LAS AMERICAS Debt Relief? BY GABRIELA BOCAGRANDE WASHINGTONOriginally, the root of the word “jubilee” meant “ram’s horn,” but it later came to be confused with a similar Latin word meaning “to shout.” Ultimately, the expression apparently came to mean “to shout through a ram’s horn,” or figuratively, to make a lot of noise. For the past few years, a loose coalition of non-governmental organizations called Jubilee 2000 has lobbied the World Bank and forgive Third World debtand made a lot of noise in the process. The coalition got looser, larger, and louder until it was hard to resist. This year, ‘the coalitionnow including the Dalai Lama, Whitney Houston, Muhammad Ali, Desmond Tutu, the Spice Girls, and the Popehas finally pushed debt relief onto the public agenda and into the United States Congress. “Jubilee” also refers to an ancient religious custom, in which tribal high priests forgave the debts and the sins of the masses once every 50 years or so, when a Jubilee Year was declared. In naming 2000 a Jubilee Year, the coalition focused world attention on the injustice of forcing countries such as Honduras and Haiti to make regular interest payments to the World Bank and the IMF \(the high priests of the global econawash in cash collected for decades from the peasants of the world, not to mention sizable amounts scammed from the taxpayers of industrial nations. For Latin America and the Caribbean, the interest “payments alone are enormous. The regional debt to the Bank and the Fund equals about $300 billion, an amount roughly equivalent to the annual defense budget of the United States, and therefore quite a lot. In late October, amidst much shouting and jubilation, the United States Congress finally agreed to provide some measure of debt relief to the world’s poorest countries. The amount agreed to, $435 million, was outrageously tightfisted when compared to, say, the $720 million earmark that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott put in the defense appropriations bill last year, for a ship the Navy didn’t want. But still, it was something. For their part, the Bank and the Fund, already shamed into formally writing off some of the debt bondage of the poorest countries, prepared to scoop up and distribute this mean little sum as well. But we must never underestimate the power of the purse. If the World Bank, the IMF, and their buddies in the United States Congress are going to give away money, they’re going to get something for it, by God. For this purpose, they employ the debt forgiveness program for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries, or HIPC, developed in 1996. This acronym is pronounced in Washington more or less like the involuntary sound you make when like almost everything else in our nation’s capital, it has transmogrified into a grotesque caricature of its original intentions. The emerging outlines of HIPC bear little resemblance to the festive practice of old, when the powerful selflessly granted financial and spiritual indulgences to the damned and the indebted. Far from it. First, the Bankers hatched a complex formula to determine which countries among the many seeking relief were truly heavily indebted and unmistakably poor. No one understands quite how they did this, but we are told that it was through completely objective and precise calculations. Our sources say that to meet the criteria established, a living in houses made entirely of cardboard from a diet consisting largely of infectious microbes. Worldwide, only 41 countries qualified, which left quite a few debtor nations out in the cold. In Latin America, the lucky winners were Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Guyana. Once recognized as officially indigent, under HIPC these countries are then required to adopt the fiscal practices recommended by the Bank and the Fund, which means, of course, cutting their national budgets. As a result, in the selected countries, there will be even less cardboard available for public housing than there was before HIPC, not to mention less money for health care, wage supports, farm subsidies, and other frivolous expenditures. Having duly complied with the stipulations, supplicant countries then submit to vincing evidence to that effect, after which they are invited to sit down with the Bankers and develop a Poverty Reduction Strategy their supervised plan for misery alleviation. When the entire exercise is completed, the country reaches its “Decision Point,” where it can officially apply for funds from the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility debt. The money thus saved in the national budget must be used for education, health, and social servicesbut it must be used according to the prescriptions of the Bankers, because, as economists, they are the experts on health care, schooling, housing, and you name it. In other words, the debt relief program has furtively become yet another stealth weapon used by the multinational banks to take control of the public services of poor countries. Inevitably, these services will be scaled back and privatized. They will reappear as profit centers in the hands of government ministers, who will dole out lucrative operating contracts to their cronies or sell systems outright to multinational firms like Bechtel, which recently acquired a municipal water system in Bolivia. Welcome to debt relief, the theory and the practice. Regardless of what they choose to call them, the salient fact about the Bankers’ poverty reduction plans is that they must be based primarily on promoting private sector growth, which has become an all-too-familiar refrain in the World Bank’s checkered history in the development trade. Just to give you an idea about the suspect ori 14 THE TEXAS OBSERVER DECEMBER 8, 2000
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