Features

Are corporate interests gumming up sanctions?

International | And is the U.S. government cynically complicit in watering down human-rights trade sanctions against the Sudanese?

Issue: "Debunking Darwinism," Nov. 22, 1997

In N'Djamena, the capital of Chad, a French hotel has a King James Version Bible in every room, translated into French, English, and Arabic. It's a detail worth noting, say those with business interests in Chad, now that the Clinton administration has slapped neighboring Sudan with economic sanctions. Whether the north African nation will be able to step into the trade gap created by the sanctions will depend on how President Clinton now interprets his own ruling. The surprise White House announcement came Nov. 4 when administration officials announced the president would impose by executive order sanctions on Sudan he had previously opposed in legislation pending on Capitol Hill. White House spokesman Mike McCurry said the order was "a direct consequence of the Sudanese regime's sponsorship of international terrorism, its efforts to destabilize neighboring countries, and its abysmal human-rights record, including the denial of religious freedom." The action appears to shut down both import and export trade between the United States and Sudan while leaving the door open to continued, if minimal, diplomatic relations and humanitarian aid. Christian advocates for religious liberty had a pointedly mixed response. They praised the president's acknowledgement of religious persecution in Sudan, along with the recent appointment of Susan Rice, new assistant secretary of state for African affairs, whom many see as responsible for the executive order. But they fear a corporate-shaped hole in the action. Throwing into question the White House claim to "comprehensive sanctions" is a clause that allows the executive branch to grant licenses for certain products deemed to "serve U.S. interests." Even before the executive order was issued, lobbyists for American corporations with business in Sudan sought to slip in under the clause-which is, in effect, a waiver of the sanctions. At issue, in particular, is a little-noticed substance called gum arabic that soft drink makers and candy manufacturers rely on importing from Sudan. "I fear the glass may be half-empty," said Nina Shea of Freedom House. In the press announcement accompanying the presidential order, gum arabic was singled out as an import that might be exempted. What was not mentioned is that gum arabic is the prime product the United States imports from Sudan. "It's a dishonest spin on the part of the U.S. government about what it is doing," said Ms. Shea. "One main source of trade with Sudan is gum arabic, and a waiver for it makes the sanctions meaningless." Gum arabic is used in small but not unimportant quantities to thicken or emulsify soft drinks, candy, and ice cream. It's in M&Ms, Minute Maid, Coricidin, and Ultra Slimfast. It's also used in the printing process. It is derived from the bark of acacia trees, plentiful only in parts of Africa (and in the Jordan Valley, where it is known by the Hebrew shittah, a hardwood used in the construction of the Old Testament tabernacle). Colorless, tasteless, and odorless, gum arabic is what keeps the fruit from sinking to the bottom of drinks like Fresca or Fanta Orange. Soft drink makers say there is no artificial substitute, and newspaper journalists, while editorializing about "soda-pop diplomacy," were careful to note that they couldn't run ink through the presses without gum arabic. Two years ago the United States imported $20 million in gum arabic from Sudan. Last year that number dropped by half, a figure industry analyst Richard Hines says indicates that American purchasers of gum arabic have adequate stores of the substance to weather a gum war. Mr. Hines, who also consults with the Chad-America Chamber of Commerce on U.S.-Chad trade issues, says U.S. manufacturers have an appealing alternative source. "A reliable alternative supply exists next door in Chad, a country that does not persecute or take slaves. Why doesn't American industry go there?" Trade with Chad was curtailed a decade ago during its war with Libya and not reinvigorated. While not considered an open market, it scores ahead of Sudan in this year's Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom. It is not on the State Department's list of terrorist states, as Sudan is, and it is not condemned in the department's annual human-rights report, whereas Sudan was cited among the three worst offenders. While the Sudanese army carpet-bombs Christians in the Nuba Mountains, Bibles are freely available in Chad, notes Mr. Hines, who read from the KJV in his hotel during a recent stay in N'Djamena. According to Robert LaLime, a business attache with the American Embassy there, Chad closely follows Sudan as the world's second-largest supplier of gum arabic and is the primary exporter to European countries. Some Chadean gum, he says, winds up in Sudan, which has superior processing facilities designed to meet American demand. American gum arabic users clearly want to hold onto their present arrangement. A letter signed by officials of 12 major trade associations said a ban on Sudan gum arabic "would result immediately in a black market, raise the costs to American companies and consumers while generating greater opportunities for profiteering by local producers and others.... Smugglers will supply through porous borders, and since there is no discernible difference between gum arabic sources in Sudan and Chad, dealers in third countries will merely repackage it for sale in the U.S. at higher costs to American consumers." That letter was sent to House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) regarding the Sudan sanctions contained in the "Freedom From Religious Persecution Act." The letter was signed by the same group of lobbyists now pushing for a waiver from the executive-branch sanctions; it includes the National Food Processors Association, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the Newspaper Association of America, and the National Soft Drink Association, led by soda giants Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. Coca-Cola's involvement was particularly ironic, coming as it did during the week its chairman and CEO, Robert Goizueta, died of lung cancer in October. Mr. Goizueta and his family fled Castro's Cuba in 1961, and he was a critic of repression in Cuba, long an ally of the Muslim-backed government in Sudan. In a speech at Yale University in 1992, Mr. Goizueta said, "Business now shares in much of the responsibility for our global quality of life. Successful companies will handle this heightened sense of responsibility quite naturally, if not always immediately. I say this not because successful business leaders are altruistic at heart. I can assure you, many are not. I say it because, again, they will demand that their companies remain intensely focused on the needs of their customers and consumers." Published reports say another complaint has come from Citibank, the only U.S. bank in Sudan. The Sudanese government ended ties with U.S.-based banks the day after the White House announcement of sanctions. Company officials are appealing, along with gum-arabic lobbyists, for a license to continue operating in spite of the sanctions. Bank officials say the sanctions endanger humanitarian aid in Sudan. Citibank officials did not return repeated phone calls from WORLD. Christian groups with regular work in Sudan would be unlikely to rely on any bank there, according to Marilyn Sims of Voice of the Martyrs. "We do not trust anybody with money in Sudan," she said. Supplies and support personnel for VOM's Sudan missions are arranged in Kenya. Mr. Hines agreed, calling any Citibank concerns about aid getting through "a fiction." He said, "American banks active in that part of Africa charge a very high per-transaction cost, and NGOs don't rely on them." He also thinks Citibank's stake in Sudan is based largely on "brokering transactions on gum arabic." The administration late last week had not made a decision on waivers. State Department press official Phyllis Young told WORLD her agency was deferring to the Treasury Department, which under the law has to grant a waiver. Ms. Weaver of the Treasury Department says, "We are not commenting at this point," though she did acknowledge the issue was being weighed heavily among Treasury, State Department, and White House aides. For religious-liberty advocates, praise for the sanctions is dampened by cynicism about U.S. trade policy, which looks too often like boosterism for President Clinton. The White House and State Department remain opposed to a bill in Congress that contained similar sanctions against Sudan. Imposing the sanctions by executive order allowed the president to satisfy the concerns of religious groups and human-rights organizations that support the bill; subsequently exercising his authority to grant a waiver will curry the favor of the corporations, who might not have gotten a reprieve under the legislative remedy. "This is a maneuver to weaken the legislation, and it may have succeeded," said Ms. Shea. Clarification: In the Nov. 1 WORLD story "Silent No More," it was noted that 500 children have been bought back from slavery with support from U.S.-based Christian groups. That endeavor is largely underwritten by Christian Solidarity International, which was not named as one of the groups. We regret the omission.

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Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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