To you, dear Denise

26 April 2012 by Eric Toussaint


Denise [1], almost two years after you passed away, I’m writing to you. The heart attack that felled you occurred at a tram stop in Brussels just after you’d left a conference in solidarity with the Congolese people. Taken to Casualty by ambulance, several doctors attempted to save your life, but after more than an hour of efforts, you passed away at 18:44 on Friday, 28 May 2010. After sharing so many significant moments with you for 27 years, I couldn’t be by your side because I was at a CADTM meeting in Dakar. When I heard the news two hours later, I couldn’t believe it. I’m in tears writing to you, as I am almost every time I think of you. I’ve just gone over the notes you wrote in your notebook during the conference. Until your last minute, you fought to promote justice in the world and were a forceful voice calling for emancipatory action.

Almost two months ago, CADTM decided to publish an article in homage to you in the second quarterly 2012 issue of the journal Les Autres voix de la planète. I thought long and hard about what I would write, there were so many things to say that it was difficult to choose.

I decided to speak directly to you in this text that you will never read. As you were, I’m convinced there is no great beyond. Your ability to enjoy life and give it meaning concluded on 28 May 2010 early in the evening and fortunately you did not suffer. If I have decided to address you directly as I write this letter, it is because upon this occasion I am incapable of speaking of you in the third person. The people who knew you or who would like to know you will be the readers.

Eight days before you died, you explained on the Net why you were standing in Belgium for the Lefts Front [2]: “Born in 1949, never married, no children but very lucky in love ! I studied Art History and Archaeology and during those university years (1967 – 1972), I took part in all the student struggles. Back then I became aware of the issue of de-penalizing abortion, and more broadly, learned about feminism. As a City of Liège employee, I took a very active part in the massive strike movements that shook the city in 1982-1983, 1985, 1987 and1989. At the time, I became a trade union delegate (to the Public Service General Federation, a member of the Belgian General Labour Federation) and a political activist in what was then the Ligue Révolutionnaire des Travailleurs (Revolutionary Workers’ League – LRT – the former name of the LCR or Revolutionary Communist Party). So I’ve been a member of the party since 1984, with no interruptions. In the 1990s, I had the chance to work at CADTM (Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt), until I retired in 2009.” You continued below: “I’m in permanent revolt against the injustice of the capitalist system, seeing its effects in my life as a woman and as a worker. This is why I’m an activist. I accepted to stand on the Lefts Front slate because, after so many years of trying, we had at last taken a step towards uniting the radical left”.

From 1983 to 1989, you were a resolute participant in the struggle against the austerity plan imposed on the 17 000 City workers, to reimburse an unsustainable debt. From April to June 1983, during the seven weeks of ongoing actions including several weeks of all-out strike, you became an activist able to speak out at meetings of several hundred people, you became one of the strike’s organisers. I know it took a lot of courage for you to take that step. I recently reread the strike committee balance Balance End of year statement of a company’s assets (what the company possesses) and liabilities (what it owes). In other words, the assets provide information about how the funds collected by the company have been used; and the liabilities, about the origins of those funds. sheet you wrote with other activists. This committee, in which you took a very active part, was set up by the rank and file who wanted a self-managed movement. With hundreds of municipal workers, we went to the major industrial plants in the region (steel and metallurgy) and the other neighbourhoods, to attempt to raise a broad general movement. We experienced unforgettable moments; joint meetings of steelworkers and municipal workers that vibrated with commitment to act together. There were also frequent visits by trade union delegates from Antwerp, the Flemish metropolis [3]. Days of demonstrations with thousands of participants, an extended strike with surges of action, police repression (to which you personally fell victim in 1983), a pitched battle between gendarmes and firefighters in June 1983, the hunger strike carried out by a dozen firefighters (including our close friend Freddy Delava [4]) and other municipal workers in July 1983. After this experience, you decided to be a candidate in the elections for trade union delegates. There were also moments of real recreation like the mad dip into the river after nightfall in September 1983 when a group of ten or so ex-strikers and other friends were reunited. There was also the endless task of consciousness-raising. Between 1983 and 1989, we wrote and circulated 37 issues of a small newspaper we named Le Communard, handed out free of charge at workplaces. It accompanied the weekly, La Gauche, which we sold. I can’t remember how often, after the 1983 strike, we would get up at 5 a.m. to go to catch the city rubbish trucks before they left the depot. We had coffee with the rubbish collectors before they got into their vehicles.

On 22-23 May 2010, a few days before you passed away, with other women in CADTM Europe you wrote a call for action to cancel the illegitimate public debt and for solidarity with the Greek people who had just had the first austerity plan imposed on them by the Troika Troika Troika: IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank, which together impose austerity measures through the conditions tied to loans to countries in difficulty.

IMF : https://www.ecb.europa.eu/home/html/index.en.html
and the PASOK government. Thanks to experience acquired since 1983, we were both prepared to see the government and creditors use public debt as a pretext for social and democratic cutbacks. Often, journalists and activists commented to us that they had not expected the CADTM to plunge into the debt crisis in Europe, whereas in fact, it was in the North, almost thirty years before, that we had made our debut. The city of Liège, with scarcely 200 000 inhabitants, had a debt exceeding one billion euros (40 billion Belgian francs), which was practically double Haiti’s debt (with a population of 5 million people). Under the false pretext that this debt had been contracted to overpay the workers by paying them overly high wages, the political powers of the time [5] decided to push through very sharp cuts in wages and jobs (real salaries were cut by from 15 to 30% according to the cases; the number of municipal workers – trades workers, health and social services staff, administrative staff, firefighters, police, rubbish collectors, teachers – was cut from 17 400 to slightly under 10 000 from 1881 to the beginning of 1990; a wide range of services to the public were reduced) to reduce spending.

At the same time, the authorities increased revenue by raising taxes paid by the people (not those paid by firms). From 1981 to 1989, local taxes increased 75% and surcharges on income tax for physical persons by 55%. In reality, municipal workers’ salaries were generally very modest and this debt was the outcome of an accumulation of several factors: loans needed to rebuild the city, which had undergone heavy destruction during the Second World War, increased city expenses consequent to a vast operation of merger of boroughs in 1976 decided by the State; the cost of the economic crisis in the 1970s and 1980-1981, which involved extra expenses by the Public centre for social assistance (which paid out financial help to persons in poverty); and above all, the explosion of interest rates Interest rates When A lends money to B, B repays the amount lent by A (the capital) as well as a supplementary sum known as interest, so that A has an interest in agreeing to this financial operation. The interest is determined by the interest rate, which may be high or low. To take a very simple example: if A borrows 100 million dollars for 10 years at a fixed interest rate of 5%, the first year he will repay a tenth of the capital initially borrowed (10 million dollars) plus 5% of the capital owed, i.e. 5 million dollars, that is a total of 15 million dollars. In the second year, he will again repay 10% of the capital borrowed, but the 5% now only applies to the remaining 90 million dollars still due, i.e. 4.5 million dollars, or a total of 14.5 million dollars. And so on, until the tenth year when he will repay the last 10 million dollars, plus 5% of that remaining 10 million dollars, i.e. 0.5 million dollars, giving a total of 10.5 million dollars. Over 10 years, the total amount repaid will come to 127.5 million dollars. The repayment of the capital is not usually made in equal instalments. In the initial years, the repayment concerns mainly the interest, and the proportion of capital repaid increases over the years. In this case, if repayments are stopped, the capital still due is higher…

The nominal interest rate is the rate at which the loan is contracted. The real interest rate is the nominal rate reduced by the rate of inflation.
on the debt from 1981. That year, the Belgian State authorised the City of Liège to borrow 7.5 billion Belgian francs (slightly less than 200 million €) at 15.1% interest Interest An amount paid in remuneration of an investment or received by a lender. Interest is calculated on the amount of the capital invested or borrowed, the duration of the operation and the rate that has been set. from Crédit Communal (later to become the Dexia bank). The capital borrowed had to be repaid in 1980. What happened? The city repaid approximately 1.1 billion, over seven years, each year in the form of interest, and in September 1989, it found itself unable to reimburse the borrowed capital (7.5 billion plus the remaining interest — in total, with capital+interest, 8.5 billion was still outstanding). Crédit Communal refused to grant a new credit and without consultation, paid itself back at the City’s expense. The bank debited the sum of 8.5 billion from the City’s account, which it held. Then this bank availed itself of its right to deduct out of the City’s account all the sums that were paid there by the State, the Region and the bulk of its revenues. In the 10 September 1989 issue of the weekly La Gauche, you wrote of the workers and population of the City of Liège “we are in the situation of Third World countries facing the IMF IMF
International Monetary Fund
Along with the World Bank, the IMF was founded on the day the Bretton Woods Agreements were signed. Its first mission was to support the new system of standard exchange rates.

When the Bretton Wood fixed rates system came to an end in 1971, the main function of the IMF became that of being both policeman and fireman for global capital: it acts as policeman when it enforces its Structural Adjustment Policies and as fireman when it steps in to help out governments in risk of defaulting on debt repayments.

As for the World Bank, a weighted voting system operates: depending on the amount paid as contribution by each member state. 85% of the votes is required to modify the IMF Charter (which means that the USA with 17,68% % of the votes has a de facto veto on any change).

The institution is dominated by five countries: the United States (16,74%), Japan (6,23%), Germany (5,81%), France (4,29%) and the UK (4,29%).
The other 183 member countries are divided into groups led by one country. The most important one (6,57% of the votes) is led by Belgium. The least important group of countries (1,55% of the votes) is led by Gabon and brings together African countries.

http://imf.org
!” I went further one month later in La Gauche, on 10 October, “The Crédit Communal has been putting boroughs into receivership, acting just as the IMF does towards indebted Third World countries”.

In other words, we were very aware of the (partial) similarity of the situation of Third World peoples subjected to the diktats of creditors and certain inhabitants of the North subjected to bankers’ interests. Our position was that the City of Liège debt could not be repaid and had to be cancelled [6].

In October 1989, the City workers’ struggle reached a paroxysm and unfortunately culminated in defeat. As Crédit Communal was repaying itself from city revenues, the City was no longer able to pay the salaries of communal employees, who then resumed their protest actions. These became more radical, because exasperation had reached boiling point after 6 years of growing austerity. The Federal government, the government of the Walloon region (where socialists held the key positions) and Crédit Communal demanded new austerity measures, even more unjust than the previous ones. Workers in struggle carried out actions against the SP (although many of them had voted for this party or were members of it), the PSC (Social Christian Party) [7] and Crédit Communal. Things were coming to a head: On 10 October, between 2500 and 3000 demonstrators demonstrated outside Crédit Communal main branch and you were in the front ranks. With firefighters, you entered the building, and a few papers in a wastepaper basket were set ablaze to give the firefighters a pretext to operate their foam extinguishers to put out the tiny flames. The agency was filled with soapy foam. This was to attract public attention to the Crédit Commercial bank’s responsibility. Eight days later, the public prosecutor in Liège, upon injunction by the political authorities, brought charges against you and 8 other municipal workers and firefighters. Christian Remacle, one of the 2 main City trade union leaders, yourself, our comrade Freddy Delava and the others were prosecuted for “destroying or damaging with violence, or threatening to do so, moveable property of others with the aggravating circumstances that these acts were committed as a group”. The trial lasted two years, and in the end you were all found guilty, some being sentenced to a 3 year suspended prison sentence!

On 16 October 1989, six days after the symbolic action carried out at Crédit Communal, the Town Council held a meeting, in an atmosphere reminiscent of a dictatorship, in order to adopt a new austerity plan. Indignation had reached its height, all the more so as the workers had still not been paid, and the political authorities decided to prevent the population from attending the council session which, by law, should have been public. 800 gendarmes had been mobilised since that morning to prevent demonstrators from entering the Town Hall where the Town Council was to meet. When you tried to help Freddy Delava who was being roughed up by the police, their leader ordered your arrest. They beat you and dragged you away to hold you in police custody for 24 hours, moving you around from one detention centre to another, without letting you have anything to eat. The following morning, we organised a demonstration, attended by 2000 people who shouted “Free Denise, free Denise”, and which won a pledge by political and judicial authorities to free you as soon as possible. On 23 October 1989, you filed a suit against the gendarmes for the aggravated assault they inflicted on you. For this purpose, you produced a medical certificate dated 17 October attesting to the injuries you sustained. Scandalously, this suit was not successful. When fighting injustice, one has to be prepared for blows and we can say that during the 1980s, you learnt to take them. Throughout your life, I’ve always seen you ready to put your body on the line to defend victims of repression and you know I’m not exaggerating.

A lesson we drew from the struggle at the City of Liège, is that the fact that a bank is public does not necessarily mean it acts on the basis of public interest. Crédit Communal, before it was privatised and became part of Dexia, was a Belgian public bank entirely directed by the three major Belgian political groupings: the Liberals, the Social Christians and the Socialists [8]. In 2008, when we protested the bailout of private banks such as Dexia, we demanded their expropriation by public authorities with recovery of the cost of their stabilization from the assets of major shareholders. We added that they should be placed under citizen control so that their mission would consist of serving the public interest.

Reading this letter up to this point, we might think that during the years before the founding of CADTM, most of your actions concerned the defence of workers in Belgium. But actually, you were very active in international solidarity actions as well. In 1984-1985, you took part in a campaign to support the strike British miners were waging against Margaret Thatcher’s policies. We were among a delegation of a dozen workers who went to meet the striking miners and take them financial and material aid.

The same year, we began taking part in concrete solidarity with the Nicaraguan people. The revolution was victorious in that country in July 1979 and we took an active part in a broad movement of solidarity, playing a very active role in it. From 1984 to 1989, almost every year, we took part in the organization of the brigades that went off to work with Nicaraguan peasants. We all clubbed together to raise funds, organized events in Belgium to get material aid for the revolution, and each brigade member used his or her holidays to go out doing voluntary work for three weeks with the peasants, and paid for his or her own flight. Almost half the brigade members were metalworkers, especially from Caterpillar and Cockerill (now Arcelor-Mittal). Denise, you played a very significant role as one of the organisers. You and I took advantage of these brigades to stay in Central America and Cuba for a few more days, trying to better understand what was going on and contribute our support to other revolutionary attempts. At one point, we narrowly escaped a very nasty situation, when we were arrested by Honduran military on the border between El Salvador and that country, while carrying a letter from Rogelio Ponseele, a Belgian priest taking part in the Salvadorian guerrilla. A nun had entrusted it to me the day before in the Salvadorian capital. While the soldiers were acting very aggressively towards us, threatening us and loading their rifles, we kept our cool, and finally things turned out well. We were expelled from the Honduran territory towards El Salvador (where we had come from). Fearing arrest from the Salvadorian army, we were able to find a room, squalid of course, where we spent the night, scarcely closing our eyes, before catching a bus back to the capital, San Salvador. Denise, you coped very well with this extremely frightening situation where we thought our time may well have come.

Denise, during these travels, you never looked for the soft option. You often made do with a bedstead, with or without a mattress, a straw bed on the floor, or a few wooden planks. This helped you better understand the living conditions of the overwhelming majority of the population.

From 1990, you tenaciously took part in founding CADTM Belgium, which, after slightly less than a decade, was joined by CADTMs in formation in other countries (starting with Togo) or existing organisations that decided to join the international CADTM network (such as VAK in India). From 1993, we regularly carried out CADTM missions in Tunisia (where we became friends with Fathi Chamki and his family) and in Sub-Saharan Africa: Senegal, Togo, Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger… You travelled with Anke Hintjens to Rwanda after the 1994 genocide in order to develop solidarity with the victims and foster a feminist approach. Together, we prepared the large-scale meeting “Dakar 2000 / Africa: from resistance to alternatives” called on CADTM’s initiative with the support of many organisations. From 2004, during the fourth edition of the World Social Forum held in Bombay/Mumbai in India, you began to acquaint yourself with South Asia and visit our partners in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. During these many trips, many activists in the South learnt to appreciate you and when you passed away, hundreds of sympathy messages from the four corners of the planet flooded in.

When you left us in May 2010, the CADTM network was present in more than thirty countries and going through a heady period, rising to the challenges of the crisis which had been shaking Europe from 2007-2008.

Denise, there is no great beyond where you can acquaint yourself with this letter, but one thing remains: you live on in the hearts of hundreds, probably thousands, of people for whom you are both a reference and an encouragement to continue the struggle against all forms of oppression and injustice. Thank you, Denise, for everything you did.

Translated by Marie Lagatta and Vicki Briault



Footnotes

[1Denise Comanne (1949-2010), one of the founders of CADTM in 1990, took part in its thinking and all its struggles until her death.

[2In Belgium, the Front des Gauches (Lefts Front), formed in 2010, regroups 6 political parties and movements : the Revolutionary Communist League (Belgian section of the Fourth International), the Communist Party, the Socialist Party of Struggle, the Committee for Other Politics, the Humanist Party, Vélorution-Objecteurs de Croissance. It fielded candidates in the June 2010 elections. See : www.frontdesgauches.be

[3Among those who played a key role in fostering solidarity between Flemish workers and their Walloon comrades between 1983 and 1989, during the City of Liège actions, we remember our dear departed friend Jos Geudens who was among the founders of CADTM in 1990, along with you and me. Jos Geudens died in March 2010 in Kenya where he had moved to take part in schooling children in poor districts.

[4Freddy Delava, firefighters’ union delegate, now retired, is a member of the Belgian CADTM Board of Directors and very active in struggles for the defence of asylum seekers.

[5An alliance between the Socialist Party and the Ecolo Party was in power in Liège from 1982 to 1988, while in the Federal Government, the two rightwing parties were allies (le PRL that later became the MR et the PSC – whose current heir is the CDH). The experience we gained in Liège with the SP and Ecolo alliance prepared us for what happened with the Socialist governments of Papandreou in Greece, Zapatero in Spain, Socrates in Portugal, Gordon Brown in Britain, who did not hesitate to apply radical neoliberal solutions after the 2007 – 2008 crisis.

[6During the 1990s, the Federal State and Walloon region took over a large share of the City’s debt. But in the meantime the workers and population of the City of Liège had paid a high price.

[7After the 1988 local elections, the Socialist Party ended its alliance with the Ecolo Party and formed a municipal majority with the Social Christian Party.

[8See Eric Toussaint, “Comment le Crédit Communal étrangle les communes au lieu de les aider”, La Gauche, 10 October 1989, p. 6-7.

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Eric Toussaint

is a historian and political scientist who completed his Ph.D. at the universities of Paris VIII and Liège, is the spokesperson of the CADTM International, and sits on the Scientific Council of ATTAC France.
He is the author of Bankocracy (2015); The Life and Crimes of an Exemplary Man (2014); Glance in the Rear View Mirror. Neoliberal Ideology From its Origins to the Present, Haymarket books, Chicago, 2012 (see here), etc.
See his bibliography: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89ric_Toussaint
He co-authored World debt figures 2015 with Pierre Gottiniaux, Daniel Munevar and Antonio Sanabria (2015); and with Damien Millet Debt, the IMF, and the World Bank: Sixty Questions, Sixty Answers, Monthly Review Books, New York, 2010. Since the 4th April 2015 he is the scientific coordinator of the Greek Truth Commission on Public Debt.

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