a mitigation of their penalties.

The services rendered to their nation. And I really want to scream hyperbolic, over emotional one liners at this point. Because I can only think of the services of the poor in the South, whose lives are constantly cut short, whose dreams and expectations are anonymous and not worthy of the kind of money that can afford a Sofitel suite. A suite that hosted the most powerful man in the IMF and in which the body of a non metaphorical woman was possibly assaulted in non metaphorical ways. A woman who, by all accounts, also hails from the South. And who most likely would not be an economic migrant if it wasn’t for the policies imposed by the IMF. A woman who would not be part of “The Raped Nations” as the tabloid media of my childhood dubbed our countries.

The metaphor was terrible and in bad taste, but I certainly never expected that there would be a day when the IMF and rape allegations would actually be something that well respected sociologists and philosophers feel worthy of defending in public.

9 Comments

  1. Ailatan wrote:

    Sadly, I know all too well of what you’re talking about. I remember the Viudas e Hijas singing “Fondo Monetario Internacional…” and all the adjustments and readjustments in our comparatively short lives.

    Strauss-Kahn deserves our respect? No, he doesn’t. He lost that privilege now he has to face the music.

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  2. NomadiCat wrote:

    I have to read this three or four more times to fully parse everything you’ve packed in here… and then probably sit alone in a dark room thinking about it for a few days. But while I’m off doing that, I wanted you to know that I’m DAMN pleased that you’re writing here at TBD. This is a fantastic piece and has blown my mind. Thanks for posting it!

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  3. alanna wrote:

    Flavia, thank you for this post. It’s lucky that I have one of those wrist-pillows in front of my keyboard; I might have seriously injured myself by pounding my head so forcefully against the desk after reading Fize’s words.

    For readers interested in how the IMF/World Bank operate, you may want to check out “Confessions of an Economic Hitman.” It is not terribly well-written, but it’s a sobering and eye-opening look at institutions that I, as a US citizen, had honestly never really bothered to think about before.

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink
  4. AnneBonney wrote:

    This was an amazing piece, and Flavia, your perspective is a breath of fresh air. Everything you’ve written has been incredibly thought-provoking and is super helpful to remind me (a USian) how important it is to view international events with as broad a lens as possible. Thank you!

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink
  5. MikeV wrote:

    Thank you for your perspective! I frequently here that world organizations like the IMF are “defunct” or something similar, but it’s never explained why that is so. You’ve shown me that “defunct” is a wild understatement. It bewilders me that these organizations are allowed to do active harm to so many millions of people. I wish you had a bigger megaphone!

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Permalink
  6. Erin wrote:

    Thanks for that post, some needed perspective for those of us in the us and western Europe. I am also interested in a discussion of how Europeans view the quote that you pulled from Le Monde. Perhaps I am naive but was it a bit more emphatic in it’s support of ab accuses rapist than what would be dared in a major US newspaper?

    Monday, May 23, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Permalink
  7. aravind wrote:

    Flavia, you are amazing for covering this. Thank you.

    Also Fize is a complete rape apologist. I thought we’d gotten to the point where those sorts of arguments had to be more covert. Evidently not.

    Tuesday, May 24, 2011 at 2:52 am | Permalink
  8. @MikeV, here is a very simple rundown of the effects of the IMF policies in the developing world. Again, this is a quick summary, but I think it’s a good starting point to get a general overview (death by lack of healthcare, famine due to cuts in access to food, etc.). I am afraid to say that’s what the IMF stands for. Strauss-Khan, apparently, was appointed in an effort to change the image of the Fund in the developing world, because he is a Socialist (to the point that he was going to be the Presidential candidate in France’s elections for the Socialist Party).

    @Erin, actually, I haven’t seen that piece discussed anywhere in European media. The thing is, it’s very difficult to assess European reactions to well, just about anything, because of the variety of languages spoken across the continent. So, to get a good overview I would have to scout around in newspapers and sites written in languages I really do not understand. As it is, I read Dutch, English, Spanish speaking, some Portuguese, some Italian and some French media. Alas, those are the languages I can read/ understand so anything outside that scope is a bit out of my league. With that said, I haven’t seen any responses to the Le Monde article. I believe after the Polanski debacle, most Europeans are desensitized to what appears in rape apologia pieces. Because a lot of this sounds like a Polanski redux in rhetoric and excuses.

    For those who read French, here is the original article at Le Monde (which I didn’t link to in my post because it is in French and I went for the translation posted by WorldCrunch). There are 40+ comments/ reactions to the piece. However, I must warn potential readers: they are mostly a litany of rape excuses and indignation.

    Tuesday, May 24, 2011 at 3:23 am | Permalink
  9. khw wrote:

    I understand taht I’m a bit late in the game, pero más vale tarde que nunca.

    As an Irish woman who has lived in Latin America (almost 12 years now), I have been finding the ignorance about the IMF in, particularly, the Irish press amazing. People in the First World really aren’t too sure about the destruction that the IMF can cause in a matter of weeks.

    Thank you for sharing from your personal experience. Now that the IMF is able to apply the same neo-liberal policies to First World economies, it is useful for people to understand the implications.

    Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink