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Trading Places

Protesters rock FTAA meetings in Quito

Justin Ruben

Offshore banking has helped Citibank clients hide millions.

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—It was a scene without precedent, even in the stormy recent history of trade negotiations. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick sat onstage with more than a dozen other economic ministers from across the hemisphere, flanked by activists holding signs that read, in Spanish, “Yes to life!” “No to the FTAA!” and “Another America is Possible!”

The audience—a raucous crowd of farmers, indigenous people and civil society leaders from across Latin America—chanted, “We don’t want to be a North American colony!” Zoellick, meanwhile, stared determinedly at his shoe.

Zoellick and the protesters had come here for the 7th Ministerial Meeting of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). If implemented, the FTAA would drop trade barriers between the 34 countries of North and South America (minus Cuba) and install a sweeping new set of rules boosting corporate control over everything from education to health care to biodiversity. The Bush administration hopes to conclude negotiations by the end of 2004, allowing the treaty to go into force the following year.

Ecuador’s powerful social movements, like their counterparts throughout Latin America, are alarmed at the prospect. “The FTAA would rob us of security in our work, would allow products to come in at prices that we can’t possibly compete with and would eliminate our culture,” says Juan Pablo Pacho Morocho, a farmer from southern Ecuador who led a group of protesting campesinos from his province. “The FTAA would privatize services like water, and it would threaten our ecology, eliminating plants that purify the air, and drying up the rain. Ecuadorian laws would be replaced by new laws interpreted in secret by faceless foreign judges.”

Morocho was among roughly 10,000 protesters who flooded the streets around the trade meeting on October 31. When protesters continued to press for entrance to the meeting, despite tear gas and a massive police presence, the Ecuadorian government eventually allowed a delegation of 50 social movement leaders in to address the ministers. It was in the ensuing chaos that Zoellick was forced to confront dozens of chanting campesinos and to listen to the recitation of a statement that had been hammered out in dozens of workshops and plenaries during the previous week.

Leonidas Iza, president of CONAIE, Ecuador’s powerful indigenous federation, addressed the ministers on behalf of the group: “We are in desperate shape,” he said. “You couldn’t possibly understand, you who were born in golden cradles and have never suffered. 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 us to produce it, but transnationals sell it back to us at prices we can’t afford. 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 don’t mean this as a threat, but we are hungry and tired, and things have to change.”

Iza’s message was not lost on anyone in the room. The protests in Quito were only the most recent expression of a rapidly intensifying wave of resistance across Latin America to free trade and neoliberalism, a prospect that has put the Bush administration and its allies in the region on the defensive. Organizers in Ecuador excitedly point to other facets of hemispheric upheaval: Hugo Chavez’s popular regime in Venezuela; Evo Morales, the coca-growing campesino who nearly became president in Bolivia; the angry middle classes regularly taking to the streets in Argentina; the Zapatistas in Chiapas; and, closer to home, the victory of Lucio Gutierrez, the candidate supported by the Ecuadorian social movements, in the first round of presidential elections on October 18.

The Quito protest marked perhaps the first time that this movement came together to a significant degree with its Seattle-bred counterparts to the north. North-South collaboration was nearly everywhere you looked in Quito. 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, the United States and Europe collaborated seamlessly to spread the word about the mobilization. Many of the campesinos and indigenous people who came to the protests arrived on buses paid for by student organizations and direct action groups in North America, and the AFL-CIO helped foot the bill for Ecuadorian labor’s mobilization. Meanwhile, dozens of solidarity actions were organized from Argentina to Montreal.

The results of Quito were striking. The protests lent weight and urgency to the complaints of poor-country representatives, who united behind the demand that the Bush administration agree to reduce agricultural subsidies. In the end, the ministerial declaration included language on agriculture that these countries viewed as a victory, and the United States felt obliged to present a plan to help poor countries fare better in trade negotiations. Perhaps more importantly, FTAA backers were forced to acknowledge the overwhelming opposition of the Latin American public.

But for at least some protest organizers, the real prize lay in the relationships built between social movements across the Americas. Says Jose Encalada, director of international relations for 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. This is essential, because the only possibility of stopping neoliberal globalization lies in building unity, regionally and hemispherically.”

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