That Was the Year of Jubilee 2000

27 Dec 2000
Well, at the end of the year 2000, the debts of the worlds poorest countries to the richest have not yet been completely cancelled. But $110bn is a pretty good start.

In the December issue of Rolling Stone Bono reflects on his work with the campaign in the year 2000 - and wonders at the absurdity of doing politics with Pope's and Presidents.

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Here we carry the interview with Bono.

"Absurd, isn't it?" U2's Bono says with a laugh. "There I am in the Oval Office, and President Clinton and his staff are staring at my big, lumpy boots. I'd bought a posh coat, but it was too hot to wear, so I'm sitting there looking like a roadie, in black combat gear."

In the spring of 1999, Bono pitched Clinton the idea of America joining the worldwide Jubilee 2000 celebration with an act of unprecedented generosity: relieving hundreds of millions of dollars in debt owed by poverty-stricken Third World countries. It was an idea floated by the World Bank several years ago, endorsed by Pope John Paul II and grass-roots religious groups, and energized by an unlikely coalition of ambassadors from all sectors of society, from Bono and liberal activist Bobby Shriver to conservative religious leader Pat Robertson.

The United States was the last major developed nation to pledge its share to global debt-reduction. And it did so only after a concerted lobbying effort led by Bono and Shriver that began two years ago and nearly collapsed last summer. At one point, fearing that the plan was about to falter, Bono threatened to bring U2 to the U.S. in October to play the hometowns of congressmen who opposed debt relief and urge young people to vote the holdouts out of office.

"People thought, 'These guys are crazy,' but they also knew we were dead serious," says Shriver. "Bono was like, 'I'm ready to go to war on this.' That's a good quality to have in Washington."

The duo's persistence paid off, as the House and Senate passed debt-relief legislation by overwhelming margins in October. On November 6th, Clinton signed into law an appropriations bill providing $435 million in debt relief to as many as thirty-three of the world's poorest countries. It comes on top of a $110 million appropriation last year and is part of a worldwide $90 billion campaign to reduce Third World debt and alleviate conditions in which 40,000 people around the world die every day from starvation and inadequate medical care. The program has enabled countries such as Mozambique to buy medicine for government clinics, Uganda to double its primary school enrollment and Bolivia to put $77 million toward health and education.

Signing the legislation, Clinton acknowledged the door-to-door siege of Capitol Hill led by the rock star and his well-connected sidekick, praising Bono's "passionate devotion" to the program. The president recalled Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers' first meeting with the singer: "I'll never forget one day Secretary Summers coming in to me saying, 'You know, some guy just came in to see me in jeans and a T-shirt, and he just had one name, but he sure was smart. Do you know anything about him?' "

Rep. John Kasich, an Ohio Republican, who also was singled out by Clinton for galvanizing support for the legislation, says, "I don't think celebrities have a big impact over the long haul in Washington, because they come in, have their pictures taken and leave. But I bet the other members of U2 wanted to toss him out of the band because he was so focused on this the last year. If you want to move government, you have to be in it for the long haul, and Bono was."

Bono says he and Kasich bonded over music, specifically that of Radiohead: "The voice comes on the line, a guy I'd never met, and the first thing out of his mouth is, 'Bono, what's your favorite: OK Computer or The Bends? I was a Bends man, but I'm changing.' I later tell that to Thom Yorke, and he's muttering, 'Bad people like our music.' And I tell him Kasich isn't a bad guy, he's just a conservative guy."

Bono acknowledges that at one time, he was, like Yorke, suspicious of any politician. In the Eighties, for example, he co-wrote U2's "Bullet the Blue Sky," criticizing U.S. policy in Nicaragua. But a few months ago he met with one of the targets of that song, Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and in a presentation that brought Helms to tears, got his support for debt relief.

Of the Helms-Bono summit, Shriver, who accompanied Bono on his Capital Hill rounds, says, "He asked Bono to stand up so he could give him a blessing. He wanted to let us know that he got what this was about."

Bono also briefed financier David Rockefeller, hung out with Robertson and won the grudging support of economist Paul Volcker, one of the architects of Reaganomics, in an effort to build something Washington politics has not seen much of in recent years: a bipartisan coalition.

"To see [Republican congressman] Spencer Bachus and [Democratic congresswoman] Maxine Waters at a table together agreeing on something was incredible - I've been in Washington for ten years and never imagined seeing that," says Tony Gaeta, a World Bank official who has been working on the debt-relief issue.

"We grow up with this rather juvenile idea that people who are not like us don't get it - the suits don't get it - but it doesn't make sense anymore," Bono says. "Sometimes the enemy is your own indifference. And if you accept that and that there are people within the walls of government who went there for the right reasons, these are people who are going to listen to reason. It's far more glamorous being on the barricades with a handkerchief around your nose than standing with a briefcase and a bowler hat arguing with someone on the other side of the barricade. But it felt like agitprop had to grow up a bit."

Still, Bono met resistance and derision in his initial lobbying efforts. Some members of the Republican-controlled Congress didn't like the idea of forgiving debt to Third World countries run by what they perceived to be corrupt or despotic regimes. Volcker nearly laughed the singer out of his office for even suggesting the idea, though he later came out in support of it. Rep. Sonny Callahan of Alabama initially mocked Bono and Shriver, saying, "You boys are gonna be back next year, and you boys are gonna be embarrassed."

But reluctant congressmen eventually were won over by the moral weight of the plan and assurances that the money would be used only to help the needy. To qualify for debt relief, nations must agree to make public their financial records, devote savings to poverty programs and involve church and civic groups in crafting outreach plans for the poor.

"We blow more money in Washington than you can ever imagine," says Kasich, "so to spend less than a billion dollars to help people improve their economies and to help people dying before our eyes is a wonderful thing to do."

"At first I was looked at like an exotic creature," Bono says. "But then the weight of the idea came through. Clinton's genius is his ear for the melody, for the idea. He's like an A&R guy for ideas. People were letting us in to bend their ear and empty their piggy bank. I was very aware of the fact that they weren't letting me in because they loved U2, but because there was a constituency that I represent which they were afraid of. People saw what happened in Seattle at the World Trade Organization meeting. Those demonstrations were a little too desperate, but we had a very clear and, we believed, achievable objective - and that got us through the door."

One of Bono's most important allies was World Bank President James Wolfensohn. "If Bono hadn't been Bono, he would have still probably gotten to meet with Wolfensohn, because he meets with leaders from all walks of life all the time," says Gaeta. "But this is Washington. Guys with egos respond to other guys with egos. It's just the way it works. Would Wolfensohn have walked away from a meeting with a nun from Dublin thinking, 'I need to follow up on this,' in the same way that he did after meeting Bono? Probably not. This is the type of issue that needed the injection of some personality, and Bono provided that. He bridged the gap between providing substance and the ability to get people excited about something."

For Bono, whose first taste of affecting real-world politics came in 1985 with Live Aid, which helped raise $200 million in aid for Africa, the debt-relief campaign was an affirmation of something he has felt all along in U2's twenty-year career. "Can music change the world? Fucking right, it can," he says. "At Live Aid, I remember Bob Geldof saying how obscene it is that a black piece of vinyl is saving lives. It's obscene the way the world is. And it's absurd that a singer in a rock band puts on a pinstripe suit and goes for a walk down Wall Street banging on doors. But you know what? They opened."

© 2001 Rolling Stone. All rights reserved.


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