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."
No one lost more credibility in Cancun than President Bush. "The Bush administration calls itself the great promoter of democracy, free trade and the global trade system, but it just imploded the WTO summit by rejecting the demands of the majority of WTO signatory nations for a little democracy, free trade and multilateralism after those countries refused to sign off on the corporate agenda for the WTO pushed by the U.S. and its small rich-country coalition of corporate shilling," said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch campaign.
The Bush Administration continues to position the US as the primary advocate for multinational corporations. And it is unlikely that the president, who collects most of his campaign money from individuals and groups associated with those corporations, will change course.
But it is possible to change the politics of the United States. As Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and to a slightly lesser extent former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, have long argued, trade issues must be discussed on the 2004 presidential campaign.
In 2000, Republican Bush and Democrat Al Gore sounded way too much alike on trade issues. Gore's failure to distinguish himself cost him votes in critical states such as Ohio, where a Democratic win would have tipped the electoral college in Gore's favor. Democrats who want to oppose Bush in 2004 appear to have learned from Gore's mistake. Kucinich greeted the news from Cancun by declaring, "Working people the world 'round have the same complaints about the WTO: it's bad for their jobs, bad for their livelihoods and bad for their income. Small farmers in Africa lose their jobs just like steelworkers in Ohio. The evidence of the failure of the WTO to deliver anything like the prosperity its promoters have promised is plain for everyone to see. That is why the WTO talks in Cancun collapsed, and that is why the US Congress should reevaluate the WTO and rewrite the trade agenda our trade representative advocates."
Kucinich and Gephardt are no longer alone in questioning the wisdom of the Bush administration's trade policies. As manufacturing job loss figures have continued to mount, most of the contenders -- with the exception of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, a free trader every bit as militant as Bush -- have been talking tough on trade. Even former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, a one-time defender of the corporate free-trade agenda, now says he favor policies that protect American workers and farmers.
Dean echoes Paul Wellstone, the late US senator from Minnesota, when the Vermonter claims on the campaign trail to be the candidate of "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." Hopefully, he and other Democratic contenders will be inspired by the news from Cancun to echo Wellstone in a more substantial way. After activists halted the WTO's attempts to launch new free-trade initiatives in the fall of 1999, US Senator Paul Wellstone said Democrats needed to make a major issue of failed U.S. trade policies in order to distinguish themselves from Republicans. Gore and too many other Democrats failed to follow Wellstone's advice in 2000. If Democrats are to succeed in 2004, the contenders who would carry the party's banner into next year's contest with George W. Bush cannot afford to make the same mistake as their party's last presidential nominee.