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Bringing It All Back Home


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Another world is possible/LOCAL RESISTANCE

Bringing it all back home

Jim Shultz offers some strategies to carry
our resistance forward on a local level.

Another world is possible.
Could local democracy be one of our most powerful tools for demanding global justice?

The movement for globalization with justice has clearly accomplished its first objective – to get the attention of the powerful. Global economic policies that were once worked out in polite summits of the world elite are now debated on college campuses, in labor halls and most notably in streets all over the world.

However, this global movement must do more than just disrupt economic summits. We must declare what we are ‘for’ as well as what we are ‘against’, in particular, targeting the legal agreements which seek to bind us to the ‘globalization for the wealthy’ theology and replacing them with accords based on economic justice. Here are some ways in which we might use democracy as our tool to create such a strategy.

Make it real
Economic globalization has as its highest order the protection of return on capital investment and eagerly sacrifices the rights of workers, consumers and cultures as well as protection of the environment and public health. However, most people probably don’t think much about globalization at all. The best way to bring it home to people isn’t with abstract theory or ideological rhetoric, but with real stories about real people.

No example illustrates the enduring power of a good story more clearly than Cochabamba, Bolivia’s public revolt against privatization of its public water system. Here the evils of economic globalization, and the valiant fight against them, were played out in living color. The World Bank used all the powers at its disposal to pressure the Bolivian Government to lease off its water system to a transnational corporation and it did so, to a subsidiary of the powerful, US-based, Bechtel Corporation. Within weeks Bechtel had doubled and tripled people’s water rates, sending a mass movement of urban and rural water users into the streets. This culminated in a weeklong general strike, the forced departure of the corporation and the return of the water system to public hands. In December 2001 Bechtel announced it was suing the Bolivian government for $25 million for breaking the water contract (see box).

During the water wars, Tanya Paredes, a mother who supports her four children by knitting baby clothes, became an international symbol after it was reported that her 300-per-cent water bill increase totaled more than what it cost to feed her family for a week. Even people who have never heard of the World Bank and don’t have feelings one way or the other towards Bechtel could grasp in an instant that something about globalization had gone horribly wrong.

Make concrete demands
Protest and criticism gets the attention of governments, corporations, and multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and WTO, but getting them to take action requires specific, carefully calculated demands. The Cochabamba water revolt had a very specific demand: cancellation of the Bechtel contract. Now we need to carry that same strategy to a higher level, into international forums such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Trade agreements like the FTAA are akin to constitutions and it is worth taking a strategic page from the drafters of the US Constitution with the device of a Bill of Rights. In effect a Bill of Rights says that regardless of whatever else has been negotiated, fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and so forth, supersede all other clauses. Thus, rather than getting bogged down in the detail of 500 pages of legalese, we might do better to demand a Bill of Rights that protects natural resources, labor, consumer and indigenous rights, with a strong method of recourse if any of those rights are violated by any other provision.

A good opening demand might deal with the FTAA’s ‘democracy clause’. As currently drafted, the clause gives member nations the happy label of ‘democracy’ solely on the basis of whether they elect their governments. This makes a great fig leaf for repressive regimes. Thus, last April, as he was at President Bush’s side signing the agreement, the Bolivian President, Hugo Banzer, was also ordering troops to break up a peaceful protest march to the nation’s capital. Despite its flaws, the European Union (EU) agreement at least has teeth when it comes to human rights. Turkey, for example, chomping at the bit to enter the EU, will first have to abolish its death penalty and clean up its prisons and criminal-justice system. A demand for an FTAA democracy clause with enforcable human-rights requirements could be a rallying point throughout the Americas.

Take local action
It is much easier to mobilize people to take action locally, where contact is face to face and where the issues at hand are directly linked to people’s lives. How do we create, in both rich countries and poor, real opportunities for people to take local action to demand globalization with justice? Two examples, one from California and one from Latin America, point to some interesting possibilities.

This year in California, State Senator Sheila Kuehl introduced a bill requiring state agencies to make a thorough review of how trade agreements including NAFTA, the WTO, and the FTAA would affect state laws dealing with labor and environmental protection. With the credibility of a state seal, citizens of the state would have access to a full list of all the hard-won public protections that might be undone in the name of free trade and corporate investment. As a matter of policy, what makes more sense than entering into such agreements open-eyed as to the effects?

Imagine also the power of a nationwide series of state and local reports laying out in clear terms the real damage close to home that the FTAA could do. Imagine the effect of campaigns in hundreds of states, cities, and towns in which citizens demanded: ‘Tell us what local laws are threatened!’ Senator Kuehl’s bill was approved by both houses with strong two-to-one majorities, only to be vetoed by Governor Gray Davis, an active fundraiser with the state’s wealthiest corporations. Kuehl, however, plans to continue fighting for the bill and the example set could be picked up by global-justice activists across the US and Canada.

Latin America provides a different example of how strong local action might be tied to global issues – the public consultation (la consulta). The technique is a simple one. Activists set up small tables in public squares all over a city, inviting people to cast a ballot on an issue of current importance. In Mexico the citizen network, Alianza Civica, held a consulta (on whether the Zapatistas should become a political party) in which more than a million people cast ballots in just three days. During the Cochabamba water revolt, protest leaders held a consulta on whether the Bechtel contract should be cancelled (95 per cent said yes) in which a tenth of the city’s population participated. Consultas like these aren’t so much about elections or scientific polling, they are a dynamic tool for popular education and participation in which activists go out and meet people who learn about and express their opinions on issues that normally they would never be consulted about. ‘It made our movement much more participatory,’ says Oscar Olivera, a leader of the Cochabamba protests. When carried out well consultas can carry enormous weight with the media and with the institutions a campaign is targeting. Public consultas like these, held simultaneously throughout Latin America, could focus on issues like: ‘Should the FTAA have a bill of rights for labor and environmental protection?’

These steps would take us beyond protest, engaging more people to participate – including those who haven’t cared much up till now – and sharpening the debate with a specific set of demands.

Jim Shultz is executive director of The
Democracy Center ( www.democracyctr.org ),
lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia and is author of the
forthcoming The Democracy Owners’ Manual
(Rutgers University Press).

Taking it personally
An Open Letter To Mr. Riley Bechtel [extract]
CEO, Bechtel Enterprises  [email protected]
December 18, 2001

Dear Mr. Bechtel,

Last month you filed a demand of $25 million against the Bolivian people. Your lawyers are claiming as losses the millions of dollars in potential profits you had hoped to make and weren’t allowed to.

Here in Bolivia $25 million is the annual cost to hire 3,000 rural doctors, 12,000 public school teachers, or hooking up 125,000 families who don’t have access to the public water system. Which of these are you suggesting Bolivia should do without in order to pay you?

From out my window, Mr. Bechtel, I see the old man who has been bent over building a new street curb all week. He couldn’t afford to pay your water rates and now he and his children can’t afford to pay your demand for compensation. Your corporate mission statement declares Bechtel’s commitment to work with communities, ‘to help improve the standard of living and the quality of life’. In Bolivia, by any definition imaginable, Bechtel has failed that standard miserably. The decision is yours as to whether to repeat that mistake again.


Jim Shultz, Cochabamba, Bolivia

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New Internationalist issue 342 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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