Another America Is Possible

Under the heavy guard of 5,451 police officials, foreign ministers from 34 countries in the Americas gathered in the South American capital city of Quito, Ecuador in October for the Seventh Ministerial Summit of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The FTAA, which is planned to go into affect on January 1, 2005, would link all of the Americas (except for Cuba) from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego in the world’s largest “free trade” zone involving 800 million people.

Under Washington’s leadership, government leaders have been meeting to negotiate a hemispheric free trade agreement since the First Summit of the Americas in Miami in December of 1994. Dubbed NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) on steroids, the FTAA would give unprecedented power to corporations while exacerbating poverty and damaging the environmental. Proponents of the FTAA contend that free trade will lead to economic prosperity and a strengthening of democracy in Latin America. Dissidents point out that negotiating trade agreements behind closed doors is fundamentally anti-democratic and that neoliberal policies only deepen social and economic inequalities. Although the business sector has been included in the discussions, elected representatives and the public in general have been excluded.

George W. Bush is currently one of the strongest proponents of the FTAA. Secretary of State Colin Powell has stated that “our objective with the FTAA is to guarantee control for North American businesses over a territory which stretches from the Arctic to the Antarctic, free access, over the entire hemisphere, without any difficulty or obstacle, for our products, services, technology and capital.” The goal is not to promote “free” trade, but to protect U.S. economic interests, particularly from European and Japanese competition.

Two radically different visions of the future of our increasingly globalized world emerge from these encounters–one which benefits only a small wealthy elite and an alternative vision which favors the rest of the world. As with other recent high-level meetings in Seattle, Washington, Quebec, and elsewhere, peasants, Indians, workers, students, environmental activists, and others mobilized protests to counter these corporate-led neoliberal policies. Under the slogan “Another America is Possible,” these social movements organized a “Continental Encounter of Reflection and Exchange” in Quito during the last week of October to share experiences, critique neoliberal policies, propose alternatives to the FTAA, and to take to the streets in protest against the policies which the FTAA enacts in closed meetings.

Yes to Life On Monday, October 28, social organizations began three days of meetings to discuss the FTAA and to plan alternatives. Delegations from almost every country in the Americas including Cuba (which is not included in the FTAA discussions) arrived in Quito, with particularly large delegations from Bolivia and Colombia. Activists conducted panels, workshops, and conferences on a wide variety of themes including agriculture, migration, human rights, gender, the environment, democracy, and economic development.

One of two main organizations present at the anti-FTAA activities was the Coordination of Rural Organizations (CLOC), a transnational peasant organization that includes such groups as the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil. Indigenous peoples under the banner of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) organized a second set of events. Two competing organizational structures resulted in sometimes overlapping and redundant activities. Although coming from different points of view and representing diverse interests, in the end an opposition to the FTAA unified those who were present.

Evo Morales, a Bolivian legislative deputy, former presidential candidate, and leader of coca growers, was a “star” of the meetings. He strongly denounced the FTAA as a “reproduction of savage capitalism” that would significantly deepen the negative effects of neoliberalism. Implementing these trade policies would be “economicide” for small producers. He declared that integration was necessary, but on fairly traded terms that would respect and defend the interests of small farms and family businesses. Allegedly, Ecuadorian chancellor Heinz Moeller specifically excluded Morales from participating in the FTAA meetings for fear it would lead to the U.S. pulling out of the discussions.

CONAIE president Leonidas Iza emphasized that Indigenous peoples’ primary concern was the defense of their land, and that this motivated their opposition to the FTAA. “When free trade brings in outside products,” Iza noted, “our family-run small businesses go broke.” ONIC leader Abadio Green added that the Colombian constitution recognized the unalienable nature of Indigenous lands. “But the FTAA would be above the law,” he noted, “and on our land is the petroleum, uranium, copper, water, and medicinal plants” that transnational corporations want to acquire.

In a discussion panel on FTAA’s impact on Indigenous peoples, Ecuadorian Indigenous leader Blanca Chancoso noted that under the FTAA’s concept of a “free market” Latin Americans could not sell their agricultural products like potatoes or corn in the United States. The FTAA would require Latin American countries to end subsidies to agricultural producers in Latin America while allowing the United States to maintain their subsidies, the majority of which goes to large corporate farms. Not being able to compete on the global market, local producers would be driven out of business. Rather than producing finished products that could lead to economic development, Latin American economies would be forced back into providing raw materials for the industrialized north. Chancoso noted that this unequal treatment under the FTAA was simply a continuation of the colonization of the Americas that began 500 years ago.

In a panel on food security, Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser recounted his experiences with the transnational corporation Monsanto which sued him for allegedly planting genetically altered canola seeds on his western Canadian farm without the proper license. In a court case which is currently before the Canadian supreme court, Schmeiser contends that Monsanto’s seed polluted his organic crop and that they should be paying him damages rather than vice versa. He warned Latin American farmers of the environmental and economic dangers of transgenetic crops, and how trade agreements such as the FTAA would give corporations like Monsanto incredible powers that would irreversibly damage local agriculture.

Peter Rosset of Oakland-based Food First echoed and expanded on these sentiments. He noted that neoliberal policies which favored multinational corporations like Monsanto, Cargil, and ADM also had a negative effect on small farmers in the United States. While the tendency is to see the United States as the culprit in debates over trade policy, Rosset emphasized that the FTAA would only benefit a small elite group of capitalists in the United States as well as in Latin America, and not the North American public in general. A particularly hot issue is the agricultural subsides which the U.S. pays farmers. Rosset explained how these subsidies depress the price of commodities, which does not benefit small farmers, and increase the profit margins for corporations.

Joao Stédile, a representative of Brazil’s Landless Worker’s Movement (MST), noted that the FTAA was “not a commercial treaty, but a strategic plan of U.S. corporations and government to control not only commerce but also territory, the economy, society, culture, and food.” Mexican activist and former parliamentarian Gilberto López y Rivas added that the principal objective of free trade agreements is military, not commercial. As can be seen in Chiapas, this leads to a militarization of society that favors U.S. interests.

Protests On Thursday, October 31, as foreign ministers began their meetings behind the police barricades and locked doors of the Marriott hotel, tens of thousands of peoples took to the streets in Quito as well as in other cities throughout the Americas, including ones in Canada, Mexico, Honduras, Brazil, and Bolivia, in a “Day of Continental Resistance against the FTAA.” Activists gathered in a park in central Quito and were joined by several caravans which had been traveling for days from the north and south and now merged in the city. In a river of banners, puppets, and ponchos, the protesters flowed toward the Marriott hotel where the ministers were meeting.

Despite a permit to march to the hotel, the riot police blocked the route. During the tense standoff, the police fired tear gas into the peaceful crowd. Among the 22 people asphyxiated were two Indian babies carried on their mother’s backs who were overcome by the tear gas and taken to a hospital semi-unconscious. In addition, ten people were injured by the flying tear gas canisters. The heavy police repression visibly affected the leaders of the march. “People are feeling provoked,” Evo Morales remarked. “Resistance has just begun and repression can only have negative effects for the future.” After negotiations with the police, the march was allowed to continue–not towards the Marriott hotel but back to the park where it had started.

Nevertheless, the strength of the march forced the ministers to agree to meet with representatives of civil society. César Cabrera, president of Ecuador’s Peasant Social Security (CONFEUNASSC) noted that just agreeing to the meeting was a significant breakthrough. That evening, 65 delegates (rather than the two whom the ministers had initially invited) met with the ministers at the Swiss hotel, while a crowd of several thousand gathered outside. They presented a letter which noted that the FTAA discussions were illegitimate because they were carried out in secret behind society’s backs in an anti-democratic manner. “The FTAA can only reinforce social exclusion and deterioration of the environment,” the letter noted, “because it only takes into account the interests of transnational corporations.” It would increase economic and social inequalities between and within countries.

Although protesters have been derided as globophiles, the letter which civil society presented to the ministers emphasized that “we are not against exchanges and treaties between countries.” But they desired something quite distinct from what the FTAA represents; “we are for sovereign and democratic agreements that truly guarantee a just, equal, and sustainable development in each one of our countries.” In fact, many of the protesters support regional trade agreements, but ones that are based on “fair trade” principals that foster social security and economic development and are worked out between equals.

A healthy degree of anti-imperialist sentiments particularly focused at the United States marked the day’s protests. The letter which delegates presented to the ministers echoed this with the statement that “the FTAA is nothing more than a supernational economic construction in which we concede the sovereignty of our countries to hegemonic North American interests.” For the most part, however, this antagonism was not directed against U.S. citizens who participated in the week’s events. One protester from Global Exchange carried a sign that read in Spanish “gringos against FTAA.” Two U.S. activists, including Peter Rosset of Food First, accompanied the delegation that met with the ministers in the Swiss hotel and told U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick that he should be ashamed of himself for imposing trade policies that were not even supported in the U.S. on the Latin American people.

As in Seattle, Washington, and Quebec, the day’s events visibly demonstrated yet once again that these neoliberal trade agreements cannot be negotiated in an open, democratic society. The ministers met behind locked doors in a hotel with a heavy police presence that kept the public blocks away. Most of the meetings were not even open to the press. A group of elected legislators also denounced the trade talks in Quito.

In these closed meetings, the ministers reported on the discussions of nine permanent negotiating groups on the topics of agriculture, government procurement, investment, market access, subsidies, services, intellectual property rights, competition policy, and dispute resolution. Until protests in Quebec in April of 2001 forced their disclosure, draft accords from these groups were closed to public scrutiny. On the last day of the meetings, the ministers signed a “Declaration of Quito” which dictated procedures for each of these topics. The most contentious issue was agricultural subsidies, something that threatens to be a deal breaker for the FTAA. Even some ministers complained that the U.S. wants to protect its own markets, while eliminating these same protections in other countries. Already cheap grains from the U.S. have flooded the Latin American market, destroying local agricultural economies. This loss of political sovereignty and food security is one of the potentially most damaging aspects of the FTAA. It would hand over weak economies to the savage lawlessness of international capital, with devastating consequences for the developing world.

Elections While civil society was in the streets protesting neo-liberal policies, Lucio Gutiérrez, who polls project to be Ecuador’s next president, was in New York and Washington promising international capitalists that he would cooperate with international lending agencies and work to ensure Ecuador’s rapid integration into the FTAA. “In the name of the poor people in my country,” Gutiérrez stated, “I have come to ask that you support us and invest in our country.”

Gutiérrez is a retired coronel from the Ecuador army who emerged on the national political scene when he helped led an Indigenous-military coup against Jamil Mahuad on January 21, 2000. Mahuad’s unpopular neo-liberal policies, including a proposal to replace the sucre, Ecuador’s national currency, with the U.S. dollar, led to an evaporation of his support and his subsequent removal from power. Gustavo Noboa, his vice-president and successor in power, proceeded with the dollarization plans, a policy which as a presidential candidate Gutiérrez now supports even though a vast and growing majority of the public believes that it hurts them.

Gutiérrez came in first place in the presidential race on October 20, receiving 20 percent of the vote out of a field of 11 candidates. Because he did not receive a majority of the vote, he will face second-place challenger Álvaro Noboa in a November 24 run-off election. Multimillionaire Noboa is Ecuador’s richest person, with a fortune he made in the banana industry. He strongly supports free trade policies as they would benefit his business interests.

Gutiérrez has run a populist campaign and has attempted to distance himself from previous statements that he admired the leadership style of Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela. Like Gutiérrez, Chávez was also a leftist coup plotter who in 1992 led a failed attempt to overthrow the Venezuelan government. Riding a wave of popular support, he was subsequently elected president of Venezuela. His policies have antagonized the U.S. government, and led to a failed attempt to remove him from power on April 11. Gutiérrez’ meetings in Washington did much to alleviate fears that he was a “golpista, chavecista y comunista.” But is this the type of leader Ecuador needs?

Much of Gutiérrez’ support comes from rural areas and Indigenous peoples. In fact, he campaigned as part of a coalition with Pachakutik, a party which forms the political wing of CONAIE, the country’s strongest Indigenous organization. Privately, however, some Indigenous intellectuals concede their doubts about a Gutiérrez presidency. As a career military officer, he has no political experience and there is fear that he could be an authoritarian leader like Alberto Fujimori in neighboring Peru. Evo Morales publicly criticized him for meeting with the World Bank and the IMF in Washington instead of leading the popular protests against neoliberalism in the streets of Quito.

The fractures in Ecuador’s popular movements extend far beyond Gutiérrez’ candidacy. During the January 21, 2000 coup, Gutiérrez briefly served as the country’s chief executive in a triumvirate “Junta of National Salvation” that included Antonio Vargas who at that time was the president of CONAIE. Vargas was also a presidential candidate (the first Indigenous person to run for this office) in October’s election but came in last place with less than 1 percent of the vote. Vargas’ candidacy, who campaigned with the support of Amauta Jatari, the political wing of the Ecuadorian Federation of Evangelical Indians (FEINE), was widely seen as an opportunistic and egotistical move, motivated more by personal ambitions than a commitment to a struggle for social justice. His campaign was hounded with accusations of corruption, including charges that he falsified signatures to get on the ballot. This has further divided what was once seen as the strongest Indigenous movement in the Americas.

The end of the day What did the protests in Quito accomplish? Some activists came to the South American Andes with the goal of shutting down the FTAA, as happened in Seattle with the WTO. Despite some minor bumps in the road, the FTAA appears to be on schedule for implementation in 2005 like Bush has planned. Behind heavy police lines and in a climate-controlled hotel, it is unclear how aware the ministers were of the alternative meetings and street protests. Judging from the ministers’ bored and disinterested reaction to Thursday night’s meeting with civil society, it is doubtful that they even cared what the public had to say.

Despite their significance, many of the week’s events flew below the mainstream media’s radar screen. Local papers carried news of the meetings on inside pages of the business section, even while complaining that CNN was not covering the discussions in their country. Most of the reporters registered to report on the week’s events represented alternative or community media. For many people in Quito, the heavy police presence and blocked streets around hotels simply represented longer commutes and more agitation in an already congested and polluted third-world city.

Nevertheless, public opinion in the Americas is shifting against the FTAA, especially as the economic crisis deepens. After nine years of NAFTA, an increasing number of people in the United States realize that these trade agreements do not benefit them. A plebiscite in Brazil at the beginning of September resulted in a 98 percent vote against their country participating in the FTAA, and activists in Quito advocated replicating this procedure on a continental level if the governments continue to refuse to listen to popular demands. They propose a common question: “Are you in agreement with the government signing the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) treaty?” Meanwhile, politically South America seems to be taking a sudden and significant swing to the left. Worker Party candidate Lula da Silva recently won the presidency of Brazil, South America’s largest country, by a wide margin and promises to halt some of the most damaging effects of globalization when he takes office on January 1. In Venezuela, maverick left-populist Hugo Chávez continues to hold onto power and infuriates Washington by insisting on implementing policies that favor Venezuelans rather than international capital. Ricardo Lagos, a socialist, is president of Chile, and another socialist, Evo Morales, came within a hair this fall of wining the presidency of Bolivia which would have been a significant blow to the Washington Consensus. While not as radical, in Ecuador center-leftist Gutiérrez will either have to be accountable to the public’s will or face the same popular protests that he led that forced Mahuad from power three years ago.

Civil society’s final event of the week was a Continental People’s Assembly on Friday, November 1. Although many of the previous day’s demonstrators had already returned home to commemorate the Day of the Dead in their communities, hundreds of delegates from throughout the Americas gathered to reflect on the week’s events. Unlike many of the events earlier in the week which often were divided along competing organizational lines, this assembly was not clearly identified with one specific ideological line. Representatives proposed future actions including strikes, boycotts, conferences, and street protests. Although the assembly was a bit long on rhetoric and somewhat short on specific action plans to stop the FTAA, it perhaps represented the most concrete outcome of the Quito protests. People came together and put aside their differences in order to fight for humanity. Ironically, the FTAA appears to be mobilizing a mass movement for radical social change.

As Salvador Allende said almost 30 years ago, the history is ours and the people make it. In Quito, people made a bit more of our history.

Marc Becker is a Latin American historian and a Fulbright Scholar in Ecuador. He specializes on the history of Indigenous and peasant movements in the South American Andes. More information on the FTAA protests is available on his website at

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