Barcelona Backlash

Protests that drowned out a speech by U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson at the recent International AIDS Conference in Barcelona have led to demands by a dozen Republican members of Congress for an accounting of how much federal money was spent on the gathering.

In a July 17 letter to Thompson, the Republicans, led by Indiana Congressmember Mark Souder, demanded to know “the total amount of U.S. federal assistance––both direct financial support and in kind donations” that went to the Conference and the number of “individuals––from both the government and non-government organizations––[who] attended… with some form of federal assistance.”

The letter asked Thompson to provide “a complete list of these individuals including their affiliations.”

While demanding information from Thompson, the letter’s authors also voiced sympathy for the secretary: “We were very disappointed by the rude reception which prevented you from addressing this conference,” and urged the U.S. to withhold future assistance to such meetings unless they can “guarantee the freedom of speech to U.S. representatives.”

Ronald Johnson, the associate executive director of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, among the groups that protested Thompson’s appearance at the Conference, also sees the issue as a matter of free speech––but not that of government officials, but rather of AIDS advocates.

In responding to the letter, Johnson said, “This is part of an ongoing effort to silence us, to quash progressive thinking and thought, and is intended as a threat to us.”

“This proves that the bizarreness of the world knows no bounds,” Johnson also said. “A letter from twelve Congressional representatives to the Secretary of Health and Human Services must be taken as a potential threat, as ludicrous as its contents were. Otherwise, we would just toss it into the loony bin where it belongs.”

Johnson said GMHC and other AIDS organizations would monitor developments related to the letter if and when they occur. He speculated that even if HHS wanted to respond to the request for a full financial accounting it would be impossible. It would not be privy to a list of everyone who attended the conference, nor could it calculate whether any federal money given to a group sending representatives was traceable to the conference.

The letter from the congressmembers also claimed that the Vatican had been “uninvited” to the Conference, a point used as a springboard to attack organizers as being hostile to organized religion.

On this point, too, Johnson considered the letter absurd. He said anyone from the Vatican could have spent the $850 paid by other attendees and fully participated in Barcelona.