When the World Trade Organization’s fifth ministerial conference in Cancun collapsed Sunday without reaching agreement on how to launch new free-trade initiatives, American activist Gretchen Gordon declared, “This is a major victory for the social movements of the world, and a reality the Bush administration can’t ignore if it continues to pursue the same failed policies in other regional trade agreements.”
Gordon, the director of the Washington-based Citizens Trade Campaign, was right to turn the attention to Bush. The collapse of the WTO’s Cancun summit represents a serious blow for the president. How serious a blow remains to be seen — with much of the impact to be determined by the willingness of Bush’s Democratic challengers to make an issue of trade policy in the 2004 election campaign. But there is no question that the administration’s free-trade policies and politics took a hit in Cancun. Gordon and her allies are hoping the blow could prove sufficient to weaken the president’s secretive effort to negotiate a Fast Track agreement for a Free Trade Area of the Americas that would create a hemispheric corporate free-trade zone stretching from Argentina to Alaska.
The optimism and enthusiasm displayed by Gordon was echoed by her allies in the labor, farm and human rights organizations that worked around-the-clock in recent weeks to prevent the WTO from writing trade policies that would help global corporations to further dominate the economic, social and political life of the planet.
Developing countries walked out of the WTO meeting in Cancun after the United States, the European Union and Japan rejected demands for trade policies that address the needs of the world’s poor, rather than the bottom lines of the multinational corporations that are the prime beneficiaries of WTO rule making. When they refused to negotiate any longer, the representatives of India, Brazil and smaller countries caused the collapse of what had been a critical gathering for the international organization that came into being nine years ago with a charge to define global rules for trade.
Groups representing workers, farmers, environmentalists and human rights campaigners the world over had organized to prevent the WTO from launching a new push to restructure trade rules. There was particular concern that an agreement reached in Cancun could lead to a major assault on the limited protections that remain for small farmers around the world. Such an initiative would have provided tremendous benefits for agribusiness corporations, but it could devastate family farms from Iowa to India.
Farmers from around the world traveled to Mexico to protest against the WTO’s corporations-first, people-last agenda. One of their number, South Korean farm activist Lee Kyung-Hae, took his life in a tragic attempt to illustrate the message of the sign he carried: “WTO kills farmers.”
The loud protests from farmers, workers and environmental activists were heard by negotiators for developing countries, if not by US representatives. That message was summed up by Mark Ritchie, president of the Minnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy who said, “We can’t continue a global trading system that primarily benefits the interests of multinational corporations and doesn’t address the serious concerns of farmers, workers and people around the world.”