Thousands in Prague say: ‘Smash the IMF!’

Prague, Czech Republic – They came to wreck and destroy. From Washington and Wall Street, Frankfurt, Tokyo, the Bourse in Paris and the City of London, silk-suited bankers, financiers and economists descended on this beautiful Central European city to consort with and dictate to finance ministers from over 100 countries at the annual meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Prague, Czech Republic – They came to wreck and destroy. From Washington and Wall Street, Frankfurt, Tokyo, the Bourse in Paris and the City of London, silk-suited bankers, financiers and economists descended on this beautiful Central European city to consort with and dictate to finance ministers from over 100 countries at the annual meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Behind the bankers’ smooth professions of concern for the 2 billion people on this planet who go to bed hungry was an ill-concealed hidden agenda–cut wages, raise prices, shut down plants, schools and hospitals, eliminate jobs. And make sure that interest payments continue to flow from the world’s poorest countries to the world’s richest banks.

But these global economic tyrants could not carry out their agenda in peace or silence. They had to hide behind armies of police and walls of tanks as thousands of protesters from all over Europe filled the cobblestoned streets of Prague Sept. 26.

The bankers had to travel to their hotels in special guarded subway cars as activists fought armored police onbridges and intersections leading to the Prague Congress Center. IMF-WB delegates who dared travel the streets in chartered buses found themselves surrounded by angry crowds.

Democracy, capitalist style

Czech President Vaclav Havel sent tanks into the streets of Prague to intimidate the anti-corporate protesters. He sent 15,000 cops and 2,000 soldiers to gas them, beat them and spray them with water cannon. Teams of FBI agents sent from the United States supervised the Czech police forces.

Havel, a former anti-communist dissident and darling of the Western corporate media, is a longtime servant of capital. After the overthrow of socialism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, he rented out the wall of his home to Campbell’s Soup for an advertisement.

Massive police force managed to stop three columns of protesters from actually reaching the IMF-WB meeting. But it failed to intimidate the marchers, who repeatedly charged police lines in an effort to break through and confront the bankers. On the Gottwald Bridge, demonstrators fought the police hand to hand for hours amid chants of “No pasaran.”

‘Capitalism, a shame and disgrace’

The rest of Prague belonged to the demonstrators, and anti-capitalist slogans in a dozen languages echoed through its winding streets: “Smash the IMF,” “Cancel the debt” and “Capitalism, a shame and disgrace.”

The Prague metro was shut down for a day so the bankers could travel without being confronted, and many shuttered businesses bore signs saying “Closed Until the IMF Protests Are Over.”

Throughout the night, street fighting continued in and around Wenceslas Square. Demonstrators surrounded the state opera, forcing the IMF and World Bank to cancel a dinner they had planned to hold there.

Mass arrest of Czech citizens

Late in the night, having failed to break the protests, police began rounding up and arresting ordinary Czech citizens on streets around the city center. While the corporate media claimed the majority of protesters were foreign, of the 422 people arrested, 392 were Czech citizens. They are being held in the city of Plzen, far from Prague, and have so far not been allowed to speak to lawyers.

Tuesday’s battle was the climax of a week of protests. These included a 3,000-strong Stop the IMF march on Sept. 23, organized by the Communist Union of Youth and backed by trade unions and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia.

That same day there was a 1,000-strong antifascist march to counter a rally by the neo-Nazi National Alliance. Racist skinheads who try and terrorize Roma and other people of color found the tables turned as protesters chased them through the streets. A few of the racists escaped unharmed.

Most of the protesters who came to Prague were young, many of them students, many of them teenagers. But there were also construction workers from Greece, steelworkers from Germany, railroad workers from France, public employees from Britain and dock workers from Seattle.

The contingents from Italy and Spain were especially large and militant and took the front line in fighting the police. Marchers from Germany and Scotland carried flags demanding justice for Mumia Abu-Jamal.

A delegation from the International Action Center in the United States distributed a statement headlined “Abolish NATO, the IMF’s strike force!” It called the IMF and NATO “partners in genocide” and demanded “U.S.-NATO Hands off Yugoslavia.” The statement also exposed the racist U.S. prison system and urged international support for Abu-Jamal.

Hundreds of Czechs joined the protests despite months of hysterical violence-baiting by the government and media aimed at turning the population against the protesters. Eighty percent of the Czech Republic’s media is owned by foreign corporations.

Members of the Czech Communist Youth Union and the Socialist Youth of Slovakia marched behind a banner saying, “Stop the dictatorship of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.” They chanted “Black and white, unite and fight” and “Prague, Seattle, take it all the way, we will expropriate capital.”

Marching with them was Mario, an 18-year-old Roma man from Slovakia. “In the past 10 years everybody in Slovakia has become poor, but the Roma are the most poor. Under socialism most Roma people worked in heavy industry, but now we are 90-percent unemployed. The government tries to make us scapegoats, and there is a growing racist movement. We have to fight back.”

Dragan, a 35-year-old Serbian construction worker, said he would stand on the front lines of every demonstration. “I’ve lived in Prague for nine years,” he said. “People here now have more freedom to travel abroad, but that’s the only thing that’s better. Life has become much harder–there is no social security. The Czech Republic is being walked like a poodle by international monopolies and has been dragged into the aggressive NATO alliance.”

He was particularly outraged at the campaign against Yugoslavia. “It’s all lies,” he said. “I’m Serb but Croats, Bosnians, Albanians are my brothers. We are a multi-ethnic country. They call Milosevic a nationalist but all he wants is an independent Yugoslavia.”

Labor supports protests

At Saturday’s rally Petr Simunek, president of the Trade Union Association of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, explained why his union supported the protests. “IMF and World Bank policies have destroyed most of the social gains we had under socialism and they want to take the rest. The biggest blow is the destruction of heavy industry.

“There is 10-percent unemployment in the Czech Republic today but in industrial areas like north Moravia and north Bohemia it is 25 and 30 percent. For those who are working, prices and rents have gone up much faster than incomes. But it is not only here.

“Throughout the world 9,000 people are plunged into poverty every day because of policies dictated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.” Simunek condemned U.S. and European Union economic sanctions against Yugoslavia, Cuba, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and north Korea.

Also taking part in the protests or applauding from the sidewalks were older Czech people who remembered the mass labor demonstrations of 1948 that overthrew capitalism in Czechoslovakia.

Since 1989, when socialism was overthrown here and the country divided in two, the Czech Republic has been held up as a supposed “success story” of capitalism in East Europe. It might seem that way in Prague, where there is a lot of tourism and foreign investment. But since the economic crash of 1998 much of the country has been plunged into poverty.

A Czech worker from Plsen told Workers World how he now works 120 hours a week to support his family. The extent of the desperation here is shown by the fact that Prague has become the center of prostitution in Europe. The World Bank’s own figures, released shortly before the meeting, admitted a drastic rise in poverty and inequality throughout East and Central Europe in the past five years.

At press conferences and in media statements IMF and World Bank officials decried the poverty they have helped cause and threw around phrases like “humane investing.” And some of the protest organizers spoke of “reforming” the IMF and World Bank. But as several protesters put it, “A tiger will never become a vegetarian.”

The feelings of most of the protesters who spoke to WW were summed up in a slogan chanted by young Czech Communists: “Why are we here? Stop the IMF! What do we want? Smash the IMF! What will we do? Unite and fight! What will we win? A world for us!”

Author: In hOuse Staff

News Service: Workers World Service