Multinational Monitor

MAY 2000
VOL 21 No. 5


The Corporate PNTR Lobby: How Big Business is Paying Millions to Gain Billions in China
by Ian Urbina

The Joys of PNTR According to the Fortune 500
by Charlie Cray

The Marlboro Man Rides To China
by Robert Weissman

Wall Street Singes the Dragon: PetroChina's Failed IPO
by Braden Penhoet

The Effect of WTO Entry on the Chinese Rural Sector
by Robert Weil

Puppets, Protesters and Police: April 16 Mobilization Builds Momentum Against the IMF and World Bank
by Robert Weissman


Chinese Rights, U.S. Wrongs
Interviews with Wei Jingsheng and Alice Kwan


Behind the Lines

The Case Against China PNTR

The Front
Ford's Smokescreen

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


Puppets, Protesters and Police: April 16 Mobilization Builds Momentum Against the IMF and World Bank

by Robert Weissman

Tens of thousands of people came to Washington, D.C. on April 16 to protest the policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Things will never be the same for the two institutions.

Colorful and creative street protests designed to block countries' delegations to the spring meetings of the IMF, as well as a large demonstration on the Ellipse behind the White House, captured the attention of the IMF and World Bank, the international news media, and the Washington, D.C. police.

The blockade notwithstanding, the IMF's meeting on April 16 was able to proceed, as was a World Bank meeting on April 17. But the protesters' message echoed not only in the IMF and Bank meeting rooms, but around the world.

"Today we are sending a loud and clear message to these unaccountable institutions that we hold them responsible for devastating the lives of poor people around the world in the name of globalization," said Chloe Frommer of the Mobilization for Global Justice, the coalition which organized the demonstrations. "We stand in solidarity with millions of people in the developing world who are demanding to take control of their lives out of the hands of the World Bank and IMF, and the powerful corporations that are calling the shots."

The Swarm

Modeled on the protests in Seattle at the World Trade Organization's November 1999 Ministerial meeting, the Washington protests consisted of an elaborate civil disobedience action intending to block access to the IMF's April 16 meeting, and a demonstration and march operating with permits from the National Park Service.

The Mobilization for Global Justice, which was endorsed by more than 300 organizations, organized several hundred activists in the Washington, D.C. area to prepare for the protests. With formal plans for the demonstrations reached only in January, the Mobilization worked on an accelerated schedule.

Hundreds of activists from outside of Washington, primarily students and youth, began pouring into the city on April 8. Hundreds more came daily, until the weekend of April 15-16, when thousands started arriving.

The check-in point for new arrivals was the "Convergence Center," a warehouse space converted into a welcome center, meeting space, street puppet- and banner-making workshop, kitchen, information-dissemination center and storage area. Organizers held dozens of nonviolence trainings, legal and medical briefings, and countless meetings. Protesters attended a dozen issue forums, on topics ranging from the oil industry to HIV/AIDS and corporate globalization, many of which featured leading activists from developing countries. Activists intending to participate in the direct action to surround the IMF meeting formed into affinity groups, with logistical planning and decision-making for the action handled in mass evening meetings.

On Saturday, April 15, police moved aggressively against the Mobilization. With two fire marshals declaring the Convergence Center in violation of fire codes because of the presence of propane gas tanks in the kitchen, 150 police officers marched into the Convergence Center and closed it down. Organizers denounced the fire code violation as a weak pretext for a police effort to deny protesters their First Amendment right of assembly.

D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey, who made a point of charging in front of every television camera he could find, came to the Convergence Center. He alleged that police found the makings of Molotov cocktails and "homemade pepper spray." The evidence? A rag in a bottle, used for cleaning paint supplies, and chile peppers, used for cooking.

That evening, the police again moved preemptively. Police officers surrounded marchers protesting the prison-industrial complex. In their sweep of the downtown area where protesters had marched, the police picked up some tourists, a Washington Post photographer and even a World Bank consultant who happened to be in the area. Six hundred people were arrested.

Neither the closure of the Convergence Center nor the arrests of protesters for "marching without a permit" had any material effect on the April 16 protests.

Thousands of protesters deployed early on Sunday morning. With affinity groups joining into "clusters," they occupied "pie slices" around the IMF and main World Bank building (which is connected by a tunnel to the IMF). Some affinity groups chained themselves together or used various devices to make arrests more difficult. Others concentrated on drumming or dancing. An "anarchist soccer game" filled the streets in one sector.

Police staked out a 90-block perimeter surrounding the IMF and World Bank buildings, and the protesters ringed them. There were sporadic clashes, with the police using pepper spray, clubbing some protesters violently and riding motorcycles into or over protesters. Mostly, however, both sides held their lines. Dozens of protesters were arrested.

The blockades did not prevent the meeting from taking place. Police and the IMF arranged for delegates to the meeting to arrive even before the protesters, picking them up at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. Some simply stayed overnight in the IMF building. Some laggard delegates were reportedly prevented from attending the meeting.

Organizers dismissed the IMF's ability to carry out the meeting as irrelevant. The IMF's meeting was routine, they noted, with no major policy decisions at stake. Their goal, they said, was to publicize what the IMF does to a U.S audience, and in that they claimed success.

Meanwhile, as the warm sun broke through heavy morning clouds, perhaps 20,000 people turned out for an afternoon demonstration, emceed by Michael Moore of "Roger & Me" fame, and a spirited march in opposition to IMF and World Bank policies.

The demonstrators at the Ellipse heard from activists confronting IMF and World Bank policies in Thailand, the Philippines, South Africa, Nicaragua, India and elsewhere.

Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO addressed the crowd, as did the presidents or other high officials of the United Steelworkers of America, the American Federation of Government Employees, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the United Electrical workers, the International Union of Electric workers, the Communications Workers of America and UNITE, the textile union.

Ralph Nader, Representative Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, a leading Congressional opponent of the IMF, and economic justice advocates from around the United States also took to the stage to denounce IMF and World Bank policies.

A smaller direct action took place on Monday, April 17, involving thousands of protesters who marched and blocked intersections in the cold, driving rain. Police marked off an even bigger perimeter around the Bank and IMF buildings. The World Bank meeting proceeded without difficulty, but the police action led to the closure of large portions of downtown Washington, and gnarled traffic throughout the downtown area. Hundreds more people were arrested on Monday.

Many of the approximately 1,300 people who were arrested in connection with the April 16-17 protests practiced "jail solidarity," refusing to give their names or otherwise cooperate with jail officials until their lawyers were able to negotiate a uniform charge and sentence for all the protesters. After the protesters had spent days in jail, Washington, D.C. prosecutors agreed to release all but those charged with felonies with a traffic citation and a $5 fine.

Demoralized "Reformers" at the Bank and IMF

The IMF and the World Bank acknowledged the protests -- with spokespeople pointing out that it was impossible to ignore them.

On occasion, the IMF and Bank were dismissive of the protesters. At one news conference, Stanley Fischer, acting managing director of the Fund, said that some protesters "are there because it is spring time." Fischer did not explain why it was that this spring generated protests unlike any ever targeting the Fund and Bank in the United States.

Generally, however, Fund and Bank officials took the protesters seriously. Their core message was that the demonstrators were either:

  • Mistaken in charging that IMF and World Bank problems contributed to poverty -- since the institutions share the protesters' commitment to poverty eradication; or

  • Outdated in their criticisms, because whatever basis they may once have had, the institutions have reformed to cure previous wrongs.

"What I find so demoralizing," said World Bank President James Wolfensohn, "is there is no organization on earth that is doing more for the poor than we do."

Apparently the protests were quite demoralizing, because he also said, "It is a bit demoralizing when you see that there is a mobilization for social justice when you think that's what you're doing every day."

Chipped in World Trade Organization Director-General Michael Moore, "Blaming the World Bank for poverty is a bit like blaming the Red Cross for starting World Wars I and II.

Fischer, the temporary head of an institution even more embattled than the World Bank, echoed the general sentiment.

"Now, we have to listen to the demonstrators," he said. "We have to have discussion with them. We try to do that. We have the same goals as the demonstrators. We want to reduce poverty all over the world, especially in the poorest countries, and we have to see what works. We have to listen to other views. If the evidence comes in that shows that we should change policies, we do. That, for instance, is why we have changed the whole structure of the ESAF and it has become the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility. So, we want to listen; we want a dialogue. But there are also facts; there is also the products of research that need to be examined."

Indeed, Fischer stated, the IMF has completely remade itself in recent years. In the last half decade, the IMF "has reformed almost completely," he said. "But it is an institution in which reform is continuous and not revolutionary. ... There is a revolution underway but it is a gradual revolution and it goes in the direction we should be going."

Although they were eager to make common cause with the protesters, at least rhetorically, IMF and Bank officials insisted that their meetings were completely unaffected by the demonstrations.

"The agenda we are dealing with is the agenda we have been working on for the last six months, in fact for the last few years since the crisis," Fischer said. "I don't see that the fundamental purpose of the meetings has been changed by what is happening outside."

Many protesters shared that view. While the Fund has now joined the World Bank in chanting the "poverty reduction" mantra, neither institution has indicated any willingness to depart from the basic structural adjustment agenda which was the primary focus of the Mobilization for Global Justice's critique.

The Tally Sheet

But while the IMF and World Bank may not be moving internally, the political terrain concerning the two institutions did move significantly.

First, the protests made the U.S. public newly aware of what the IMF and World Bank are. Millions of people in the United States for the first time learned how the institutions' policies hurt people in poor countries.

In anticipation of the protests, the mainstream media focused some attention on structural adjustment policies, both by conveying the viewpoints of the Mobilization for Global Justice and, in some instances, by actually reporting on the effects of structural adjustment in countries like Haiti or Tanzania. The Washington Post devoted a page one story to IMF  policies in Haiti, with a continuation to a full page of text and photos. Time Magazine headlined a penetrating story on the role of the IMF in Tanzania, "The IMF: Dr. Death?" There was probably more U.S. mainstream media coverage of IMF/World Bank/structural adjustment issues in the two weeks surrounding the protests than in the previous 20 years combined. All of the major news networks devoted substantial coverage to the Mobilization, and C-Span aired numerous Mobilization-sponsored forums, news conferences and the entirety of the April 16 demonstration on the Ellipse.

By the time of the protests, the IMF and World Bank and their defenders belatedly got their public relations machine in order, and the New York Times, the Washington Post and newspapers across the United States attacked the Mobilization for Global Justice in editorials and op-ed columns. The Times was perhaps the most extreme, running five editorials or op-eds harshly critical of the Mobilization, without a single counterbalancing piece.

While lamenting the denunciations and the refusal of key outlets to air alternative viewpoints, organizers say that they succeeded in getting their message out.

"My goal was for people in the United States to wake up on April 17 and to have the words IMF and World Bank on their lips," says Njoki Njorege Njehu, director of the 50 Years is Enough Network, one of the key sponsors of the Mobilization. "They did."

Business Week offered strong support for the protesters' claim of success. The April 16 Mobilization and the Seattle protests before, the magazine editorialized, represented serious public discontent with the direction of corporate globalization.

"In an era of unprecedented prosperity, why is there a growing backlash in America against globalization?" Business Week asked in an April 24 editorial. "The benefits of free trade may appear obvious to CEOs, policymakers and pundits, but denial of a rising wave of public anger against trade could prove dangerous. Those who marched in Seattle and Washington, D.C. reflect a disparate but real collection of grievances that simply will not go away."

"Unless measures are taken now, with the world economy in a strong upswing, the backlash will become much, much worse once the economic cycle begins to turn down. Denial is not an effective strategy," the editorial argued, urging more openness at the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organization, and an end to both recessionary structural adjustment policies and international bank bailouts, among other measures.

A second noteworthy outcome from the April 16 protests was the role of U.S. organized labor in the permitted demonstration on the Ellipse. Although their support was very late in coming, the AFL-CIO and a half dozen major U.S. unions endorsed the demonstration, the union-affiliated Jobs with Justice took a crucial organizing role, and many of the unions sent top officials to address the rally.

"It is time to replace failed policies of austerity with proven policies of growth," thundered AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka from the stage at the Ellipse, "time to increase spending on education and healthcare and human needs, time to strengthen unions, raise minimum wages and increase job security for workers."

Two years ago, the AFL-CIO lent its support to the Clinton administration's request for $18 billion in funding for the IMF, so the newfound willingness to strongly denounce IMF and Bank structural adjustment policies represents an important shift.

Mobilization for Global Justice activists also looked hopefully on the AFL-CIO's emerging critique of the notion of export-led development -- one of the core principles of structural adjustment. Following passage of a February Executive Council resolution on the global economy, the AFL-CIO is beginning to emphasize the argument that, instead of joining in a race to the bottom to produce goods using sweatshop labor or lax environmental standards, countries should instead concentrate on developing productive capacity to meet local needs.

A third historic occurrence was the endorsement by members of the G-77 -- a grouping of most of the world's developing nations -- of the Washington protests and a stinging condemnation of the Fund and Bank's structural adjustment policies.

"I, for one, support the demonstrators," said Arthur Mbanefo of Nigeria, spokesperson for the G-77 during its recent three-day summit in Havana. "Many countries have rejected the results of various policy initiatives of the World Bank and IMF," he said, citing privatization, a refusal to cancel debt and a "one-size-fits-all" structural adjustment agenda. "We are very supportive of demonstrations that could forcefully handle those concerns."

Protesters hopefully commented that the Washington actions may have exerted a "Columbus Effect." Just as the Columbus, Ohio protests against Clinton administration plans to bomb Iraq led Egyptian President Mubarak to comment that surely he could oppose bombing if the people of Columbus did, they said, so the Washington protests against the IMF and World Bank have created more political space for developing countries to speak up on behalf of their own interests.

The climate of protest, along with growing criticism of the IMF in the United States, seemed to engender criticism even among developing country representatives at the IMF meeting.

"I think the conditionalities that are now being brought by this new Fund facility [the Poverty Growth and Reduction Fund (PRGF), the facility which offers modest debt relief to very poor countries in exchange for adherence to carefully monitored structural adjustment programs] are beginning to be increasingly onerous," said Linah Mohohlo, governor of the Central Bank of Botswana, at an IMF-organized news conference.

"The Fund should cease lending to countries for long-term development assistance," Mohohlo said, explicitly endorsing one of the main recommendations of the Meltzer Commission -- the U.S. Congressional commission which unanimously recommended that the IMF and World Bank should cancel the debts of the poorest countries using their existing resources and that the IMF should get out of the business of long-term financing. "One of the recommendations of the Commission that we support in Botswana is the proposal to terminate the PRGF."

That goal dovetails nicely with the agenda of the Mobilization for Global Justice, to progressively limit the power of the IMF and World Bank. Whether it is achieved will depend, of course, on more than a single action. But there is now political momentum like never before to limit the institutions' authority and influence.


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