Government and business leaders gather for the Cancun summit
September 5, 2003 | Page 5
JUSTIN AKERS looks at what's at stake at the upcoming summit of the WTO.
GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS, business leaders and economic "experts" from around the world will gather next weekend in Mexico for a meeting to work out details of how to plunder the planet. Oh, they'll talk about the wonders of the free market and their concern for the world's poverty-stricken billions. But their real agenda is to protect and expand the powers of a small number of multinational corporations headquartered in the world's most advanced countries--no matter what the human cost of "free trade."
The summit in the fancy resort city of Cancun is the fifth "ministerial" meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) since it was created in 1995. The mainstream media's focus in the run-up to the meeting was on a last-minute agreement on AIDS drugs for poor countries.
Under the deal, less-developed countries can issue licenses to import low-cost copies of drugs whose patents are controlled by Western pharmaceutical multinationals.
The agreement, claimed WTO Director General Supachai Panitchpakdi, "proves the organization can handle humanitarian as well as trade concerns."
But there's more to the story. Humanitarian organizations say the quantity of drugs that will get to poor countries is far too small. "[The] deal was designed to offer comfort to the U.S. and Western pharmaceutical industry," summed up Ellen 't Hoen of the group Doctors Without Borders. "Unfortunately, it offers little comfort for poor patients. Global patent rules will continue to drive up the price of medicines."
The AIDS drugs controversy--which threatened to derail the summit if it wasn't resolved--couldn't have provided a better introduction to what the WTO is really about. Its stated mission is to regulate international trade and settle disputes between different countries.
The WTO has the illusion of democracy--its 146 member countries each have one vote in decisions about how the institution is run. But in practice, the world's most advanced countries call the shots. The real decisions are made through "secret negotiations, arm twisting and the display of brute economic power by the U.S. and Europe, aimed at ensuring that the interests of the rich are protected," according to Joseph Stiglitz, a former World Bank chief economist.
Thus, at the WTO's "green room meetings," for example, only a small number of countries and representatives are "invited" to resolve issues. Those excluded have few ways of appealing decisions. WTO "mini-ministerials"--minor summits involving only 20 to 30 key member nations, which make critical decisions for the whole body--have also increased in frequency.
And behind the scenes, multinational corporations play a central role in WTO decision-making--for example, through 17 Industry Sector Advisory Committees that bring together representatives of international big business. Input by human rights groups, unions and environmental organizations is consistently ignored.
It's no wonder, then, that the WTO's real function is to reorganize trade in favor of multinational corporations and rich countries--by forcing poorer countries to drop trade restrictions and open up to international exports and investment, even when this produces economic disaster. What constitutes a "trade restriction" is determined by the organization's major players--in line with what serves their interests.
The WTO has also ruled that governments can't take into account "non-commercial values"--such as human rights, environmental concerns or the behavior of companies that do business with brutal dictatorships like Burma--in making trade policy.Nations that step out of line are whipped into shape by the WTO dispute settlement process. Failure to comply with WTO dictates leads to the use of trade sanctions and boycotts that are devastating for small or poor countries.
This year's summit is designed to further expand the powers of the multinationals. For example, U.S. business giants like Philip Morris are pushing for a WTO investment agreement that would allow corporations to directly sue governments for "potential profits" lost due to legislation protecting human health or the environment. Business, meanwhile, would be exempted from lawsuits over the impact of their pursuit for profit.
How the U.S. rigs the system in its favor
UNDER THE system of colonialism in the 19th century, the world's most advanced countries conquered and subdued poorer countries in the pursuit of profit. As Cecil Rhodes, the former ruler of what is today Zimbabwe, put it: "We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit cheap slave labor that is available from the natives of the colonies. The colonies would also provide a good dumping ground for the surplus goods produced in our factories."
The naked plunder and racism of direct colonial control is no longer so respectable. But the profit system still relies on the same logic that guided Rhodes. Rich countries force one set of rules for international trade on weaker countries--forcing them to open up to the international multinationals or suffer the economic consequences of sanctions.
But when it comes to their own behavior, countries like the U.S. rig the system in their own favor. Thus, for example, the U.S. and the European Union spend vast sums of money on government subsidies for agriculture, aiding domestic producers--most of all, the giant agribusinesses--in the world market. U.S. producers can dump their food exports at cheaper prices--while countries of the Third World, under WTO dictates, see their share of the market disappear.
"Free trade" is a hoax--a smokescreen of rhetoric behind which rich governments force open markets around the world, get around labor and environmental regulations and prevent any obstacle to the drive for profits. In this way, the WTO maintains the reverse flow of wealth from poor countries to rich ones--and protects a cruel system that makes a tiny handful of people unimaginably rich, while the majority suffers.
The tale of two Cancuns
THE RAVAGES of the free market can be seen in the WTO's meeting site in Mexico. Cancun, a city in the southeastern Gulf state of Quintana Roo, is known for its luxurious resorts catering to international tourists.
But there is another Cancun--one where Mexican workers face deteriorating living standards in spite of the economic success on the tourist island next door.
For example, Cancun's water system was privatized in 1994. Since then, only the hotels and resorts have definite 24-hour access to running water. For the city's 400,000 poor Mexicans, running water can be counted on only sporadically during the day. At times, people go several hours without access.
The fight for another world
THE BOSSES haven't gotten away with their free trade fraud without a fight. In spite of the efforts to keep its operations cloaked in obscurity, the WTO's role in promoting corporate power is known around the world--thanks to the global justice movement.
The movement erupted onto the world stage with demonstrations that shut down the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999. Establishment mouthpieces like New York Times commentator Thomas Friedman tried to smear the protesters as "a Noah's ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix."
But even Friedman's mainstream media colleagues had to notice the growing numbers of people who weren't buying their happy talk. "They are folks who don't check each day to see how their 401(k) is doing or hang out with people who have become millionaires when their companies went public," the Washington Post reported. "What they all seem to agree on is that giant corporations have gone too far in gaining control over their lives and defining the values of their culture and that the WTO has become a handmaiden to those corporate interests."
The demonstrations in Seattle brought together activists from a range of struggles--unionists, environmentalists, students and left-wing activists--in a protest that exposed the sick priorities of the system. This unity has suffered somewhat since--especially in the wake of September 11 and the Bush administration's war on the world. But the Battle in Seattle--as well as the mass protests in Genoa, Italy, in 2001 and other demonstrations against the WTO and its related international institutions--show the potential to build resistance to an unjust system.