7th Free Trade Summit


In June, I sat in on a meeting of campesinos—peasant farmers—
in Ecuador’s coastal province of Manabí. The topic at
hand was the upcoming 7th Summit of the Free Trade Area of the Americas,
or FTAA, a plan to create a kind of super-NAFTA for the whole hemisphere
(minus Cuba). Thirty or so indigenous, mestizo and afro-Ecuadorian
men and women, their faces deeply lined from years of field work,
sat hunched over child-sized desks in a small school, surrounded
by fields of banana, cacao, and maize. They were discussing the
possibility of organizing a massive, non-violent protest to greet
the 34 trade ministers and hundreds of CEO’s who would arrive
for the summit on October 31.
They
carefully considered the scarce resources such an undertaking would
consume.

One
man spoke of the recent mobilizations in Seattle, Genoa, and Prague,
of the persistence of activists in those cities who were undeterred
by injuries and repression, and suggested that a similar level of
commitment would be necessary. There was a long silence as people
thought about what this would mean and the risks involved. Then
a woman said, “If this is happening in Ecuador, we have to
be there.” Without further discussion, the group voted unanimously
to call for a national mobilization and to get themselves to Quito
to protest the summit.


I watched this kind of determination and commitment surface again
and again in the months that followed, as Ecuador’s social
movements mobilized around a treaty they say represents a death
sentence for small farmers, job security, indigenous cultures, local
food systems, and endangered forests. Despite their near-total lack
of resources, and the fact that few Ecuadorians had ever heard of
the FTAA before June, anti-FTAA organizers ultimately brought 10,000
campesinos, indigenous people, women’s rights advocates, trade
unionists, students, and environmentalists to Quito on October 31.


The results of this mobilization were dramatic. The protests, accompanied
by a dizzying array of forums, peoples’ congresses, meetings,
and alternative proposals, succeeded in forcing FTAA proponents
to acknowledge that there is considerable opposition to their plans.
In barely a week’s time, the debate over the FTAA within Ecuador
shifted radically: by the time the campesinos piled into trucks
and buses to head back to their villages, press coverage and public
opinion had become overwhelmingly negative. The voices in the streets
also added urgency to the poor countries’ repeated demands
that the U.S. slash agricultural subsidies that threaten to swamp
Latin American farmers: in the end the ministers’ declaration
included language on agriculture that many Latin American governments
saw as a victory.


But perhaps the most important result of the mobilization lies in
the links forged under pressure between social movements across
the continent. Says Jose Encalada, Director of International Relations
for the CONFEUNASSC-CNC, Ecuador’s largest campesino Federation,
“The FTAA has given us the opportunity to get to know each
other and to begin constructing a coordinated resistance across
the Americas.” In Quito, more than ever before, the global
justice movement in the North converged with what is perhaps the
original “antiglobalization” movement—the massive
and growing Latin American resistance to neoliberalism.

The
degree of North-South cooperation in the months leading up to the
summit was striking. Northern groups recognized months ago that
a strong mobilization in Quito would undermine oft-heard claims
that people in developing countries are clamoring for free trade,
while only misguided students, angry anarchists, and selfish trade
unionists stand in the way. Many have also embraced a critique that
the global justice movement needs to do more to support “frontline
struggles” in the global South. As a result, large numbers
of the campesinos and indigenous people who converged on Quito arrived
courtesy of the Seattle crowd and their counterparts in Europe,
who raised tens of thousands of dollars to help pay for the mobilization,
in addition to staging simultaneous actions in their own communities.

Ecuadorian
union members, meanwhile, came with the help of the AFL-CIO. As
part of an unprecedented international coordinated media effort,
teams of activists in North America and Europe spent weeks talking
to reporters in their own countries about the Quito mobilization
and putting them in direct touch with the social movement organizations
in Ecuador. Under the auspices of Indymedia Ecuador, a newly created
node in the alternative media network born in Seattle, activists
from Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, Canada and
the U.S., and Europe worked together to spread the word about the
mobilization.

As
in much of Latin America, economic woes are compounded by militarization
and insecurity. Ecuadorians blame this on Plan Colombia, which they
describe as the military arm of the economic domination strategy
encoded in the FTAA. In the wake of tacit U.S. support for the failed
coup in Venezuela, the escalation of the Colombian conflict, and
crackdowns on social movements across Latin America in the name
of the war on terrorism, people throughout Latin America have come
to share Ecuadorians’ opposition to U.S. military strategy.


The most recent expression of this resistance has been the victory
of Lucio Gutierrez, the candidate supported by the Ecuadorian indigenous,
campesino, and labor movements, in the first round of presidential
elections on October 18. (He faces Alvaro Noboa, Ecuador’s
richest man, in a runoff on November 24.) Organizers in Ecuador
excitedly point to other faces of hemispheric upheaval: the Zapatistas
in Chiapas; Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Circles; the Brazilian
electorate, who chose leftist Ignacio “Lula” deSilva in
the October elections; Evo Morales, the coca-growing campesino who
nearly became president in Bolivia; the angry middle classes taking
regularly to the streets in Argentina and Uruguay; and, of course,
the workers, students, women’s organizations, indigenas, and
campesinos who came to surround the Quito Marriott on October 31.


In the North, meanwhile, the new militarism of the war on terrorism
has shifted the analysis of many in the U.S. “Anti-globalization”
movement, who used to focus almost exclusively on the WTO, IMF,
and World Bank, and the evils of big corporations. Protesters have
responded to the new geopolitical reality by linking global economic
concerns with civil liberties and the war on terrorism (including
Plan Colombia and the School of the Americas), issues which have
long been central to the analysis of the Latin American left. When
as many as 100,000 people marched in Washington DC in April, they
protested the war on terrorism, Plan Colombia, and Palestine, in
addition to more traditional economic globalization issues.


Similar links were made at a smaller mobilization there in late
September. As Northern activists expand their work to include opposition
to militarism and imperialism—a move still questioned in some
quarters of the movement for strategic reasons—they are embracing
concerns that have long been central to the analyses of many Latin
American social movements.


To be sure, there are still important faultlines in this new north-south
alliance. Wildly divergent demographics are one source of tension
(i.e., middle class student radicals vs. indigent peasant farmers).
There are significant disagreements over subsidies to Northern farmers,
protection of U.S. industries like steel and textiles, and the inclusion
of environmental and labor rules in trade deals. Nonetheless, the
connections between Northern and Southern activists are real and
growing stronger.


As was clear in Quito, where protests fueled open discord within
the FTAA ministerial over agriculture, and where public debate came
to center on the fate of poor countries under the FTAA, this confluence
of movements presents a formidable obstacle to the Bush administration’s
plans to push forward with the FTAA. Popular unrest throughout Latin
America is making it harder and harder for key governments like
Brazil’s to support the FTAA (indeed, 10 million Brazilians
voted in a recent civil society plebiscite on the FTAA, and a whopping
98 percent rejected the plan). In the U.S., meanwhile, opposition
to free trade almost scuttled the Bush administration’s drive
for Fast Track authority and forced compromises on agriculture and
textiles that will only make it harder to win support from Southern
nations.


If the pressure grows, particularly in Latin America, these protests
and the rising chorus of dissatisfaction with neoliberalism and
U.S. militarism may well prove fatal for the FTAA.


Since
graduating, Justin Reuben has been in Ecuador doing research on civil
society and neoliberalism. He also worked for about 6 years as an
organizer on environmental health, labor, and global justice issues.
His most recent article on strategy in the anti-corporate globalization
movement appeared in
Clamor Magazine.