The Guardian

The Guardian June 14, 2000

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

The joys of capitalism

A decade after the overthrow of socialism in Czechoslovakia, the Czech 
Republic is enjoying the assorted blessings of capitalism, bourgeois 
democracy and a social democrat government.

Unemployment has risen by 183 percent since 1993. Not co-incidentally, the 
number of suicides has risen in the same period by 43 percent.

The social-democrat government of Prime Minister Milo<212> Zeman has been 
busily flogging off state enterprises and public assets to foreign 
companies at bargain-basement prices.

Then, to add insult to injury, the government has listed the money received 
from these sales of public property as "direct foreign investment", as 
though invested in some new productive development.

Thus, of 145 billion Czech crowns (US$4 billion) of such investment last 
year, only three billion crowns was actually in a new productive enterprise 
(by Volkswagen to set up a new engine and transmission plant under the 
banner of Czech auto maker Skoda). The rest was the proceeds of the sale of 
state holdings in banks and large enterprises.

This year the Social Democrats claim they will produce 250 billion crowns 
in new foreign direct investments, but Postmark Prague reports that 
actually 220 billion of it will come from selling off the Czech Savings 
Bank and the state's 60 percent share of the Commercial Bank, plus Czech 
Radiocommunications, Czech Telecom and assorted smaller enterprises.

To make the Commercial Bank more attractive to foreign buyers, the helpful 
Zeman Government used US$2.3 billion of taxpayers' money to bail out the 
bank's bad debts, at least one of which (a loan to a dubious Austrian 
company) was alleged to be a cover for embezzlement of bank funds.

Agricultural production is still well down on the socialist period (6.9 
million tonnes of grain harvested last year compared to 7.8 million in 
1989, livestock now only number 1.5 million compared to 3.5 million in 
1989, etc).

According to Postmark Prague, real wages in agriculture are almost 
20 percent lower than in 1989.

Elsewhere, average monthly wages have risen to US$350, but this figure is 
skewed by the big increases received by upper and middle management working 
for private businesses. Sixty-five percent of Czech workers actually earn 
below the monthly average.

While senior and middle managers receive 13 or 14 times the average (from 
US$4,000 to $4,500 a month), textile workers for example have to make do on 
a bare $250 a month.

Small wonder that opinion polls show 52 percent support for the view that 
the post-1989 "economic transformation" has failed! 

* * *
Pen friends wanted
Through a church group in the USA, The Guardian is regularly sent letters from inmates of US prisons looking for penfriends. The US has a huge prison population, the result of mandatory sentencing, the "war on drugs" and the criminalisation of the black and Latino population, and the general state of US culture and society. Some of the letters are very "churchy", while others are unashamedly looking for a romantic relationship. However, the majority are seeking just what they say they seek: penfriends. People like the unassuming Bill Proctor from San Quentin State Prison whose short hand-written note reads: Dear Editor I pray you are all well there. A friend have me your address and I hoped I could put an ad in your paper for a pen pal Something small, maybe the following: 35 years old I'm in prison in the USA and need a friend to share some time with. He then gives his prison address and says he "would appreciate the assistance thanks". If you would like to share some time with Bill or any of the other US prisoners who have sent hopeful letters to The Guardian along similar lines, then drop us a note or give us a ring and we will forward you a prisoner's letter with their name and address and such details as they've provided. A small effort on the part of a Guardian reader might improve the quality of some prisoner's wretched life quite considerably.
* * *
Historic summit
At time of writing this column, the historic summit between the leaders of North and South Korea is scheduled for June 12-14. If it proceeds without a hitch, it will be a tremendously important step towards reducing tension on the peninsula. It will throw a huge spanner in US plans to use South Korea as a trigger for military adventures aimed ultimately at China. And, of course, it will give enormous impetus to the movement within South Korea for close relations with the north and eventual reunification. With these thoughts in mind, I dug out an article by Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor of Murdoch's up-market broadsheet The Australian, about the summit written last April shortly after it had been announced. After acknowledging in his first sentence that the summit "could transform North-East Asia", Sheridan pays no further attention to that aspect. Instead he concentrates on the subject of his second sentence: "It [the summit] should also tell us whether Kim Jong-il is barking mad." The rest of the article is a hodge-podge of vilification of the North Korean President. All the demonisation saws are trotted out: Kim was "personally associated with the bombing murder of several South Korean cabinet ministers in Rangoon in 1983" and with "the bomb that blew up Korean Airlines Flight 853 and killed 115 people in 1987". No reason is offered for such bizarre acts, of course. Nor are current US fetishes left out: North Korea "almost certainly possesses a couple of nuclear weapons, vast conventional arms, missiles that could reach Japan and maybe the west coast of the US, and arsenals of chemical and biological weapons. All controlled by a very weird person." The US is using North Korea as justification for its latest Star Wars nuclear arms developments. Relaxing tensions on the Korean peninsula would not suit US policy at all. Apparently, they can as usual rely on the Murdoch press.

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