The Empire's Trade Clothes

By Greg Guma, Toward Freedom, March 2001

Saying no to corporate tyranny in Quebec City and beyond

On the eve of 2000, shortly after compelling protests in Seattle derailed the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO), that leading branch of our unofficial world government launched a brief charm offensive. The goal: to convince a confused, yet instinctively skeptical public that the world's financial overseers had learned something about openness.

Critics had charged, among other things, that the WTO operates in secret, making decisions with global impacts without significant public input or accountability. In the future, a WTO press release replied, there would be “increased dialogue with non-governmental organizations and civil society.”

Cut to early 2001, little more than a year later. After more popular resistance during World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) confabs in Washington, DC, a WTO session in Prague, and the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) annual gathering in Switzerland, the would-be masters of post-industrial capitalism have made it absolutely clear that what they’ve actually learned is not to be caught off guard again. Rather than opting for “increased dialogue,” they now pick locales designed for maximum insulation. And so, what more appropriate place could be found for the November 2001 WTO meeting than Qatar, a wealthy desert monarchy in the Arabian Peninsula with no constitution, no political parties, and little tolerance for even peaceful opposition.

Under British military control until 1971, Qatar is smaller than Connecticut, with fewer people than Baltimore, yet has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. The key is its enormous oil and gas revenues. In 1995, Crown Prince Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani seized power by ousting his own father. Political demonstrations are prohibited, and private groups, which must register with the government, are closely monitored by security agencies. Workers have no collective bargaining rights; in fact, Qatar has been suspended from US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) insurance programs because of its failure to observe basic labor rights. In corporate terms, it's the perfect spot.

Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder puts it this way: “The WTO's choice of Qatar demonstrates the fallacy that the WTO is committed to transparency. We have to ask what the WTO's real agenda is when it needs to meet in a nation that prohibits peaceful demonstrations, and hinders the freedom of the press.” In other words, what are they trying to hide? Why must every meeting of the world's financial managers be accompanied by police state tactics to stifle free speech and disrupt the opposition?

The next face-off will come in Quebec City when 34 heads of state gather in April to work on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) during a hemispheric summit. This time, the meeting site is inside the fortress walls of Old Quebec City, built to repel the invaders of centuries past. But apparently that isn’t protection enough. A concrete and metal fence topped with razor wire is being installed around several square miles of the hilltop location. Beyond that, riot police will stand guard, just to be certain that naysayers don’t penetrate what's been dubbed a “security zone.”

The US border is hours away, yet the show of force is expected to include a selective blockade designed to prevent critics of corporate globalization from even entering Canada. A preview was provided last June, when about 500 activists who wanted to protest at a meeting of the Organization of American States in Windsor, Ontario, were turned back at the border. On the US side, nearby Detroit declared a civil emergency. Some claim dossiers were provided by the FBI. Hard to prove, but the bureau did help the Czech government deal with IMF protests in Prague last September by generously sending a list of US activists who were later prevented from entering the country.

Over the past year, a full menu of strong-arm tactics has been used to disrupt protests. Free speech and the right to assemble have been greeted with unwarranted searches and surveillance, preemptive mass arrests, brutal detention treatment and unconstitutional bail amounts, raids on activist convergence centers, political profiling, and the establishment of local “intelligence units” reminiscent of Vietnam-era Red Squads. Apparently, globalization can’t proceed without a draconian trade-off—the corporate right to “free” trade and investment worldwide in exchange for the abandonment of all democratic pretenses.

nafta on Steroids

The stakes will be especially high in Quebec City. Heads of state from every country in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba hope to reach basic agreement on the FTAA, considered the most far-reaching trade agreement in history.

In recent years, other trade and investment plans have hit roadblocks. The Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) was defeated at both the first WTO ministerial meeting in 1996 and, two years later, at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In December 1999, the “Millennium Round” meeting of the WTO in Seattle was shut down, not only by the protests but also by internal squabbling between member states. Also in turmoil, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) is unlikely to become a free trade and investment zone. Another failure could put big-time trade deals on the back burner for years.

When government leaders meet in April, they’ll look at a preliminary draft of the FTAA, in hopes of approving a text. Originally slated for implementation by 2005, some countries, notably Chile and the US, now want the final ratification date moved up to 2003. But this will depend on how the negotiations go.

Why the rush? Although based on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), this hemispheric pact would go much further, imposing all the corporate-friendly disciplines of the WTO's General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), along with key parts of the failed MAI. At the urging of big business, FTAA negotiators have merged the most ambitious elements of every existing or proposed global trade and investment scheme into one document. The resulting agreement would have vast authority over virtually every aspect of life in the Americas.

In WTO-speak, the GATS, which is still being hammered out in Geneva, would “liberalize” the global trade in services, including all public programs, and eventually phase out any government “barriers” to international competition. The FTAA's Trade Negotiations Committee proposes something very similar, plus expansion of NAFTA's “investor-state” provisions. The latter would grant corporations unprecedented rights to push their interests through legally binding trade tribunals.

Combining these powers in one binding trade agreement gives businesses the right to compete for and even challenge every publicly funded service, including health care, education, social security, culture, and environmental protection.

The proposed FTAA also contains new provisions on competition, government purchasing, market access, and dispute settlement. Together with rules governing services and investments, all this would reduce the ability of governments to pass or maintain laws, standards, and regulations protecting health, safety, and the environment. Making matters worse, FTTA negotiators chose to emulate the WTO rather than NAFTA in key areas, even though WTO rules are more strict.

Like NAFTA and the WTO, the pact will contain no safeguards to protect workers, human rights, social security, health, or environmental standards. Civil society groups and most citizens have been excluded from the negotiations; thus, it is no shock that opponents will be kept as far as possible from the Quebec City deliberations.

The Urge to Merge

With a population of 800 million and a combined GDP of $11 trillion, the FTAA would be the largest free trade zone in the world. If reports about various “negotiating groups” are right, it will also be the most far-reaching free trade agreement yet.

The work began at the December 1994 Summit of the Americas in Miami, Florida. At that meeting, then President Bill Clinton pledged to fulfill former President George Bush's promise of a free trade agreement stretching from Anchorage to Tierra del Fuego, based on the NAFTA free market model. Still, little progress was made until 1998, when the next summit, held in Santiago, Chile, set up a Trade Negotiations Committee (TNC) with delegates from each country.

Nine working groups were established to deal with the major negotiation areas, along with three special committees to deal with smaller economies, civil society, and electronic commerce. The committees and working groups have met frequently since then, bringing almost 1000 trade negotiators back to Miami, where most meetings have been held. Predictably, big corporations and their lobby groups are in the driver's seat. Over 500 business representatives have security clearance and access to FTAA documents.

A key task has been to compare and consolidate components of other trade and investment agreements, including NAFTA, MERCOSUR (a common market including Southern Cone countries—Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay), the Andean Pact, and Caricom, a Caribbean community pact. Negotiators also reviewed several Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITS) between individual nations that allow corporations to sue governments for alleged property rights violations.

Of course, there are some differences between the various agreements. But the similarities far outweigh them. Both NAFTA and MERCOSUR, for example, deregulate foreign investment and grant “national rights” to foreign investors. Both also rule out “performance requirements,” which would force foreign investors to enhance the local economy and support workers.

In addition, both NAFTA and MERCOSUR are based on a model of trade and investment “liberalization” that locks in the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) imposed by the World Bank and IMF. Under SAPs, most developing countries have been forced to abandon domestic industry in favor of corporate interests; convert their best agricultural lands for export crop production to pay off national debts; cut public spending and abandon social programs; deregulate electricity, transportation, energy, and natural resources sectors; and remove regulatory impediments to foreign investment.

The increased presence of European Union (EU) business interests in Latin America, especially banking, telecommunications, automobiles, and consumer products, has led the US to reassert its leadership. The EU has negotiated free trade and investment agreements with countries such as Chile, Mexico, and Brazil. In response, the US is counting on the FTAA to protect the dominance of its own corporate sector.

Spin Control

In a triumph of doublespeak, the governments and corporations pushing the FTAA claim their new trade and investment rules have been developed with substantial citizen involvement. Yet, the proposal reflects none of the concerns voiced by civil society, and contains countless provisions opposed by human rights and social justice groups, farmers, indigenous peoples, artists, and workers. Cosmetic compromises won’t make it more palatable.

A related claim—that opponents are merely isolationists and anti-progress extremists who would refuse to accept any rules or economic links between nations—is just as deceptive. What the opposition really wants is a different set of assumptions, true respect for the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and strong environmental and labor standards. With such reforms, closer economic and cultural ties with other countries throughout the Americas could promote a form of globalization that respects sovereignty, extends social justice, and promotes sane and equitable resource use.

If the FTAA is blocked, and other international trade deals can be redrawn or overturned, the world might begin to move toward an international trading system based on democracy, sustainability, diversity, and balanced development. In the short term, needed reforms include such things as removing the trade provisions that allow corporations to sue governments, recasting energy policies with an emphasis on conservation, and exempting basic resources like water from any future agreements. But to do that, international trade and investment must be kept on the front burner of public debate. This requires consistent and convincing arguments that expose the real goals of the bureaucrats and corporate dons currently calling the shots.

It won’t be easy. Even when the opposition to corporate globalization is massive, it's often misunderstood. And when the protests occur outside the US or industrialized West, they’re easy for the world press to ignore. A case in point is Ecuador. Most of that country was recently shut down by a campesino and indigenous uprising in response to price hikes and unpopular policies imposed under IMF pressure. The main highways were blocked, and radio stations were seized. When protesters occupied the Salesian Polytechnic University, the government cut off water, electricity, and phone services. Promising a dialogue, officials instead imposed a state of emergency, suspended constitutional guarantees, and mobilized the armed forces to quell dissent. At least three people were killed.

Still, the resistance continued, ultimately forcing the government to concede. In early February, an agreement was signed, reducing the price of cooking gas, cutting bus fares, providing more capital for small farmers and businesses, and promising increased government funding for health and education. The government also pledged to drop the charges against anyone arrested, compensate those who were injured and the families of the deceased, and return all confiscated property.

Predictably, the corporate press took little notice during all of this. To news anchors, it's just one more peasant revolt. The fact that such protests and uprisings have become increasingly common in response to privatization and other aspects of globalization apparently isn’t news.

Jane's Terrorism and Security Monitor, a leading military intelligence report, prefers to see the opposition as an anarchist revival, failing to mention the strong presence of labor unions. It also argues that “too many disparate themes do not make for coherent protest.” Taking this cue, most US media coverage highlights the unusual attire and extreme tactics of a few, meanwhile betraying a snide disinterest in what those out on the street actually want.

Enforcing Exploitation

The US national security apparatus knows well that the situation is volatile, threatening visions of a free trade juggernaut. Specifically, the Bush administration realizes that quick action—along with military muscle—will be essential. Thus, fast track authority is a high priority. This would give the president the power to negotiate trade deals, only bringing them to Congress for final approval. Clinton failed to get it; now, Bush II promises to submit a legislative proposal before the April summit.

But greater executive power alone doesn’t guarantee Latin American acquiescence. For that, only increased military engagement will do. It starts at the border. Militarization of the US-Mexico border has intensified since NAFTA's introduction, and the number of Border Patrol agents has doubled. According to a recent report from the Center for International Policy, the US is also pouring unprecedented amounts of aid and other support into the region's armed forces.

The most obvious example: $1.3 billion for “Plan Colombia,” the US-backed effort to train and equip the Colombian army. Officially, the objective is to fight a “drug war,” but another target is the leftist insurgency there. Millions are also being given to the military in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, where a key air base will be refurbished for use by US spy planes.

“The United States trains more military personnel from Latin America than from East and South Asia, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union combined,” notes Joy Olson, the report's co-author.

The US runs a huge Latin America training program—and not just for the “drug war.” In 1999 alone, more than 55,000 US military personnel visited the region to provide expert advice and direct support. The skills being taught include air assault, sharp shooting, and riot control. The official line is that the training teaches soldiers to respect civilian authority, but it's really a seal of approval for whatever the local military, under a watchful US eye, decides to do.

The renaming of the School of the Americas (SOA), where thousands of Latin American military officers—including many notorious human rights abusers—have studied counter-insurgency techniques, provides a useful clue. The new name is the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation. Whether the curriculum will change remains unclear, but it's already plain to see that permanent military engagement in Latin America is high on the Bush agenda.

And what's at stake? In Colombia, it's access to oil, especially the drilling operations of Occidental on land claimed by the indigenous U’wa, as well as that country's strategic location as the gateway to South America. In Uruguay and Argentina, there's already widespread resistance to privatization and budget cuts. In Brazil, genetically engineered soybeans have been kept out of the country by consumer resistance and court action.

In Bolivia, an uprising has reversed the Bechtel Corp.'s drive to privatize water; under the FTAA, of course, Bechtel could sue the government for lost profits.

And beyond such specific fights is the overriding imperative: enforcing acceptance of a “free trade” regime that would turn the southern part of the hemisphere into an enormous sweatshop where ecological balance and human rights take a back seat to corporate freedom.

Joining Forces

Not long ago in the US, most people had no idea what the initials IMF meant or that the World Bank demanded anything in exchange for its help. Today, the same can be said for the FTAA, and that's exactly how its backers want to keep it. They’re relying on the fact that trade issues usually seem far removed from daily life. Plus, on the surface, the further economic integration of the hemisphere sounds like a good move—especially when linked to that magic word, free.

The challenge facing those who see through the double talk of corporate penetration and consolidation, disguised by promises of open economic competition, is to cut through all the crap: the complacency, media distractions, and ideological divisions that blur the issue. Corporate-controlled “free trade” affects everyone, and many people in the global South already understand that. Under structural adjustment, they’ve experienced the devastating impacts of deregulation, privatization, and wide-open capitalism firsthand—often at their peril.

The crusade to stop this dead-end process is still growing, linking unions, environmentalists, and human rights activists in the US with peasants, social workers, and labor organizations around the world. Many conservatives, although they remain highly nationalistic and would oppose any move toward democratic globalism, also abhor corporate control of the world, focusing on the threat to national sovereignty. The coalition that stopped the MAI and Fast Track during the Clinton era was a strange mix of Left and Right—politicians and activists who shared little more than their disgust with concentrated power beyond the reach of national law. At this point, it's still a movement that often crosses traditional boundaries.

It's also plain that our international overlords—from the World Bank to the WTO—don’t like the attention they’ve been getting. Convening in militarized security zones and authoritarian police states, they want to keep a low profile, hoping that the spectacle of protesters vs. police will end up looking like a series of disconnected news blips. They’re depending on the press to be lazy, and the opposition's inability to get a clear message across.

But they may be under-estimating the risks. If every time some secretive, unaccountable elite meets it has to face massive protests, combined with effective outreach and fair analysis through like-minded independent media (who also know the costs of corporate concentration), more people will see the truth. When “free trade” zealots run the show, you get freedom for business, all right—but lousy treatment for everyone else.

Eventually, even Qatar or some fortified castle won’t be secure enough. And when that happens, leaving corporate pirates and globo-crats with nowhere left to hide, democratic globalization—with true freedom and a fair deal for all—can finally get its chance.