Earlier in the week, between 6,000 to 7,000 protesters marched on the World Bank meeting calling for an end to lending policies that they say have driven millions of people around the world deeper into poverty and caused environmental destruction.
The largely peaceful and colorful protests were eclipsed by street battles between police and a small number of demonstrators who threw cobblestones and molotov cocktails at police. An estimated 54 police and dozens of demonstrators were wounded in the clashes. A handful of demonstrators in Prague's main square broke plate glass windows at what have become universal symbols of global capitalism: McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Unfortunately, much of the mainstream global media gravitated toward covering these isolated incidents of violence rather than the mostly peaceful protests and their message.
Similarly, the isolated incidents of violence only served to confirm for many Prague residents the near hysterical local press coverage which warned against marauding bands of demonstrators poised to destroy the city. City officials closed schools for the week and urged residents to leave town. Prague was indeed deserted this week, except for throngs of tourists who seemed unaware and unperturbed by the demonstrations. Alice Dvorska, a spokesperson for the Initiative Against Economic Globalization (INPEG), an international umbrella group that organized the protests, says the violence will make future organizing in the Czech Republic more difficult.
"The people who smashed windows will leave and we'll have problems for the next couple of years," says Dvorska. She worried that the actions would encourage Czech officials to pass laws cracking down on the right to protest.
Meanwhile, INPEG reports that close to 1000 demonstrators have been arrested. Several of them were beaten by police, according to the activist group. They have also been denied food, water, sleep, medical attention and legal assistance, rights they are entitled to under Czech law. They say prisoners have been handcuffed and thrown down stairs or beaten, women have been strip searched by male officers and men have had their genitals twisted and punched. Corporate Watch has not been able to confirm all the details of the charges, but spoke to protesters after they were released who reported that they had been denied access to legal representation, food and water. Joe Cescente of Olympia, Washington told reporters he witnessed his friend being hit in the head by police.
Many in the US date the birth of the anti-corporate globalization movement from the Seattle protests against the WTO last November. But activists here have a longer memory-- and a long history. People around the world have been protesting IMF and World Bank policies for more than a decade. There were major demonstrations in Madrid at the meeting marking the 50th anniversary of the Bank in 1994. More recently in Bolivia 300,000 trade unionists and environmentalists held a general strike to protest IMF imposed structural adjustment and World Bank water privatization policies.
Yet the global coalition is a loose one. According to Johan Frijns, Coordinator of the Friends of the Earth International Financial Institutions Programme, the next step is for this diverse movement to begin to set common priorities. "The movement has to come together and distinguish what is essential from what we would like to be able to achieve," he explains.
Citizens' groups are now successfully challenging the impression that corporate-led globalization is inevitable and unshakable. Even World Bank President James Wolfensohn was forced to recognize in his opening speech that Bank must address the growing disparity between rich and poor across the world, and the concentration of resources in the hands of a few nations. While this may be nothing more than co-opting his critics' rhetoric, it shows how far anti-corporate globalization activists have been able to influence the debate. The trick now, according to veteran activists like Frijns, is to put forward an agenda that is distinct from the merely cosmetic changes he believes the World Bank is prepared to make.
"We need to get control back over the global economic process now controlled by transnational corporations, the WTO and the Bretton Woods Institutions," Frijns asserts.
He says nations should reassert their right to determine their own economic policies. Going one step further, he adds: "We need democratic control over what is right for our economies" Rather than being forced to accept structural adjustment polices, Frijns would like to see poor countries negotiate their debt payments. "They should be able to say 'this is what is available to pay the debt, after providing health care, education and basic services,' not let the World Bank and IMF set the terms." Others would like to see the debt cancelled altogether.
Many activists assert that Northern countries and institutions like the World Bank have incurred an "ecological debt" to the South by draining by draining the "Third World's" natural resources, destroying the environment and, in many cases, causing human rights violations, They believe this ecological debt should cancel out the monetary debt poor nations have racked up with the World Bank as well as other public and private lending institutions.
Others want the Bank to call an immediate moratorium on investing in oil, mining and gas projects that have had a disastrous track record on the environment and human rights. Still others argue that it is unfair for a fledgling democracy to be saddled with billions of dollars of debt from a previous repressive or corrupt regime and countries should be absolved of debt incurred under dictatorships. Some say countries should not have to pay for projects that the Bank itself acknowledges were a failure.
According to Ricardo Navarro of Friends of the Earth, these issues should be debated outside the rarified walls of World Bank/IMF summits.
"We have to bring the discussion to the general public, to workers, women, indigenous groups, academics-even business people," he notes. Navarro adds that the Bank should consult with communities that are adversely affected by its projects, not just the corporations invested in them.
Serious differences remain-differences that almost split the Czech movement and resonate through out international networks. These include different opinions about whether or not to dialogue with the World Bank and IMF and how best to organize street protests to avoid violence. Yet most activists here agree that their efforts were a step forward in building a global coalition.
"This is the first action like this after ten years (since the collapse of Communism). It's good that it happened here in Eastern Europe," says INPEG's Alice Dvorska. She notes that activists in the Czech Republic, like the movement itself are young and have learned a lot. Dvorska, 21, points out that dissidents who spoke out against Communism are now government officials who are whole heartedly embracing globalization and inviting foreign investment. She says the challenge is to reach an older generation "to make them think about more than their careers and families."
While a handful of activists from India, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Brazil, Ghana, Indonesia and other countries impacted by World Bank and IMF policies made the trip to Prague, the participants in the protests were overwhelmingly European. The Italian group Ya Basta! organized some of the most colorful street protests, along with Spaniards who donned costumes and led a samba band, Greek trade unionists, Scandinavian, Dutch, German, Polish and French activists. Asked why globalization and World Bank/IMF issues have struck such a deep cord in countries that are not as directly impacted as Southern nations, Dutch activist Johan Frijns reflected, "It's about losing control [to corporations and international financial institutions]. People know the world is a rotten place and they have to change it."
(*) Julie Light is the Vice-President of Corporate Watch.