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Eyewitness report from Ecuador
Stop Washington's free-trade rip-off

November 15, 2002 | Page 6

TOM LEWIS reports from Ecuador the protests against Washington's free trade deal.

BETWEEN 10,000 and 15,000 demonstrators marched against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) October 31 in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito.

Police used tear gas to disperse demonstrators near the Marriott Hotel, where the economics ministers from 34 nations--every country in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba--had gathered to take the next step toward economic integration of North and South America by 2005.

The FTAA would extend NAFTA-like provisions from Alaska to Patagonia, paving the way for more privatizations, falling wages, the repeal of labor laws and greater unemployment. Transnational corporations--especially U.S. multinationals--would benefit, while urban and rural workers in every country--including the U.S.--would suffer.

The Quito round of FTAA negotiations faltered over the question of agricultural subsidies. The planned trade deal requires Latin American countries to eliminate government aid to national agriculture. But the U.S. intends to keep its more than $1.7 billion a year in handouts to agribusiness.

U.S. officials are now maneuvering to have the issue decided in the World Trade Organization (WTO), where it expects favorable treatment. Between 1995 and 2000, the U.S. promised the WTO it would reduce agricultural subsidies by 20 percent. In practice, Washington got away with raising subsidies by 260 percent.

The U.S. feels entitled to protect vulnerable areas of its own economy--such as agriculture and steel--even while demanding that other nations remove all barriers to U.S. exports.

Under pressure from social movements and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the ministers signed a "Quito Document" that establishes mechanisms for "compensating" the smaller economies of Latin America after implementation of the FTAA.

But the measures will mainly help small business owners. They will do little to protect workers and indigenous peoples from the ravages that will accompany the FTAA.

Three representatives of the more than 80 NGOs present in Quito delivered their own document to the summit, seeking 43 modifications of the trade deal in areas such as trans-genetic organisms, biological resources, indigenous cultures and intellectual property rights. The limited scope of the changes reflected a spirit of resignation, showing that most NGOs view the FTAA as inevitable.

"Many of us do not like the FTAA," explained María Amparo Albán, who heads the Ecuadorian Center for Environmental Rights. "But it's a reality, and we have to make proposals on the basis of realities."

On the other hand, the vast majority of the groups and individuals who marched in Quito were demanding the outright destruction of the FTAA. The protests were part of a week-long "Continental Encounter of Reflection and Exchange" on the crisis of neoliberalism and growing militarization in Latin America.

Urban and rural workers across Latin America have called on their governments to abandon negotiations. And they are looking to themselves to provide the power necessary to stop the FTAA.

Evo Morales, a leader of the Bolivian coca farmers and second-place finisher in the country's recent presidential election, was the only one of Latin America's high-profile left-wing political figures to take a leading role in the FTAA protest.

Brazil's president-elect, Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva of the Workers Party, was conspicuous by his absence. Lula has already pledged to go ahead with the FTAA.

And Lúcio Gutiérrez, one of the leaders of Ecuador's mass insurrection of January 2000 and the most likely candidate to win the presidential election at the end of this month, traveled to Washington, D.C. during the protest. He cozied up to U.S. politicians and Wall Street barons even as government troops gassed his supporters in Quito.

But the sentiment against the free-trade deal is widespread. As José Maria da Almeida, president of Brazil's United Socialist Workers Party (PSTU), told Socialist Worker, "The number of fightbacks and even rebellions against privatizations and cuts in social services throughout Latin America means that it is possible to defeat the FTAA."

Cecilia Chérrez, coordinator of the anti-FTAA campaign for Ecuador's Acción Ecológica, agreed. "We think that all the indications provided by our local struggles here and across the continent in the recent period are impacting public opinion, and I have regained my confidence that we can block the FTAA," she said.

For João Pedro Stédile, a leading member of Brazil's Landless Rural Workers Movement, the fight against the FTAA is a matter of life and death. "We will not rest for a minute until we stop the FTAA." Stédile explained. "For us it's a question of survival as independent nations."

Activists in Quito linked the struggle against the FTAA to the growing U.S. military presence in Latin America. Plan Colombia, as well as U.S. military bases in Manta, Ecuador, and Alcântara, Brazil, are merely the most visible signs of U.S. preparations for waging a war against rebellions resulting from the FTAA's heightened exploitation of Latin America's human and natural resources.

That is why it's important for U.S. unions and the global justice movement to rebuild the opposition to the FTAA that existed prior to September 11. Stopping the FTAA is part of the struggle against George Bush's intensification of U.S. imperialism--under the guise of the so-called "war on terrorism."

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