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Time APEC and WTO saw what’s on their doorstep

Accredited media representative to the APEC meeting in Los Cabos in Mexico, Jane Kelsey sees another side to the opulent banquets and stage-managed photo opportunities, dinner speeches and gladhanding cocktail parties. Kelsey concludes that:

It's time for APEC and WTO to see what’s on their doorstep

Ministers at this year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Mexico have expressed their anguish about threats to security and promised more economic globalisation as the solution. They refuse to recognize the link between their free market agenda and growing social and political instability.

The evidence is right on their doorstep; yet they refuse to see it. The APEC meeting in Los Cabos and next year’s ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Cancun are sited in opulent resorts that are quarantined physically and psychologically from the poverty and exploitation that surrounds them.

APEC has attracted relatively little attention from social movements in Mexico, as befits its status as an extravagant talk fest. But the stakes at Cancun are much higher. Last year’s WTO meeting in Doha launched a new round of free trade negotiations thanks to extraordinary circumstances. Held just one month after the attacks of September 11, the US made it clear that dissent from inside or outside the WTO meeting was tantamount to ‘siding with the terrorists’. The location in the kingdom of Qatar guaranteed there was no repeat of the protests that symbolized the fiasco of the previous meeting in Seattle. Next year, the voices of dissent from within Mexico and beyond will not be silenced so easily.

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That became clear when representatives of Mexican activist groups gathered at two low-key anti-APEC forums in Los Cabos last week, one of which was addressed by Senator Ricardo Gerardo who has responsibility for ‘Civil Society’ relations. A series of case studies spells out the social and environmental costs in a country where two-thirds of the people live in poverty and the minimum wage has fallen by 22 per cent in real terms since the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force in 1994. Removal of subsidies and competition from the US, has forced small farmers off their land. They and many others have migrated north, seeking work in the sweatshops in the maquiladora zone along the US border. Once there, they face growing unemployment as transnational companies find even cheaper labour in China. An estimated 500 foreign companies have relocated there in the past two years. Thousands of 'los pobres' desperately risk their lives trying to cross into the US each year.

Proposals to amend the Mexican Constitution to allow the privatization of electricity have provoked resistance throughout the country. In resource-rich Chiapas, Coca Cola is trying to secure control over water while other transnationals lobby to control the huge lucrative oil and gas reserves. Faced with low-intensity warfare, indigenous peoples who own the land are ‘encouraged’ to leave their lands and join the migration to the maquiladora zone.

Chiapas is where the indigenous-led Zapatista rebellion was launched symbolically on 1 January 1994, the day NAFTA came into effect. Colonial dispossession had taken a new form when the Salinas government changed the constitutional rules on communal land rights to conform with US investor demands. Their rebellion has resurfaced several times. With the failure of a constitutional challenge in the courts several months ago, observers are waiting for the next move. Whether that will coincide with the WTO meeting in Cancun remains to be seen.

To the North are the American and Canadian activists who helped bring both the WTO meeting in Seattle and the World Bank/IMF meeting in Washington to a standstill several years ago. They are unlikely to stay at home. While the Mexican Constitution allows the government to exclude foreigners or deny them the right to protest, exercising those powers would be highly provocative.

Further South, popular opposition to an interlocking network of free trade agreements that would allow the US to control the continent is growing more organised. In September, Brazilian churches, NGOs and social movements conducted an informal referendum on the proposed Free Trade Agreement for the Americas (FTAA) in protest against the secrecy of the negotiations and lack of public debate. More than 10 million people took part; over 95 percent voted ‘no’ to the agreement. In neighbouring Argentina, the ongoing economic and political crisis has provoked a rebellion against free market policies. Political unrest in Venezuela is explicitly contesting its economic direction.

As the Financial Times observed on 29 July: ‘Latin America is in turmoil. In recent weeks, there have been anti-privatisation riots in Peru and Paraguay, violent strikes in Ecuador and financial crises in Brazil and Uruguay . . . Argentina’s economic crisis continues to fester. The region’s creeping political contagion may be less virulent than the financial crisis of the 1990s, but it could yet prove more damaging. More than a decade of market-friendly reforms, analysts fear, may be in peril’.

People throughout this continent are rebelling against the poverty and powerlessness that accompanies globalization. This is likely to translate into protests on the streets of Cancun next year. If governments are determined to continue their relentless and uncritical pursuit of global free markets they will need to understand that ongoing and deepening insecurity is the - unnecessary - price everyone will have to pay.

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