| Citizen Action in the Americas Commentary |
Activists brave tear gas to take their message to trade ministers
In Quito, the FTAA
Goes on the Defensive
by Justin Ruben | November 12, 2002
This past Thursday night, I watched some of the most oppressed people in this world confront some of the most influential. I watched a group of poor farmers, indigenous people, and workers speak, shout, and sing truth to power. I watched the terrain of hemispheric politics shift before my eyes.
When the day started, I was 20km south of Quito with maybe 300 indígenas, one of two protest caravans that had crossed the country spreading the word about the protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) ministerial summit in Quito. As we crowded into buses to head north, I called the other caravan, who reported that they had 80 people. "And this is how it ends," I thought. "Four months of work, promising reporters, funders, and countless activists in North America that thousands of people would come to disrupt the FTAA ministerial meeting. And we were going to end up with 500 people rallying in a park." But soon after we got down off the buses and began a 11km trek to Quito, the number of people seemed to mysteriously increase, as buses from the South caught up with us and disgorged fresh groups of protesters.
The procession was a riot of color, filled with red and blue ponchos and hundreds of rainbow flags (the symbol of the Andean indigenous and campesino movements). People lined the street to watch as it passed by. One shopkeeper explained to me that the indigenous people were like burros, dragging along the rest of the country, who were also opposed to the FTAA because it would devastate the Ecuadorian economy, but who let the indigenous movement carry the torch for their opposition. Old women chanted ceaselessly for four hours, "No queremos, y no nos da la gana, ser una colonia, norteamericana," (We don’t want to be a North American colony). One group of Bolivians, led by Evo Morales, the coca-grower who almost became president there, marched with coca leaves taped to their foreheads.
When we finally reached our destination in Quito, we rounded the corner and found not 80 but somewhere between 2 and 6,000 people waiting. As the two groups approached each other, people on each side were visibly stirred, and some began to run. At this point, I realized that after 4 months of frantic organizing, the mobilization was a reality, that whatever happened we had already won, that thousands of campesinos and indígenas had come to Quito to unequivocally reject U.S.-style "free" trade.
Our group continued straight toward the Marriott Hotel, where the 34 trade ministers from North and South America were arriving to negotiate a treaty that promises to wipe out small farmers, to hand corporations a sweeping new set of tools to evade environmental, consumer, and labor laws, to force the privatization of water, health care, education, culture, and biodiversity.
As we headed north we were joined by large groups of campesinos, students, trade unionists, and international activists who had already been fighting running battles with the police, whose plan was simply to turn all protesters back several kilometers from the summit.
The march was led by a line of campesino and indigenous leaders ("dirigentes"), walking arm-in-arm, preceded by a shaman conducting rites to improve the success of our efforts. Soon we were stopped by several hundred riot police. The dirigentes asked to send a delegation of civil society groups in to the summit to present a giant letter made up of the proposals and demands of thousands of people who had met with the caravans along their route, but had been unable to come to Quito. The dirigentes´ request was soundly refused.
So they deliberated and decided to head west toward the Volcán Pichincha. As we rounded the corner we saw a thousand or more people ahead of us. More groups drifted in from the sides, and soon la Avenida Colon, one of Quito’s widest streets, was packed for perhaps 8 or 10 blocks, with more people out of sight. There must have been between 8 and 15,000 people. There were giant puppets, a smattering of black-clad anarchists, labor leaders, a surprising number of international activists, and lots and lots of campesinos: 75-year-old women, small children, 20-year-olds who wanted nothing to do with traditional dress, mothers and teenage sons marching together. And they were, almost to a person, visibly thrilled to be there.
As the most important social movement dirigentes approached the Avenida Amazonas, the police began to shoot volley after volley of tear gas. They shot it at the crowd and over the crowd, so that as people ran away, they ran into more gas. The president of the National Judicial Workers Union was hit with three tear gas canisters and taken to the hospital. Several young children passed out and almost asphyxiated. One woman fell on her baby, who was injured and taken to the hospital.
The attack was a reminder that, apparently, "free" trade can only proceed via brutal repression–which is now so commonplace at trade summits that it hardly elicits comment.
At 6 pm, the dirigentes decided to try once more to deliver their giant letter, this time at the Swissotel, where the trade ministers were meeting with assorted corporate CEOs and trade lobbyists at the 7th Americas Business Forum. As a strategy to boost legitimacy and head off disruptive protests, the government had already offered to allow a couple civil society representatives to address the ministers. On these terms, the indigenous and campesino groups had refused. But tonight, 2,000 people marched up to police barricades, where they demanded that a much larger delegation be allowed in to deliver the letter. Clearly hoping to avoid the kind of confrontations that have occurred in past uprisings here, the government allowed 45 people from across the hemisphere to come in and meet with the ministers.
In the auditorium of the Swissotel, a scene unprecedented in the history of trade negotiations played out. Twenty-five or so trade ministers sat uncomfortably on stage while 45 campesinos chanted that they had no desire to be a U.S. colony. Peter Rossett of Food First stood up, his arm in a rainbow colored sling thanks to a protest injury. He yelled to Bob Zoellick, the U.S. Trade Representative, that he should be ashamed for pushing an agreement that would impoverish Latin Americans, not to mention many U.S. citizens. Zoellick stared determinedly at his shoe.
Soon the civil society presentations began. A line of people fanned out in front of the ministers (and TV cameras) holding signs that said "Sí a la vida, No al ALCA" (Yes to life, No to the FTAA). Behind the podium stood an indigenous representative holding a beautifully painted Inca sun with North America and South America in the center, and the words "Sí a Una Integración Solidaria Con Respeto a la Soberanía de los Naciones" (Yes to an integration based on solidarity, with respect for the sovereignty of nations).
The first speakers were representatives of an international meeting of parliament and congress members from across the hemisphere. They condemned the FTAA process, and called for an alternative integration, one that respects the needs and particular situations of the people of each country.
Next came several representatives of a "civil society" forum that was organized by a number of relatively pro-neoliberal NGOs with close ties to the government (which had been too expensive for all but the most well-heeled civil society groups to even attend). Their proposals were generally tepid, but they were for the most part drowned out by the crowd. (When one speaker asked that the FTAA process be opened up to include civil society observers, the whole crowd responded by chanting, "Plebiscito, Plebiscito.")
Finally, the social movement representatives spoke. Leonidas Iza, the President of the CONAIE (the Ecuadorian indigenous federation), stated the social movements’ clear rejection of the FTAA and of neoliberalism in general. "We are in desperate shape," he told the ministers. "You couldn’t possibly understand, you who were born in golden cradles and have never suffered" (at this the ministers looked even more uncomfortable). "But we don’t have food to feed our children. Our markets are flooded with cheap imports. Imported milk is dumped in Ecuador for half of what it costs to produce it, but transnationals [mostly Nestle] sell it back to us at prices we can’t afford. We have no way to live, and the FTAA will only make it worse. When we complain, the U.S. government calls us terrorists. We are not threatening anything, but we are hungry and tired and things have to change." In the wake of widening protest throughout Latin America, the message was not lost on anyone.
Then a woman worker from Nicaragua read a statement that synthesized the results of dozens workshops and forums over the past week. She spoke of the privatizations and poverty and social exclusion the FTAA would bring, particularly for women. "We have not come here to ‘dialogue’," she told the ministers, "because your governments have been closed to any type of real dialogue, to listening and taking into account the feelings of civil society, and this will not change even if we are received today or if ministers take photos with popular representatives; we have come here to demand the suspension of the FTAA negotiations and the final surrender of decisions affecting the destinies of our countries to the people of each sovereign nation."
The meeting ended amid more shouting and chanting from the campesinos. The moderator hurriedly announced that the ministers were leaving and could we please sit down so they could leave. "NO!" screamed the civil society folks in unison, and they pushed out the door, leaving the ministers sitting on stage.
And, at that moment, I felt something shift. I realized the FTAA had in a few short weeks gone from something whose praises its proponents sing, to something they have to defend. Like the WTO before it, the FTAA has become the treaty that has to be sold–to an America that doesn’t want it.
Justin Ruben is a freelance journalist and community organizer who spent the summer in Ecuador working on, and covering, the FTAA mobilization. He can be reached at < email@example.com >.
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Justin Ruben, "In Quito, the FTAA Goes on the Defensive," Americas Program, (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, November 12, 2002).