“Globalization means the spread of free-market capitalism to virtually every country of the world,” explains globalization proponent Thomas Friedman.1 According to Friedman, its progression is inevitable: “I wish we could slow this globalization train down, but there’s no one at the controls.2 Such statements are not only misleading, but promote the apathy and fatalism so prevalent in modern life. Why resist the inevitable? Why try to create alternatives if such efforts are futile?
Although abstract, anonymous forces seem to be driving the global economy in an unrelenting and irreversible direction, this is not the case. Economic globalization is not the result of abstract forces, but of deliberate and concrete rules made by powerful institutions that protect the rights of large corporations at the expense of the majority of human beings and the earth itself. One of these institutions is the WTO.
Protesting the WTO: From Seattle to Cancun
When the World Trade Organization met in Cancun, Mexico this September,
I was there with a delegation from Santa Cruz, California for the parallel Peoples’ Forum on Alternatives to the WTO. There we met campesinos, labor unionists, WTO delegates, and activists from all over the world.
At age 87, local activist Ruth Hunter was the eldest member of our Santa Cruz delegation. She and I were veterans of the 1999 protests in Seattle, where police attacked us with rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas, and concussion grenades as we sat peacefully with hundreds of others, successfully shutting down the first day’s meetings of the WTO. After several days in jail in Seattle we got word: WTO delegates from developing nations had refused to agree to the unfair rules being imposed by richer nations. The Seattle talks had ended in failure. In the jails, in the streets, and around the world, people rejoiced in the power of the people to stem the “inevitable” tide of what had come to be called “corporate globalization.”
We knew Cancun would be different. The official WTO meetings were held in the Convention Center in the heart of the “Zona Hotelera,” the long island strip lined with sprawling luxury hotels. Huge chain link security fences and thousands of police and military personnel at each end of the island and throughout the Hotel Zone kept the majority of protestors on the mainland, in Cancun city, where teach-ins, organizing meetings, cultural events, and protests were held each day.
“The WTO Kills”
On September 10, we marched in the first of many demonstrations that were led by thousands of Mexican campesinos. (Small farmers in Mexico have been driven off their land by NAFTA and WTO policies.) At the end of the march, we saw an ambulance and were shocked to hear that someone had taken his own life. We found out later that this “someone” was Kyung Hae Lee, respected leader of the Korean Farmers and Fishers Association, who had engaged in a 30-day hunger strike in front of the Geneva WTO headquarters not long before. As he approached the security fence at the end of the march, Lee had carried a sign that said, “The WTO kills farmers.” After climbing the fence, he had plunged a knife into his heart. People created a memorial at the site of his death, and held services throughout the week to honor him.
Although both protestors and security forces in Cancun were highly disciplined and mostly nonviolent, the Hotel Zone was essentially under martial law. Still, many demonstrations did take place inside the Zone.
One day, twenty-five of us arrived in pairs and small groups at the Coco Bongo complex. I came with Ruth and Richard Snow, also from Santa Cruz. Ruth treated me to lunch: a hot fudge sundae and cheese fries. (I figured that since that was what Ruth was having, and she’s still going strong, it must be healthy!) At the appointed time, we all went outside, unfurled a banner that said “The WTO kills,” and read statements of mourning for the death of farmers, the loss of water, loss of education, food security, health care. Before our banner was confiscated, we turned it around, revealing the words: “Another world is possible.”
All week long the protests continued, in Cancun city, at the security fences, inside the Hotel Zone, and even inside the Convention Center. What motivates so many people to come together, some from long distances, to protest the meetings of the WTO?
A Corporate Bill of Rights
The WTO has been called a “Corporate Bill of Rights.” WTO rules limit governments from interfering with the “rights” of corporations to profit from business in their countries. They protect corporate profits by limiting laws that place conditions on corporate activity and protect small businesses, family farms, food safety, the environment, the rights of labor to organize, and essential services (such as water, education, and health care).
WTO dispute panels can force governments to weaken or eliminate such laws or face fines or economic sanctions. These dispute panels are secretive, without democratic accountability, yet they can overturn laws made through grassroots democracy. Several of our laws and laws of other countries have been judged illegal and have been changed.
Deadlock Within the WTO
Before Cancun, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick articulated a lofty-sounding goal: “The United States wants to open global markets across-the-board, to expand a virtuous circle of trade and economic growth for developing and developed economies that can strengthen each other.”3 In spite of this positive, “virtuous” vision of supposedly “inevitable” market-based globalization, the meetings were deadlocked--the talks ended in failure. What went wrong?
The principle stumbling blocks were investment and agriculture. The powerful US and EU wanted corporate “investments” in developing nations to be protected through various means, including giving corporations the right to directly “sue” a government through the WTO. These negotiations, together with negotiations on “government procurement” and “competition,” went nowhere.
Agriculture was the most visible and contentious issue. While refusing to eliminate their own agricultural subsidies, the US and EU tried to gain greater market access in developing nations by pushing them to remove both subsidies and “Quantitative Restrictions” that protect them from the dumping of cheap, subsidized products. For instance, under current NAFTA and WTO policies, cheaper subsidized corn from the US floods the Mexican market, putting Mexican campesinos out of work. US cotton subsidies threaten the livelihood of African cotton farmers. And the list goes on.
Brazil, India, China, and other developing nations joined together into a “Group of 21” nations, representing over half of the world’s population, to resist a draft proposal developed by the powerful nations. India’s representative, Arun Jaitley, criticized the draft as “utterly incomprehensible and extremely insensitive to the large number of people living in poverty in developing countries... It represents an attempt to thrust the views of a few countries on many developing countries.” 4
On Sunday, September 14, the WTO talks collapsed.
A Coincidence? or Divine Providence?
Just the day before, on Saturday, Richard, Ruth, and I met a Kenyan WTO delegate named Peter, and had lunch with him. We talked about the negotiations and shared ideas about alternative economic models that would encourage food security and fair trade. He told us that sometimes, when delegates from poor nations negotiate with representatives of rich nations, “we feel like our brains are underdeveloped.” He said that street protests give delegates from nations of the South the will to stand strong.
Ruth asked him, “Peter, can you tell me why the developing nations don’t just get up and walk out?” He smiled, and we discussed it for awhile.
This was not Ruth’s original idea. We had seen protest signs that said, “Global South, walk out.” But we were stunned when the announcement came the next day that the Kenyan delegation had walked out, ending the WTO negotiations. A Kenyan delegate (Was it Peter? We don’t know) said publicly, “If it was not for the protestors outside on the street, we would not have been able to shut down these talks.” 5
Was this a coincidence? Synchronicity? Divine Providence? I don’t know.
By the Power at Work Within Us
How does God work in the world? We can never know how our prayers, words, and actions affect the whole. But we do know that God often works through people, in ways that are mysterious and beyond our ability to understand.
No human-created system is ultimate, not even powerful institutions like the WTO that make rules for the global economy. No direction for human society is inevitable, unless the people relinquish their choice and responsibility and allow it to be so.
People of faith have no excuse for apathy. Instead of harboring fatalism or futility, we are called to step out with courage, to point in the direction of hope, and to take actions that will lead toward a peaceful, just, and sustainable world
And now, to the One who, by the power at work within us, is able to do incredibly more than all we can ask or even imagine, to that One be the glory in Christ Jesus and in the Church (and in the world) to all generations forever and ever. Amen.