CONSIDERATION OF the world's poor was never intended to hamper the World Trade Organization. In Seattle, mention the WTO and many people cringe. They remember it as a civic blight, the 1999 protests that shoved the WTO off a cliff. But in much of the rest of the world, those raucous protests were an inspiration. And last week in Cancún, Mexico, after that hard shove and four years of free fall, the WTO landed with a dull thud.
A group of more than 20 poor nations, led by the largest economiesparticularly Brazil, and including India, Mexico, and new WTO member Chinablocked the U.S. and the European Union from imposing yet another round of free-trade agreements, this time regarding agricultural products, that would have helped cement the widening economic gap between rich and poor.
Until the meetings in Seattle, rich countries, particularly the U.S., pretty much called the shots in the WTO, a trade organization the U.S. helped launch in 1994 to bring NAFTA-style trade practices to the world. Large corporations from the U.S., Europe, and Japan could exploit cheap labor in southern countries and sell products there by undercutting indigenous industries. Wealthy countries would lose jobs but get lots of cheap stuff. Poor countries would lose local jobs and then compete with each other to offer global corporations the fewest taxes, the least environmental or worker-safety laws, and the cheapest, most pliant labor forces.
In Seattle, protests that had been erupting for a decade in countries like India and Indonesia astonished the world by coming to a wealthy, comfortable city in the North. Once the meetings finally started, a group of African delegates took the protesters' message to the ministerial talks, blocking destructive new agreements.
Two years ago, the WTO met in the feudal oil kingdom of Qatar. Not much happened as the U.S. and E.U. primarily worked to ensure an agreement, any agreement, could emerge to convince the world that the WTO was still a going concern.
In Cancún, the substantive matters could be put off no longer. The U.S. and E.U. wanted a new agricultural agreement that would remove trade tariffseven as U.S. agribusiness, for example, collects huge subsidies from our government. From Washington state to Florida, those large corporations now dominate American agriculture, having mostly extinguished the family farm over the past 20 years. They have now also nearly destroyed Mexican agriculture, thanks to NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), dumping cheap corn and other commodities in the Mexican market and driving prices so low that Mexican farmers cannot survive. In Mexican states like Michoacán and Guerrero, whole villages are abandoned, their former residents gone either to the cities or to places like the Yakima Valley of this state in a desperate search for livelihood.
THIS IS THE U.S. and European vision for the rest of the world, too. With the collapse of the Cancún meeting, the trade rift that opened in Seattle now threatens the very existence of the WTO. If the WTO doesn't do what its American creators want, the WTO ceases to be a "useful" institution.
E.U. Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy blasted the stalemate, saying, "The WTO remains a medieval organization." U.S. Rep. Charles Stenholm, R-Texas, one of the architects of the U.S. agricultural proposal, sneered that the WTO resembled the United Nations. And we all know what Republicans think of the United Nations, where the great masses of unwashed poor countries have a vote just like the rich ones.
The U.S. would much rather have international trade decided on the model of the International Monetary Fund or World Bank, which are essentially run on the one-dollar, one-vote principle.
Last week's breakdown was a tremendous victory for fair-trade advocates, many of whom went to Cancún to voice their opposition to proposed agricultural, foreign-investment, and competition proposals being pushed by the wealthy countries.
Inside the halls, Cancún became an even more dramatic victory than Seattle had been. With its traditional dominance stymied, the U.S. might turn its attention elsewhere and abandon the WTO entirely as the vehicle for creating a global economic structure that helps corporations rule the world.
THAT PROCESS HAS already begun. Since the "disastrous" Seattle meeting, both the Clinton and Bush administrations de-emphasized the WTO, instead pursuing the same policies of dominance through multilateral regional agreements. The most important of these is the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a proposed pan-hemispheric free-trade zone. The next scheduled meeting to continue FTAA negotiations comes in Miami in November.
In Miami, as in Cancún, Quebec, Seattle, and cities and towns across the global South, the drive by labor, environmentalists, antipoverty activists, and many others to dismantle transnational corporate control of the world's economies will continue. And now, the momentum is all on the side of economic and social justice. Those scruffy, ne'er-do-well protesters are winning.