Activists, including many from Latin America, yesterday protested the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington, chanting and marching through downtown in a peaceful demonstration that capped a weekend's worth of rallies for a wide range of causes.
At Meridian Hill Park in Columbia Heights, protesters sat on the grass and listened to Latin American activists describe their struggles against repression in Colombia, El Salvador and elsewhere. On the roughly two-mile march route to the Foggy Bottom headquarters of the World Bank and IMF, they paused in front of a Taco Bell restaurant at 14th and U streets NW, waving banners and calling for a boycott of the fast-food chain, which they said buys tomatoes from Florida growers that exploit workers.
Throughout the day, there were many banners and many causes. Anti-capitalists and anarchists, many wearing black ski masks or bandanas to cover their faces, shouted at shoppers on U Street, "While you're shopping, bombs are dropping." Other protesters displayed large banners calling for a stop to U.S. aid to Israel and urging the closure of a U.S. Army school in Georgia whose graduates allegedly have committed human rights abuses in Latin America.
But in yesterday's protests, which followed dueling rallies Saturday against the war in Iraq and in support of the Bush administration, much of the focus was on the economic policies of the World Bank and IMF, which activists say support oil, gas and mining projects that harm the environment and the poor. "The IMF and World Bank are part of this larger problem of putting profit over people," said Setareh Ghandehari, 19, a sophomore at the University of Maryland and one of five antiwar activists arrested last week at the Capitol for disrupting the Senate.
Three years ago this month, protests against the World Bank and IMF led to a virtual shutdown of the downtown area and sparked clashes between police and demonstrators that ended in mass arrests. The size and tenor of yesterday's activities were far different, with smaller numbers taking to the streets and police making no arrests.
The anti-globalization movement, a loose-knit network of activists focused on reforming international financial institutions, surged in popularity after thousands shut down a World Trade Organization summit in Seattle in 1999, but it has struggled recently to retain its momentum and numbers. The Bush administration's war on terrorism since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has been the focus of most U.S. grass-roots organizing and street protests.
But during yesterday's events, which organizers said drew several thousand people, activists said their complaints about World Bank and IMF policies remain important. Javier Correa, president of a union of food workers in Colombia, said his country's astronomical debt to international institutions is strangling social services. "There's no money for education. There's no money for health care," Correa said in Spanish. "All the money goes to pay off the debt."
World Bank and IMF officials have said that in reducing poverty around the world, they are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
At a news conference Thursday, World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn said demonstrators' criticism has helped the bank. "I draw the line a bit when it gets to violence, but in terms of dialogue, I think it is healthy, and we try to support that dialogue," he said.
Local and federal police were out in force yesterday, patrolling on foot and using motorcycles, bicycles and other vehicles. A police helicopter hovered above marchers, and surveillance cameras monitored activity along the route. A large section of downtown was closed to motorists and pedestrians, including many streets around the headquarters of the World Bank and IMF near H and 18th streets NW. Many protesters called the security precautions a waste of public resources for demonstrations they planned as nonviolent, while police said the temporary closures were necessary.
Officials with the Downtown Cluster of Congregations said the security perimeter, which closed about 10 streets, caused parking and commuting inconveniences for Palm Sunday worshipers at up to a dozen downtown churches.
"It was an over-the-top response to have a blanket closure, when clearly the situation didn't warrant it," said Terry Lynch, executive director of the group.
Yesterday's demonstration, organized by the Latin America Solidarity Coalition and the Mobilization for Global Justice, demanded that the World Bank and IMF cancel the debt owed by impoverished countries and end all policies that hinder access to food, water and health care. Protesters also called for an end to U.S. military aid and some types of economic assistance in Latin America. Marchers said they opposed a proposed free trade agreement with Central America that they said would force people to pay for basic services such as water, health care and electricity.
About 1:30 p.m., marchers began what they called a "tour of shame," targeting companies and agencies they said were pushing misguided policies. The tour included the Inter-American Development Bank at 13th Street and New York Avenue NW, where protesters voiced criticisms similar to those they leveled at the World Bank and IMF.
Outside the IMF and World Bank buildings, which were protected by barricades and dozens of officers, protesters converged on a small park shortly before 5 p.m. Although the crowd was smaller than at previous IMF and World Bank protests, Stephen Anderson was not discouraged.
"We made up for it with the intensity," said Anderson, 19, a freshman at George Washington University. "If we're here, there will be attention and, ultimately, there will be change."
Staff writers Paul Blustein and Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.