WASHINGTON — Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, saluted on his historic visit to Congress with cheers, whistles and a five-minute standing ovation, told lawmakers today that U.S. aid to Poland "will not be wasted, and will never be forgotten."
He asked for more investment to help pull a bankrupt Polish economy from "the verge of utter catastrophe" and said such assistance in peacetime is "better than tanks, warships and warplanes."
In an emotional speech recounting the nine-year struggle of his union to form the first non-Communist government in the Soviet Bloc, Walesa gave thanks to Congress and the American people for years of support and words of admiration.
"These are appreciated, but being a worker and a man of concrete work, I must tell you that the supply of words on the world market is plentiful, but the demand is falling. Let deeds follow words now," said the mustachioed 46-year-old former shipyard electrician.
"We believe that assistance extended to democracy and freedom in Poland and all of Eastern Europe is the best investment in the future of peace, better than tanks, warships and warplanes, an investment leading to greater security," he said to resounding applause from a joint meeting of Congress.
Walesa arrived in Washington on Monday for a four-day visit marked by numerous awards and a torrent of praise as Poland and other East European nations rapidly institute democratic and market reforms.
In more concrete action, the Senate voted Tuesday to authorize $657 million in economic aid to Poland over three years and $81 million for nearby Hungary, which also is dismantling its centrally controlled economy.
The House went further, approving an initial one-year installment of $533 million for the two Soviet Bloc nations.
The steps to send economic aid to Poland have been accompanied by personal adulation for Walesa. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bush on Monday, an AFL-CIO human rights award on Tuesday, and today became the second foreign private citizen to address a joint meeting of Congress, the first since the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824.
The House chamber was packed with senators, representatives, members of Bush's Cabinet, staff members, journalists and even the Soviet ambassador to Washington, Yuri Dubinin, who carefully read Walesa's prepared text and applauded the delivery.
Walesa entered the chamber at 11:04 a.m. and received a five-minute standing ovation punctuated by a few whoops and whistles as he flashed his trademark "V" for victory sign.
Walesa clearly relished his warm welcome as a representative of Polish democracy before "Congress, which for many people in the world, oppressed and stripped of their rights, is a beacon of freedom and a bulwark of human rights."
He began his remarks with the opening words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, "We the People . . . ."
"I do not need to explain that I, an electrician from Gdansk, am also entitled to invoke them," Walesa said.