Thousands of protesters formed a human chain around the U.S. Capitol yesterday to convince policy-makers of the need to break the chain of poverty for underdeveloped nations around the world.
They demanded that the United States, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund write off the debts of Third World countries and wipe the slate clean for undeveloped nations.
“Corruption, that’s where the money went. The politicians, they get all the money,” said Paulo Martins, 34, who came to the United States 11 years ago from Brazil.
“I don’t know [how much Brazil’s debt is], but I know it’s a lot of money,” Mr. Martins said, but added that Brazil’s payment for this month is about $150 million.
Jubilee 2000/USA organized yesterday’s protest on the Mall to push for deeper debt relief than the $27 billion planned by the IMF and the World Bank. The group wants to eradicate the debt of 52 poor countries totaling $350 billion by the end of the year.
“Citizens of countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia are being denied health care, education and other opportunities because their governments are weighted down by crushing debt,” said Daniel Driscoll-Shaw, national coordinator of Jubilee 2000/USA.
Organizers expected 10,000 to 20,000 protesters but estimated that only 3,000 to 5,000 were on hand on a cold and blustery afternoon. They assembled under a large banner that read “Cancel the Debt, Now.”
Speakers included AFL-CIO President John Sweeney; President Clinton’s economic adviser, Gene Sperling; and the archbishop of Honduras, Oscar Rodriguez.
Mr. Sperling read a letter from the president.
“Let us say today that no nation on this Earth should be forced to choose between feeding and educating children or paying interest on excessive debt,” the letter said. “Let us say that no children, no matter where they are born, should be deprived of the opportunity to reach their full potential.”
Mr. Martins said that the main reason he and other Brazilians come to the United States is to find jobs. He drives a truck that he owns, but hopes to return to his homeland by the end of the year to help create some jobs by starting a dairy and coffee farm.
“When you ask me how I feel, I just cry it’s tough to talk about,” said a weeping Mr. Martins, thinking about the poor people back home, many of whom live on $78 per month.
“Can you imagine that? How can you live on $78 a month?”
Yesterday’s event was aimed at encouraging Congress to approve a supplementary budget request for $210 million to fund the U.S. obligations this year under the IMF-led Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative, which aims to cut the debts of the world’s poorest nations.
Last year, Congress approved $123 million as the first installment to meet Mr. Clinton’s pledge to forgive 100 percent of debts owed by poor nations to the world’s richest country. Congress also allowed the IMF to use some of its massive gold reserves to fund debt relief but to date has stalled on making any U.S. contribution.
If Congress delays or fails to approve the request, organizers said other nations may withhold their funding, putting the entire relief plan at risk. The European Union, which has approved $1 billion for the effort, is waiting for Congress to act before it commits its own cash.
Debt relief advocates maintain debt servicing keeps poor countries entrenched in poverty by forcing them to pay interest on debts at the expense of health and education spending.
“The debt burden of developing countries is killing hundreds of thousands of children every year,” Mr. Sweeney told the rally. “That’s why we can’t wait until next year and that’s why we are united and committed to the goal of debt relief now.”
About 100 students from Howard University and other local schools joined students from as far away as the University of Washington in a march from the Howard campus in Northeast to join the chain on the Mall. The students marched down Constitution Avenue and added a spark of energy to what started as a sparse crowd braving the wind and cold.
“Next week, students are attempting to duplicate what happened in Seattle without the violence,” said Sundiate, 30, a political science graduate student at Howard and a student organizer for Jubilee.
As many as 10,000 activists are expected to use civil disobedience tactics such as human barricades and sit-ins to prevent delegates from reaching the World Bank and IMF meetings here next week, much like the protests in Seattle during December’s meetings of the World Trade Organization. Those protests erupted into violence with more than 580 people arrested and $10 million in damage reported.
Organizers here have promised to avoid the violent confrontations and yesterday’s demonstration was peaceful, with only a discreet police presence.
Protest targets in the District include the World Bank and IMF buildings, the White House, Capitol Hill, and the State and Treasury departments.
Yesterday’s 4 and 1/2-hour protest featured a host of speeches and folk music. When the songs were all sung and the speeches were all done, streams of people flanked both sides of the Mall and encircled the Capitol building to send their message to Congress.
Hand in hand, the protesters covered the ground along Constitution and Independence avenues and with the chain being complete in front of the pool at the West Front of the Capitol. The human chain was filled with protesters carrying links made of newspaper, cloth, ribbon and aluminum foil.
“We are Salvadorans in Washington, taking a stand against this debt,” said Fredy Tejada, 36, a union activist who fled El Salvador 10 years ago because of political persecution.
After 12 years of civil war, Mr. Tejada said his country doesn’t have the money to rebuild.
“The military was the one that benefited from the war more than anyone else,” he said. “We’re trying to develop social and economic projects.
“We want at least part of the debt canceled,” he said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.