President Bush told the U.N. International Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico, March 22 that only nations that bow to his administration’s political and economic agenda will be approved for meager handouts of U.S. aid. His position, reflected in the barebones “Consensus of Monterrey” drew sharp criticism from delegates as well as from demonstrators in the streets.

The U.N. conference, attended by 54 heads of state, was one of several anti-poverty gatherings sponsored by the U.N., which has set down its U.N. Millennium Development Goal of cutting worldwide poverty by half by the year 2025. Currently, one billion people live on less than one dollar a day and the number is increasing.

“To be serious about fighting poverty, we must be serious about expanding trade,” Bush said. He was referring to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would expand the NAFTA cheap labor trade deal throughout the western hemisphere. Millions of Mexican workers and campesinos have lost their jobs and farms under NAFTA and have been forced to seek poverty-wage jobs across the border in the U.S.

Bush announced an increase in U.S. foreign aid that would reach $15 billion by the year 2006. He made clear that many strings will be attached. The Bush administration would require budget austerity, privatization and the curtailment of union and democratic rights as preconditions for receiving foreign aid – policies also enforced by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The strings attached in Bush’s plan, in effect, undermine national sovereignty and interfere with policy decisions of democratically elected governments.

Cuban President Fidel Castro delivered a scathing rebuttal of these policies, “which the masters of the world are imposing on this conference.” Castro’s speech, delivered on the opening day, was greeted with stormy applause from delegates representing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that participated in the meeting. “The existing world economic order constitutes a system of plundering and exploitation like no other in history,” Castro said. “Thus, the people believe less and less in statements and promises.”

He proposed a new development fund under U.N. auspices, “with a democratic participation of all countries and without the need to sacrifice the independence and sovereignty of the peoples.”

Bush’s speech came on the final day of the conference, which sparked street demonstrations by thousands of protesters carrying signs proclaiming “No to the privatization of Pemex and of electricity,” referring to Mexico’s nationalized oil industry. Other signs read “No to terrorism, no to the war” and “Cuba si, bloqueo no!”

Many voiced anger at the stingy aid package drafted months before the meeting convened. The Bush administration forced deletion of language mandating that each of the wealthy capitalist nations contribute 0.7 percent of their Gross National Product to a development fund for the poor nations.

Castro pointed out that poverty afflicts 1.2 billion people and their ranks are growing. The Cuban leader charged that 826 million people in the world are “actually starving” while 854 million adults are illiterate and 325 million children do not attend school.

Two billion people have no access to low cost medications and 2.4 billion lack basic sanitation conditions. At least 11 million children under the age of five perish each from preventable causes, he charged.

“The poor countries should not be blamed for this tragedy,” he continued. “They neither conquered nor plundered entire continents for centuries; they did not establish colonies or reestablish slavery; and modern imperialism is not of their making. Actually, they have been its victims.”

The responsibility for overcoming these conditions “lies with those states that for obvious historical reasons enjoy today the benefits of those atrocities.”

Castro called for the cancellation of ruinous and unpayable foreign debts.

Without mentioning the U.S. by name, he denounced “the ever more sophisticated weapons piling up in the arsenals of the wealthiest and mightiest.” They can “kill the illiterate, the poor and the hungry but they cannot kill ignorance, illnesses, poverty or hunger,” he said. “It should be said, ‘Farewell to arms.’ Something must be done to save humanity. A better world is possible.” Castro then stunned the gathering by announcing that he would return to Cuba leaving Ricardo Alarcon, speaker of Cuba’s National Assembly to represent Cuba.

But Castro’s words were echoed by others at the gathering. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez charged that the austerity and “structural adjustment” policies of the International Monetary Fund are “venom” poisoning the lifeblood of developing countries. “In the name of the poor of the planet, we must act and not just speak,” he said.

Gemma Adaba, U.N. representative of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), one of the few NGOs actually seated as a negotiator at the anti-poverty session told reporters, “The Monterrey Consensus is a misnomer. It can’t be called a true consensus because pressure from the world’s most powerful nations meant that our calls for a time-frame for debt relief were totally ignored.”

John Foster of the Ottawa-based North-South Institute said, “The agreement reached here is just the ‘Washington Consensus’ in a sombrero.”

Steve Tibbett, director of the British anti-poverty group War on Want, called the Monterrey summit a “huge letdown” adding, “The long, drawn-out negotiations underline that many countries do not have the stomach for making the sacrifices necessary for beginning the war to end poverty.”

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