Joining Hands for Debt Relief


Activists Rally at Capitol,
Seeking to Ease Burden of Poor Countries

By Caryle Murphy

Washington Post
April 10, 2000

Encouraged by shofar blasts and a trumpet fanfare, several thousand people formed a human chain around the U.S. Capitol yesterday to demand that wealthy nations show biblical forgiveness by canceling billions of dollars in debt owed by the world's most impoverished countries.

Buffeted by cold, blustery winds and singing, "This land is your land, this land is my land," the demonstrators included Franciscan friars in brown robes, workers in union jackets and jeans-clad college students, all of them voicing concern about the financial burden on poor countries because of debt obligations.

The crowd, which drew people from across the country, was smaller than organizers had expected. They had hoped to attract enough participants to stretch a human chain from the Capitol to the Ellipse and a few blocks beyond. As it was, there were enough to more or less surround the Capitol. One older woman carried a sign in the shape of a toilet that read, "Flush the debt." Others stood arm in arm around the Capitol chanting, "Save the children, kill the debt."

The event and a preceding rally on the Mall were sponsored by Jubilee 2000/USA, a national coalition of religious, labor and social justice groups that urges international debt relief as a millennial gift to poor countries, allowing them to pour more money into social services. "In Ethiopia, more than 100,000 children die every year from diarrhea" while its government spends "four times as much on debt payments as on its public budget for health care," AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney told the rally participants. "That's why we are . . . committed to the goal of debt relief now."

Backed by a huge red-and-white sign that read, "Cancel the Debt, Now!" other speakers included Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Rodriguez of Honduras and White House economic adviser Gene Sperling, who read a letter from President Clinton. Clinton praised "this extraordinary grass-roots effort to reduce the debt of the world's most impoverished countries" and noted that most heavily indebted countries spend more on debt service than on health or education. "This is wrong," he wrote. "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."

That sentiment resonated with many, particularly those who have visited developing countries. "It just seems to me we need to forgive their debt so they can have something for life," said Bonnie Rochelle, of Phelps, N.Y., who worked in Nicaragua. "People can't even feed their families." Jubilee 2000 estimated the crowd at 5,000 to 7,000; organizers had anticipated 8,000 to 10,000.

The idea of debt forgiveness during 2000 is inspired by the Old Testament book of Leviticus. It describes a Year of Jubilee every 50 years during which people make a fresh start toward social justice by freeing slaves and canceling debts. Some participants in Jubilee 2000 wanted to make clear that it was not linked to the more militant demonstrations expected next weekend to protest "global capitalism." Organizers hope to shut down meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

"This is a joyful proclamation of a biblical principle. It's not violent at all," said George Aros, of Sonora, Ky., who traveled to Washington with about 50 other church activists who call themselves Kentucky Jubilarians. But some who plan to take part in the protests next Sunday and Monday joined yesterday's demonstration. One group carried large props of papier-mache and parachute silk made to look like birds. One carried the message "Revolution."

"Birds are symbols of life and liberty and freedom," said Marianne Ross, 65, of Glen Echo. "We're going to make flocks and flocks of them for next weekend." Also looking ahead to next weekend was Ben Fletcher, 20, dressed in fatigues, jackboots and dreadlocks. He was checking out the police presence and reported its movements over his walkie-talkie. "This is Comfive reporting four police horses approaching," he relayed as mounted police officers passed.

Fletcher called yesterday's monitoring a "dry run" for next weekend's protests. Andrew Laurence, 42, spent the day walking around with a replica of the Washington Monument as his costume. Written on it was "Bury the Debt." He said police checked it three times. He said he is looking forward to next weekend and intends to help make the protests noticed. "We are going to inconvenience you," he said.

Labor organizers estimated that about 1,500 union workers were at the debt-relief rally. Recalling the unusual but effective labor-environment-human rights coalition that shut down Seattle streets last fall during a meeting of the World Trade Organization, labor leader Sweeney made clear that Third World debt relief has been embraced by the labor movement.

"High debt levels force developing countries to lower labor standards and wages in order to attract corporate investment," Sweeney told the crowd. As a result, U.S. workers compete for jobs against low-wage earners. John Keiser, a steelworker who came to the rally with 22 others from Levittown, Pa., understood the link. "If you do away with debt, you'll do away with child labor. You'll educate children so they'll have a better life. Then we'll have fair competition," he said. "Right now, the only ones making out . . . are the big corporations."

Some of the most enthusiastic participants were 200 college students who marched to the Mall from Howard University, loudly chanting, "No debt relief, no peace." They came from Washington area universities as well as from Brown University in Rhode Island, the University of Chicago, St. Bonaventure University in Upstate New York and Bethel College in Kansas.

"I've been increasingly angry at a world where there's a growing disparity between rich and poor," said Chris Clement, 31, a political science doctoral candidate and instructor at Howard. He said austere debt policies imposed by the IMF on his native Jamaica had hurt his mother's small business.

"I believe Jesus calls on us to proclaim Jubilee and to help the poor," said Jason Schmidt, 19, a student at Hesston College in Kansas, a Mennonite school. The students, who wore red armbands, said they were buoyed by the experience of meeting so many activists from so many campuses united on an issue.

"We've been waiting for a movement that would bring student activists together," said Lauren Lastrapes, a junior at George Washington University. "Every left-oriented group has found common ground on this." The students did not have a parade permit, so they had to stay on the sidewalk. But as they approached downtown, a police escort of motorcycles and a patrol car appeared to clear Seventh Street for them to march. The students thanked the officers, who smiled back.

Many out-of-town demonstrators spent the morning in worship and fellowship at several local churches before going to the rally. At New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Northwest, about 250 people attended an 11 a.m. service, where the Rev. Marian McClure, director of the Presbyterian Church's Worldwide Ministries Division, delivered a sermon that was also a pre-rally pep talk.

After reading Leviticus 25:8-17 on the Year of Jubilee, McClure said the Christian faith is marked by "grace that forgives sins and debts, a grace which is about letting go and not holding it over someone when you have the power to." Among those listening were Ron and Esther Pfeifer, co-pastors of First Presbyterian Church in Palestine, Ill., who had come to protest what they feel is a "crushing" debt owed by poor countries.

"There's not much we can do about it," said Ron Pfeifer. "But we can sure stand on the Mall for a couple of hours."

Staff writers Michael Laris, David Montgomery, Arthur Santana and Brigid Schulte contributed to this repor

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