The Promise of Prague


PRAGUE—The Prague Castle, seat of power in the Czech Republic for the last one thousand or so years, hovers over this medieval city, aloof and dominant in the skyline. Closed to the public during the communist era, when party leaders met behind steel doors, the castle was opened to the public by President Vaclav Havel when he took office after leading the 1989 Velvet Revolution, a mass nonviolent ejection of communism in favor of social democracy and, ultimately, Western-style capitalism—epitomized, perhaps, by the McDonald’s and KFCs scattered among the towers and steeples throughout the city.

As the 55th annual World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings unfolded in his city at the end of September, the former playwright and dissident found himself in the strange position of hosting both some 14,000 global financiers and 12,000 protesters. To keep the peace, he called in 11,000 police and 5000 soldiers.

“Havel used to say, before the revolution, that the new struggle was not between capitalism and communism,” says John Keene, author of the biography Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts, “it was between the integrity of an individual living as a citizen in the truth, and on the other side, the use of power.” Now, as the leader of a privatized economy, Havel believes that “if there’s going to be a global economy, it has got to be embedded in civil society,” Keene explains. “This is one of his more appealing moral ideas.”

Between Friday, September 22, when delegates and demonstrators began arriving, and Wednesday, September 27 when, after mass protest, the official meetings were closed one day early, questions of power and civility were of grave concern to protesters and finance ministers alike. Should activists try to shut down meetings with a show of force? Should the World Bank and IMF make on-the-spot concessions to protesters to maintain their public image?

It is perhaps the irony of globalization itself that what offends—the economic dominance of a few nations over many—also allows global-scale criticism. When protesters chant “The whole world is watching,” it often is. It did in 1989, when hundreds of thousands of Czechs shook their keys in Wenceslas Square, unlocking themselves from communism. And it did again in Seattle, as tens of thousands protested against the ravages of capitalism.

This annual meeting of the World Bank and the IMF was planned long before the backlash against them (and the WTO) made itself heard, at a time when convening in this Eastern Bloc country was ripe with the symbolism of Western triumph. Delegates arrived from the 182 member nations, prepared to work and peruse the winding streets of Prague, a city remarkably preserved, having escaped the bombs of World War II. But in the days leading up to this meeting activists flowed in—mostly from Europe, although from as far as Tanzania and Japan as well—to make it known that they see these institutions as undemocratic, escalating poverty rather than alleviating it through their draconian loan programs. The anticipation of confrontation sparked a surge of international surveillance, and readied spin machines on both sides.

On Saturday morning, three days before the opening of the official meetings, the streets are deserted, except for the 11,000 police. Many are themselves disoriented, having been imported from the hinterlands of the Czech Republic. Residents have obeyed the call to go to the country, schools have been shut down, shop windows boarded up. Hardly a scenario for engaging in populist dialogue.

Nevertheless, later that day, Havel sets the stage for an unprecedented debate between the global bankers and a handpicked selection of their critics. The critics—from Jubilee 2000, Focus on the Global South, and Neshenuti (a Czech human rights group)—have never had the opportunity to talk face to face with World Bank president James Wolfensohn and IMF managing director Horst Kohler. In the Ball Game Hall, Wolfensohn implores them not to consider the bank evil. “Our self-image is that we’re actually doing good,” says Wolfensohn. “Our goal is to fight poverty. . . . Our objectives are similar to those of the people in the streets.”

At a press conference later, Ann Pettifor, U.K. director of Jubilee 2000, says, “They had to admit quietly under their breaths that they’d made mistakes, but they didn’t want to take the responsibility. We don’t want better PR, we want fewer children to die each year.”

The way they want this to happen is through debt relief. All week long, critics will recite a single, chilling statistic, released by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP): 19,000 children die each day as a result of unpayable debt. If any message of these protests rises through the conflicting rhetoric, it is this: at the dawn of the new millennium, wealthy nations should make history by releasing poor nations from unpayable debts, so that another generation will not be lost to poverty, malnutrition, and preventable disease. This means both that the stingiest—among them the United States—need to funnel more money into the World Bank and the IMF, and that the World Bank and the IMF need to loosen the loan conditions that strangle poor countries.

The World Bank’s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative promises to provide debt relief to poor countries that are able to comply with tight economic controls. In the last two years Wolfensohn has promised that the program would be made “deeper…faster… stronger.” He predicted that 20 countries would be approved by year’s end. Ten countries have entered the program thus far.

But Oxfam International charges that unrealistic conditions and weak management have kept this program from being as successful as the World Bank claims. Last year in Zambia, after three years of HIPC debt relief, $222 million went to debt payment; only half that went to health care. In Uganda, held up as a success story, $55 million pays debts and $102 million goes to health care. Still, the life expectancy is only 40.5 years, down from 46 years in 1970, according to the UNDP’s 1998 development report.

It is with these numbers in mind that on Sunday morning Jubilee and Oxfam’s pilgrims climb the steep steps toward Letna park, a green plateau that overlooks the city from the north. They carry 19 large white crosses, each representing a thousand of the children who die each day. A giant granite sculpture of Josef Stalin once stood on this spot, but it has been replaced by public artwork—a giant red metronome. Taking a microphone, the South African representative from the World Council of Churches gestures toward it and says, “Each swing reminds us that with every stroke another one of us has died.”

Beneath the metronome, a thousand activists gather for a Czech-style street funeral, some bearing humble foot-long wooden crosses, others black velvet poles crowned with masks sculpted by a Danish artist to represent “messengers from the global south”—those who cannot be there in person to protest, the powerless who are waiting to hear if the bank and the fund can be moved.

“Because of international solidarity we were able to bring down apartheid,” says the WCC spokesperson. “Globalized economics is nothing but global apartheid.” He cites the World Bank’s own annual report, released in Prague, which showed that “the gap between rich and poor countries is 10 times wider than it was 30 years ago, that 100 million more people are living in poverty than a decade ago.” Nearby, Nagase, a Japanese Buddhist monk, his robe wrapping around him with the wind, says that by coming to Prague to join the demonstrations he is “practicing compassion,” which he hopes the IMF and World Bank will do as well.

Sunday night, a welcoming reception for finance ministers is held inside the Prague Congress Centre, a gloomy late-socialist-era structure that has been freshly redecorated to host these 14,000 promoters of capitalism. Though there are symposia galore, it’s at informal meetings, where the captains of industry eat, drink, and deal, that the real work is supposedly done. Wine and beer flow freely. Ham legs are picked to the bone. Boiled potatoes and beef goulash slither together on small plates. A minister from Ethiopia remarks that things are slow to change in his country; the war with Eritrea has only recently concluded. Asked about the World Bank and IMF’s treatment of developing nations, he says, “No comment.” The same words are echoed by a minister from Barbados, cheesing it up for a photo, and a representative of Mali, reaching for a dry Swedish meatball.

The goodie bags provided to conference goers alone could probably service debt for any of their nations: two CDs of Czech music, a calendar with moody black-and-white photos of Prague eerily absent of people, a boxed set of maps, annual reports, guide books, train schedules, and a warning to the ministers not to wear the plastic conference tag in public, lest they become targets for activists.

A 20-minute metro ride away, in CKD Elektrotechnika, an abandoned hangarlike factory, activists throw their own party, one that had to be moved from venue to venue five times as club owners grew fearful of violence. The party is all festivity, no violence. Hechos Contra el Decor, a band from Madrid, is Euro-dancing and Euro-hip-hopping the sweaty crowd into a mosh pit frenzy. White Europeans sport dreads, German cyclists display anarchy stickers, French accordion musicians entertain. There are no hors d’ouevres, only orange soda, beer, and Bartlett pears for sale. When Hechos covers the ’60s classic “Freedom,” the lingua franca is English and the words send fists and bodies triumphantly into the air.

Freedom is a complicated word in this country. Iva Pekarkova, author of Truck Stop Rainbows, a novel about a Czech woman under communism who prostitutes herself to truckers to cross the Czech border into Germany, says the arrival of the free market has been a mixed blessing. “Literature has been replaced by pop culture. More people can travel, but more people are addicted to drugs.” On one point she is unequivocal. “What’s different now? We have our freedom.”

Havel, apparently, has not forgotten that the ultimate freedom is protest. Heeding concerns about where the anticipated 20,000 activists might lay their heads, he has helped arrange for Strahov Stadium, a monstrous cement structure that has held communist rallies and hosted the Rolling Stones, to morph into a tent city complete with showers, food vendors, and, for those interested, Native American teepees made by a local Czech company. Many activists avoid it, fearing the government will slam down the gates and trap them inside.

Monday afternoon, standing in the windy stadium, which can hold 250,000, Mariani Federico and Andrea Paganani of Rome explain why they missed last night’s party. The demonstrations against the IMF and World Bank have a lot to do with borders—who decides how much money and which goods move across which nations’ borders and under what conditions. With the rise of global surveillance to combat global activism, entering the Czech Republic became an ordeal for many activists.

Federico explains that 865 members of the Italian and Spanish group Ya Basta! (“enough already”) were detained on the railways near the Austrian border for 17 hours. After negotiations with officials, four members were expelled and sent to Austria. According to Federico, who wore a red Zapatista shirt and denim jacket, the four had been in Prague in August to plan protests and had been stopped by police, and their passport numbers registered. Armed police stopped the Ya Basta! train twice after it was permitted to cross the border.

“When we first arrived the city looked prepared for a civil war,” says Stefan Bienfeld from Germany, a spokesperson for INPEG (the Czech acronym for Initiative Against Economic Globalization), which helped organize the disparate groups arriving to Prague. “Then you get used to it. We know the police are here watching our every move.”

Looking around the stadium, the intimidation appears to have succeeded, although Bienfeld insists that thousands will be arriving during the night. There are only the 800 or so purple, yellow, red tents of Ya Basta! pitched, a few trumpet players. There are no lines for the porto-johnnys. Promised thousands of hungry folk, food vendors were enraged as their pastries went stale, their beer flat. One man whose rotisserie chickens spun for hours—until the meat started falling off—hadn’t anticipated that many of those who did come would be vegetarians. By week’s end the vendors contemplated suing camp organizers to recoup their losses.

That same afternoon, at the congress Centre, security is tight. At James Wolfensohn’s invite, U2’s Bono is speaking on behalf of Jubilee 2000’s campaign for debt relief and access is restricted as if Bono is Havel himself—while finance potentates like Robert Rubin of Citigroup take their seats unnoticed. Clearly Wolfensohn sees his new friend the rock star as his best chance to improve the World Bank’s image. Before dashing off, he opens the proceedings with an attempt at a joke: “Bono called me and said he didn’t think much of me or what I was doing and I started to worry about my reputation with my children.”

Wearing thick black wrap-around glasses, black shirt, and black pants, Bono says, “There are people upset with me as well for hanging out with Jim Wolfensohn.” Making it clear that he considers himself “a spoiled rock star” and not an economist, Bono explains that he became involved in this cause after taking part in Live Aid, during which that “awful song, ‘We Are the World’ ” was sung, and he helped raise $200 million for famine relief. “We felt great, and then we found out that this was what the continent of Africa pays weekly in debt,” he says. “That makes you angry. Today, 19,000 children will die while we’re meeting here today. If this happened in New York or London or Prague it would be called genocide. But because it’s in Tanzania or Mozambique it’s not. This is an obscenity.”

S26. Tuesday morning. The occasion activists have planned for all year. The reason for all the press conferences, border crossings, Web pages, e-mail exchanges. On this day the official meetings open, and poverty reduction and the AIDS crisis are high on the agenda. Activists intend to stage a dozen separate rallies, then converge around the Congress Centre and lock the delegates inside.

At 8 a.m. the city is eerily quiet. No one knows how many demonstrators have arrived during the night, how close they will get to the meetings, or what protest plans smaller groups may have. At Stavovske divadlo, a neoclassical opera house where Mozart premiered Don Giovanni and Milos Forman filmed Amadeus concert scenes, a motley crew of 60 French activists gather. They hope to rouse French businessmen at their hotels with their trumpet tooting and accordion wake-up calls. Actions like this happen throughout the city, in a most decentralized fashion, something more like a roving swarm than an organized march.

Meanwhile, across town, Ya Basta! turn a corner and come upon thousands and thousands who’ve heard of their plight at the border. They arrive at Namesti Miru (“Peace Square”) triumphant from having just occupied a McDonald’s on Wenceslas Square. Techno music blares from their van. They wear sheer white overalls to “symbolize all the people that the IMF and World Bank don’t see,” says Mario. “We are ghosts. We are not actually here. We are just a manifestation to them.”

The square fills with some 12,000 people. As the march to the Congress Centre begins, activists divide loosely into three groups: yellow (committed to nonviolence), blue (prepared for violence), pink (could go either way). Ya Basta! lead the yellows to the Nuselsky bridge, a half-mile cement structure that crosses the Vltava river and leads to the Congress Centre where delegates are meeting. The police are there to meet them, wearing high-tech riot gear.

Ya Basta! is prepared for combat, having raided their kitchens and garages: plastic collanders tied to their heads, foamcore bound around their shoulders and shins with duct tape, plastic garbage can tops for shields. Looking both comical and fierce, Ya Basta! pass inner tubes from their rear guard to their front lines, which use them to repel the blows of police batons. Occasionally, a baton bounces off the tube into the air. When it is snatched by a Ya Basta!, exuberant cheers: “Assassininos!” A battalion of Ya Basta! bearing water pistols squirt the police. When tear gas is fired in return, indignation and jeers. “We are undesirable but we are here,” says Federico slipping out from the melee. “We are here to represent all the displaced people, all the refugees, all the poor without homes.” A naked man with a dollar bill impaled on his privates raises a victory sign.

Down in the valley, beneath the bridge, the blue group has amassed and the confrontation is fiercer. Water and smoke can be seen from the bridge. Delegates have wandered onto the balcony of the Congress Centre with their Instamatics. Vysehrad, a quiet, residential neighborhood near the Vltava River, home to Czech cubist architecture and the burial place of composer Antonín Dvorák, has become a combat zone. Several hundred anarchists pry apart the medieval cobblestone sidewalks with crowbars and fingers. Cristophe Devriendt, a Belgian volunteer with Wereldwinkels, a fair-trade organization, looks up at a McDonald’s billboard and says, “When you say ‘capitalism,’ you say ‘America.’ ” He watches his fellow protesters hurl the palm-size square stones at Czech police blocking the streets leading up a long hill to the Congress Centre.

Injuries are mounting; ambulances wail. Seattle’s Infernal Noise Brigade drowns the sound of concussion grenades with their drums. Anarchists have lobbed homemade gasoline bombs, setting a police officer on fire. Ric Jensson, a student from Copenhagen, remarks with dismay, “We are here to make war on the IMF and the World Bank, not the police.” But there is nothing revolutionary here. Nothing that makes a statement about poverty or the World Bank or the IMF. A man is being burned alive. Water cannons douse the fire and the crowd, and round after round of tear gas is fired. Anarchists and cops alike stagger from the fumes.

As the anarchists disperse, they erect fire hurdles—burning wicker chairs, cardboard boxes, tree branches, and recycling bins—to stop the line of police from advancing. The smoke is billowing with the black belches of plastic. Potted plants are upended. Car windows smashed. A resident looks down from his apartment as the smoke lurches toward a 3-D Aquafresh advertisement, three toothbrushes jutting out of the wall. The neighborhood is wrecked. Cobblestones litter tram tracks, preventing service; billboards lie stomped on the sidewalks; and spray-painted messages mar the old buildings: fukk the police, smash the IMF, no justice, no peace, punks for freedom, and in homage to the East Village, perhaps, a Missing Foundation symbol.

IMF and World Bank officials are shuttled out of the Congress Centre on a metro closed to the public. Some delegates are sent to the Industrial Palace, where as of midnight no dinner has been served. There are about 100 injured, including 63 police and two delegates. More than 800 protesters are detained in prison. There will be reports of torture inside the prisons—sexual harassment, a broken spine. These eruptions will nudge the meetings to an early close.

The majority of the thousands of nonviolent protesters distance themselves from these riots. Chelsea Mosen, a spokesperson for INPEG, says “We were hoping for a nonviolent protest on the basic issues of the IMF and World Bank, but instead now the focus has shifted to the streets.”

Prague could never have been Seattle, not without the element of surprise, not without the tremendous force of labor to ratchet up the numbers. But the attention to the negative impact of globalization continues to escalate. This time it appears that alternatives have been offered and debated on both sides: more grants rather than loans, faster debt relief, greater access to the markets of rich nations for poor ones. Perhaps it was Bono who captured the essence of what has been happening in the streets of Seattle, Washington, and now Prague: “This is the largest movement around a single idea since the 1980s’ anti-apartheid movement.”