Friends and Colleagues
Please accept this [unedited] bulletin from the edge of consciousness. I don’t know whether I feel like crying because I am so moved by what I saw today, because my mucous membranes are all shot to hell from too much tear gas, or out of sheer exhaustion. But I want to get this out while it is still fresh in my mind, and tomorrow will be another insane day.
Tonight I watched some of the most oppressed people in this world confront some of the most influential. Tonight I watched a group of poor farmers, indigenous people, and workers speak, shout, sing truth to power. Tonight, I think, I think, although we will not know for a few days, I watched the terrain of hemispheric politics shift before my eyes. I feel so inspired, and so humbled.
When the day started, I was 20km south of Quito with maybe 300 indÃgenas, one of two protest caravans that had crossed the country spreading the word about the protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Quito. As we crowded into buses to head north, I called the other caravan, who reported that they had 80 people. ” And this is how it ends,” I thought. 4 months of work, promising reporters, funders, countless activists in North America that thousands of people would come to disrupt the FTAA ministerial meeting. And we were going to end up with 500 people rallying in a park. But soon after we got down off the buses and began a 15km trek to Quito, the number of people seemed to mysteriously increase, as buses from the South caught up with us and disgorged fresh groups of protesters.
The procession was a riot of color, filled with red and blue ponchos and hundreds of rainbow flags (the symbol of the Andean indigenous and campesino movements). People lined the street to watch as it passed by. One shopkeeper explained to me that the indigenous people were like burros, dragging along the rest of the country, who were also opposed to the FTAA because it would devastate the Ecuadorian economy, but who let the indigenous movement carry the torch for their opposition. Old women chanted ceaselessly for four hours, “No queremos, y no nos da la gana, ser una colonia, norteamericana,” (We don’t want, and it doesn’t do us any good, to be a North American colony). One group of Bolivians, led by Evo Morales, the coca-grower who almost became president there, marched with coca leaves taped to their foreheads.
When we finally reached our destination in Quito, we rounded the corner and found not 80 but somewhere between 2 and 6,000 people waiting. As the two groups approached each other, people on each side were visibly stirred, and some began to run. At this point, I realized that after 4 months of frantic organizing, the mobilization was a reality, that whatever happened we had already won, that thousands of campesinos and indigenas had come to Quito to unequivocally reject U.S.-style “free” trade. And I simply began to bawl.
Our group didn’t even pause, but continued straight toward the Marriott Hotel, where the 34 trade ministers from North and South America were arriving to negotiate a treaty that promises to wipe out small farmers, to hand corporations a sweeping new set of tools to evade environmental, consumer and labor laws, to force the privatization of water, health care, education, culture, and biodiversity. In other words, a really crappy treaty.
As we headed north we were joined by large groups of campesinos, students, trade unionists, and international activists who had already been fighting running battles with the police, who were attempting to turn everyone back several kilometers from the Summit.
The march was led by a line of campesino and indigenous leaders (“dirigentes”), walking arm-in-arm, preceded by a Shaman conducting rites to improve the success of our efforts. Soon we were stopped by several hundred riot police. The dirigentes asked to send a elegation of civil society groups in to the summit to present a giant letter made up of the proposals and demands of thousands of people who had joined the caravans along their route. They were soundly refused
So the dirigentes deliberated and decided to head west toward the Volcan Pichincha. As we rounded the corner we saw a thousand or more people ahead of us. More groups drifted in from the sides, and soon la Avenida Colon, one of Quito’s widest streets, was packed for perhaps 8 or 10 blocks, with more people out of sight. There must have been between 8 and 15,000 people. There were giant puppets, a smattering of black-clad anarchists, a surprising number of international activists and lots and lots of campesinos: 75 year-old women, small children, 20 year olds who wanted nothing to do with traditional dress, mothers and teenage sons marching together. And they were all psyched.
As the most important social movement dirigentes approached the Avenida Amazonas, the police opened fire with a LOT of tear gas. They shot it at the crowd and over the crowd, so that as people ran away, they ran into more gas. I walked until I couldn’t see or breathe, then began to run, then someone grabbed my hand and led me away (Why do I never carry goggles to these things?) The president of the National Judicial Workers Union was hit with three tear gas cannisters and taken to the hospital. Several young kids passed out and almost asphyxiated. One woman fell on her baby, who was injured and taken to the hospital. A reminder that “free” trade can only proceed via brutal repression, which is now so commonplace at trade summits that it hardly elicits comment.
And so people retreated to the south to regroup, and I retreated to the communications center to try to get the word out about the success of the mobilization, and its repression.
At 6 PM, folks decided to try once more to deliver their giant letter, this time at the Suissotel, where the trade ministers were meeting with assorted CEO’s and trade lobbyists at the 7th Americas Business Forum. As a strategy to boost legitimacy and head off disruptive protests, the government had already made offered to allow a couple civil society representatives to address the ministers. On these terms, the indigenous and campesino groups had refused. But tonight, 2000 people marched up to police barricades, where they demanded that a much larger delegation be allowed in to deliver the letter. Clearly hoping to avoid the kind of confrontations that have occurred in past uprisings here, the government allowed 40 people from across the hemisphere to come in and meet with the ministers.
Hearing this was going on, I ran to the hotel, easily passing through several police lines because I have press credentials for the summit. In the lobby I simply asked “Where are they?” and several people pointed down. Once in the basement, I followed the shouting until I reached an auditorium where 25 or so trade ministers sat uncomfortably on stage while 40 campesinos chanted that they had no desire to be a U.S. colony. Peter Rossett of Food First stood up, his arm in a rainbow colored sling thanks to a protest injury. He yelled to Bob Zoellick, the U.S. Trade Representative, that he should be ashamed for pushing an agreement that would impoverish Latin Americans, not to mention many U.S. citizens. Zoellick stared fixedly at his shoe. It was a scene that is, I think, pretty much unprecedented in the history of trade negotiations.
Soon the civil society presentations began. A line of people fanned out in front of the ministers (and TV cameras) holding signs that said “SÃ a la vida, No al ALCA” (Yes to life, No to the FTAA). Behind the podium stood an indigenous representative holding a beautifully painted inca sun with North America and South America, and the words “Si Una IntegraciÃ³n Solidaria Con Respeco a la SoberanÃa de los Naciones” (Yes to an integration based on solidarity, with respect for the sovereignty of nations).
The first speakers were representatives of an international meeting of parliament and congress members from across the hemisphere. They condemned the FTAA process, and called for an alternative integration, one that respects the needs and particular situations of the people of each country.
Next came several representatives of a “civil society” forum organized by a number of pro-neoliberal NGO’s with close ties to the government. Their proposals were generally tepid, but they were for the most part drowned out by the crowd. (When one speaker asked that the FTAA process be opened up to include civil society observers, the whole crowd responded by chanting, “Plebiscito, Plebiscito”).
Finally, the social movement representatives spoke. Leonidas Iza, the President of the CONAIE (the Ecuadorian indigenous federation), stated the social movements’ clear rejection of the FTAA and of neoliberalism in general. “We are in desperate shape,” he told the ministers. “You couldn’t possibly understand, you who were born in golden cradles and have never suffered” (at this the ministers looked even more uncomfortable). “But we don’t have food to feed our children. Our markets are flooded with cheap imports. Imported milk is dumped in Ecuador for half of what it costs to produce it, but transnationals [mostly Nestle] sell it back to us at $1.80 per litre. We have no way to live, and the FTAA will only make it worse. When we complain, the U.S. government calls us terrorists. We are not threatening anything, but we are hungry and tired and things have to change.” In the wake of widening protest throughout Latin America, the message was not lost on anyone.
Then a woman worker from Nicaragua spoke powerfully of the details of the FTAA, of the privatizations and poverty and social exclusion it would bring, particularly for women. “Don’t think you can simply take your picture with us and push forward,” she told the ministers. We will stop the FTAA.
The meeting ended and, unable to contain myself, I stood up and shouted in English and then in Spanish that never again could Bob Zoellick claim that the people of Latin America were clamoring for free trade, because today they had unequivocally rejected it. Then Peter Rossett chimed in that polls consistently showed that the majority of U.S citizens oppose free trade, and that the Bush administration had no right and no mandate to push forward with the FTAA. There were loud cheers, and the moderator hurriedly announced that the ministers were leaving and could we please sit down so they could leave. “NO!” screamed the civil society folks in unison, and they pushed out the door, leaving the ministers sitting on stage.
And, at that moment, I felt something shift. I realized that (unless the media bury this entirely despite our best efforts to get the word out, which is always possible) the FTAA has in 24 hours gone from something whose praises its proponents sing, to something they have to defend. Like the WTO before it, the FTAA has become the treaty that has to be sold to an America that doesn’t want it. Or so I hope. I hope I hope I hope. This is how it feels here. But it may be different elsewhere.
If I am right, the hemispheric resistance to free trade and the FTAA has taken a huge step forward, even if this is but one day in a long struggle in which many more battles will be fought. Tonight’s show of force may also strengthen the resolve of poor countries in the negotiations that follow here, which will piss off the U.S. and make it harder to reach agreement. In any case, it was a beautiful day for some of the nation’s most powerful social movements. Not to mention a shitty day for Bob Zoellick and his buddies in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
We marched out of the Suissotel, reached the police barricades and were greeted by hundreds of cheering protesters, who had been dancing to traditional Kichwa music while we were inside. Then the partying began, and it is still going 5 hours later (these folks are not lightweights when it comes to cane liquor). I just said goodbye to a compaÃ±era from one of the rural provinces of the Sierra, a woman I met when I was giving workshops on the FTAA several months ago. I asked her what she thought of the day’s events, and she said, “I am happy. Very happy. This was the first time I have ever done this, and I think today we achieved something important, something that will improve our lives. And now I can go back to my children.”
I am so proud, so proud and amazed by the incredible work people have done here over the last few months, so moved by their commitment to this struggle, so humbled by the generosity, patience, tolerance, and trust they have shown me. I am so honored to be part of this fast-coalescing hemispheric movement for a new economic and political order, one based on reciprocity and social justice, on true democracy and respect for human and natural diversity And I’m so happy to be going to sleep.