Cancel the external debt, say activists

Porto Alegre (Brazil), 26 Jan (IPS/Mario Osava) -- The international movement in favour of abolishing the developing world’s foreign debt has received a boost from the World Social Forum, which has articulated its message on a global stage and expressed absolute support for its efforts.

But it is not enough to cancel developing countries’ external debt; the unfair trade relations and the economic model implemented in debtor nations must be overhauled as well, Carlos Pacheco, representative of Nicaragua’s Jubilee Coalition, told IPS. Without the changes, the problem will quickly resurface, he said.

Pacheco coordinated a World Social Forum workshop Friday titled “For a World Free of Debt and Exploitation,” which outlined the evolution of the movement initially known as Jubilee 2000, prompted by an appeal from Pope John Paul II to build a more just and sustainable world in this millennium - including resolving the foreign debt of poor countries.

Jubilee 2000 efforts built a network of organisations that involved groups from most Latin American countries and from other regions, especially Europe. But the movement was consolidated most in developing countries, which are naturally more interested in the matter, and it continued under the name Jubilee South.

In Argentina, the movement adopted the name Dialogue 2000 and last year organised one of the “ethical tribunals” against the debt that were held in numerous cities around the world. Broad sectors of society, from indigenous peoples to pensioners, and various churches participated in the Argentine version, said Carlos Julia, leader of the group.

Argentina’s foreign debt was $8 billion in 1976, when the country suffered a coup d’etat that led to a military dictatorship. Seven years later, when a democratic government was installed, the debt had mushroomed to $60 billion and is what Julia’s group refers to as “old debt,” because it was negotiated and refinanced.

The proposal now is to continue the fight with an ongoing citizen oversight of the further evolution of the debt, expanding rapidly in recent years and an important factor behind the Argentine economic crisis, which required a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other organisations to the tune of nearly $40 billion.

In Brazil last September, six million voters took part in a “people’s plebiscite” (out of a national electorate totalling 109 million), in which more than 90% said that the country should not pay its foreign debt without an audit, as established by the 1988 Constitution.

The initiative, organised by non-governmental groups, social movements and leftist political parties, successfully met its three objectives: raising people’s political awareness, putting the issue back on the nation’s agenda and making a public stance, according to Walter Pomar, one of the coordinators of the process.

Responses to the questions on the informal referendum were not limited to the matter of the debt, but also rejected the agreement with the IMF that established Brazil’s current economic policy and protested the use of a large portion of the national budget to pay the foreign debt “to the speculators” of international finance.

A similar referendum was held a year-and-a-half ago in Spain, where 1.1 million people cast their votes, with 97% indicating they were against developing countries’ having to pay off their debts, according to Mario Negre Rossignoli, a participant in the workshop at the World Social Forum, a six-day event that began Thursday and runs through Tuesday, 30 January.

The responses to the referendum questions also indicated near unanimity in favour of the Spanish government forgiving its loans to poor countries, and that the money saved should go to development programmes, explained Negre, of the Citizens’ Network for the Abolition of Foreign Debt, which unites 1,500 organisations throughout the country.

The debt has been paid four times over the original sum and has risen due to “immoral” interest charges, according to the activist, who heads the Spanish group Physicists for Development.

Of the loans that originated this debt, according to the Citizens’ Network, 30% went towards arms purchases and 30% towards infrastructure works. Another 30% disappeared through the corruption of government officials and big business, and just 10% went towards social programmes.

The immorality of the debt is even greater because most of the money returns to the wealthy nations of the North, through arms sales, embezzled funds deposited in its banks and the participation of its big companies in the financed projects, Negre added. Because of this situation, he said, the matter “goes beyond the foreign debt” and requires a change in the entire international finance system.

To do so, similar networks in other countries, primarily European, are coordinating efforts with Jubilee and with the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens (ATTAC), which is active in some 20 countries. – SUNS4824