Lech Walesa visited the United States once before, in 1989. But then he came as Lech Walesa the union organizer and head of Solidarity, Poland's leading opposition force to the ruling Communist Party. This week he arrives as Lech Walesa, the democratically elected president of Poland.
It's the first visit to the United States of a Polish president but the second for Walesa in 18 months, demonstrating how rapidly the situation in Eastern Europe has evolved.Walesa is coming to talk business. First item on the agenda is to ask that some of the $3.4 billion debt his predecessors ran up be forgiven.
Walesa has demonstrated good faith. He and his nation have shown they're willing to pay a price for that writeoff; it's just that they can't pay it in hard currency. They're paying it in hard reality instead.
Walesa the union man, the shipyard electrician with 10 kids, has stuck to a painful economic reform plan of frozen wages coupled with the removal of price controls.
The average Polish worker makes about $1,900 a year and has been hit hard by the removal of price controls. Scarce and essential commodities have become even harder to find and more expensive. Unemployment has gone from zero to six percent. Economic analysts describe the situation in Poland as precarious.
But Walesa is sticking with his policy because it has reduced inflation in Poland from an astronomical 80 percent a month to a manageable 1.8 percent, more in line with Western European and U.S. rates.
He did it at the urging of Western economists and businessmen, who advised him that investors won't risk money in countries gripped by hyperinflation. Poland needs an infusion of outside capital and expertise to help it during its transition to a free market, capitalist economy.
Poland has also removed most legal barriers and other restrictions on investment. Economists say it is the least restrictive, most wide open economy for private investment in Europe today.
Walesa has the precedent set last week when a consortium of European lenders called the Paris Club voluntarily cut its portion of Poland's $33 billion debt in half.
So Walesa isn't showing up in Washington, D.C., with an empty tin cup, asking for a handout. He's willing to trade concessions for debt relief.
Poland led the Eastern European revolt against communism. If the Polish leap of faith toward a market economy fails, analysts believe it will cause the effort in other countries to collapse too.
Writing off some or all of what a debtor nation owes us to encourage further development and perhaps open up a market for U.S. overseas investment is not untypical of our country.
We encouraged the Polish revolution and promised support for democratic reforms. We can make good on our promise with the forgiveness of part of their past-due loans.