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Date: Sun, 26 Dec 1999 22:19:42 -0600 (CST)
From: MichaelP <papadop@peak.org>
Subject: WTO/Seattle affects Latin America
Article: 85573
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Message-ID: <bulk.20757.19991227091544@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

Seattle fallout drifts south: Organization struck a chord in Latin America

By Linda Diebel, Toronto Star, 26 December 1999

MEXICO CITY - IT WAS called the Battle of Seattle but it was a protest felt throughout Latin America.

On live television, the Washington State National Guard moved into the streets of Seattle to deal with demonstrators who essentially shut down the latest round of World Trade Organization (WTO) talks.

Images of police using tear gas and dragging away protesters were as prominent in Latin America as in Canada or the U.S. More so, probably, because the protests struck a familiar nerve in this part of the world and galvanized public opinion against global trade pacts and financial deals.

Events in Latin America already are being shaped by adverse reaction to globalization, whether it's the Zapatista rebel uprising in Mexico or the election of radical President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

There are many flashpoints to watch in Latin America over the next year.

There are critical runoff elections in Chile, a vote in Peru, ongoing violence in Colombia and, of course, the continuing Fidel Castro watch in Cuba, where the Supreme Commander has held power since 1959.

But of all the political events and trends, the fallout from Seattle could have the deepest long-term impact on this region. Seattle is a lightning rod. It touches the whole spectrum of political, cultural and economic life and resonates, for different reasons, with both the left and the right.

Latin America is a key battleground for world trade and the deals of the future.

Former U.S. president Ronald Reagan used to talk about his vision of a huge free-trade zone from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. So far, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) includes Canada, the U.S. and Mexico in a treaty for free trade in goods and services.

Negotiations are underway to include the entire region in the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). These hemispheric talks are a potential blueprint for a global trade deal.

But there has been growing outrage from the Latin American left and right over the way the leaders of the WTO - a handful of powerful countries among 135 members - conduct their business.

Latin American governments and business groups oppose U.S. protectionism and chafe at efforts to impose environmental and labour standards on trade deals. They see U.S. President Bill Clinton's call in Seattle for a labour code (including a ban on child labour) as an infringement on their sovereignty and an effort to impose First World standards on developing nations.

Brazil let its voice be heard clearly, said Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, referring to Seattle and the breakdown of WTO talks.

It made it clear that the multilateral trading system has to choose between two alternatives: a regime that discriminates and protects rich and hurts the poor, or a universal system that also gives just access to markets for less developed countries.

Human rights groups supported the Seattle protest for different reasons. For them, it was a recognition of the obvious fact that, by any benchmark, the Latin American poor are getting poorer, despite free trade and economic restructuring.

A recent report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), for example, says workers in Latin America and the Caribbean faced rising unemployment and an erosion of social benefits in this decade.

Economic growth and price stability have not produced a significant improvement of the employment situation or of wages, says the report.

More than 85 per cent of all new jobs throughout the region are being created in the informal sector of the economy, including farming and small-scale services.

Unfortunately, workers in this sector almost never are protected by any laws, nor are they usually able to join recognized unions that would protect their interests, says the report.

Official unemployment in Latin American and the Caribbean as a whole is 9.5 per cent, compared to under 6 per cent at the beginning of the 1990s. That doesn't begin to take unofficial unemployment into account.

Mexico is a member of NAFTA, and yet workers have never recovered from the peso crash and job crunch of late 1994.

The fastest-growing segment of the economy here is the so-called maquilladora sector of foreign-owned plants, located mostly at the northern border with the U.S., which assemble goods for export back across the border. These companies pay virtually nothing in taxes to Mexico.

The effects of maquilladora free trade are seen in border towns like Juarez, Tijuana, Matamoros and Nogales. Hundreds of thousands of workers in these foreign-owned plants live in squalor, in slums without running water, sanitation or decent housing.

Other issues tied to globalization spark social unrest in Mexico, the test case Latin American country for free trade.

Since April (1999), the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the largest college in the western hemisphere, has been shut down by a student strike over an administration attempt to impose tuition fees.

Free education in state schools is enshrined in the Mexican constitution, and student leaders accuse President Ernesto Zedillo's government of caving in to World Bank demands to cut education costs in order to qualify for international loans.

Students recently demonstrated in front of the U.S. embassy in Mexico City. Riot police used tear gas to subdue protesters and 100 students were arrested in the kind of street violence reminiscent of the social unrest of the 1960s.

The Zapatista rebels cite free trade as the key cause of their rebellion in Chiapas state in southern Mexico.

The former Carlos Salinas government changed the constitution to allow the sale of hereditary ejido, or communal lands, dismantling a system of farming established after the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920.

Rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos says it was done to suit Mexico's NAFTA partners and allow the kind of wide-scale farming operations that would lead to cost-efficient exports. Zapatistas say it will wipe out indigenous farmers.

In a recent visit to Chiapas, Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the conflict must be resolved. She observed that there are human rights violations taking place, there is a problem with the substantial military presence and (there is) impunity for some violations of human rights by the military.

What are essentially globalization issues being fought over in Mexico are at the heart of many political conflicts in other countries.

Venezuela, for example, is one of the poorest nations of the hemisphere in terms of people living below the poverty line, despite the enormous oil revenues earned by the world's third-largest oil producer.

Chavez, who just had the constitution rewritten to create the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, was elected president last year in what was, at its core, an election over globalization. Chavez condemns savage neoliberalism and attacks core aspects of the international financial system.

The Washington-based World Bank and International Monetary Fund impose strict conditions for loans to developing countries.

These conditions, called structural adjustment programs, basically reshape a nation's policies. They include measures, such as public service cuts, the privatization of state-run companies, a scaling down of social services and a focus on export industries.

But First World efficiency can be disastrous in developing nations, where streamlining can lead to massive unemployment and people going hungry without the kind of support services Canadians depend on for food, shelter and medical care in hard times.

In Peru, for example, President Alberto Fujimori adopted policies sought by the IMF and World Bank, laying off government employees and privatizing state-owned corporations. Since 1990, 300,000 public-service jobs have been lost, with a resulting explosion of squatters living in the so-called Misery Belt around the capital, Lima.

In Venezuela, Chavez attacked conditions mandated for World Bank loans, even going so far as to take on the big international oil companies and their backers in his new constitution by forbidding privatization of the state-owned oil company.

Venezuela should be one of the most fascinating countries to watch at the beginning of the new millennium. Chavez recently received overwhelming support in a referendum on the new constitution, and he has promised to be daring in bringing about what he calls a peaceful revolution.

There are other hot spots in Latin America, with critical developments expected in 2000. They include: