Sound Of The Soul
Latin America / BOLIVIA - TRADE
In the eyes of Bolivia's élite, South America's poorest nation might as well drop off the edge of the planet if it opts out of the forthcoming economic marriage of the hemisphere - the FTAA.
A rising wave of opinion here, however, takes a decidedly different view. In January 2003 a broad coalition of social movements carried out a week-long series of street protests and blockades of the nation's two major highways. At the centre of the protest was the long-standing battle over a US-backed programme to eradicate the nation's remaining coca-leaf crop. But the next item on the list was something new - the FTAA, and a call on the Government to drop Bolivian participation in it.
Faced with a political stand-off that he could not end with repression (three people were killed and scores of others injured in the conflicts), President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada agreed to formal negotiations on all of the protesters' demands - including the rejection of the FTAA.
'We need a different model of integration,' says Oscar Olivera, the Cochabamba labour official who helped lead Bolivia's celebrated revolt against water privatization. 'We need a model that respects our rights, one that is participatory instead of secret, one that is voluntary instead of forced - all of which is completely contrary to the FTAA.'
It should come as no surprise that Bolivia - a landlocked country of 10 million people, that spreads across lush green jungles, fertile valleys and impossibly high mountain tops - might take a leading role in the battle over free-trade laws. As a result of history, both ancient and recent, Bolivians know all too well the greed and exploitation that can disguise itself as global economic enterprise.
For example, underneath the skin of a modest hill on a freezing high plain at Potosí, Spanish conquistadors discovered in the mid-1500s a hidden mountain of silver so never-ending that it bankrolled the Spanish Empire for three centuries - leaving behind an estimated eight million corpses in the process. Public suspicion over the FTAA touches a resistance to foreign exploitation that is buried deep in the Bolivian soul.
Developments in national politics over the past year have played an important role in directing that spirit of resistance towards the FTAA. In presidential elections held here last July the big event was the surprisingly strong second-place finish of Evo Morales, the charismatic leader of Bolivia's coca growers' union. Morales' candidacy became a rallying point for opposition to the neoliberal economic model, helped a good deal when the inept US Ambassador threatened to end US aid if he won. Since the election Morales has worked hard to expand his base beyond the coca issue. Rallying national opposition to the FTAA serves just that purpose.
In addition, a small group of activists has worked diligently for more than a year to educate community leaders, journalists and the public at large about the perils Bolivia faces under the FTAA, and to organize that opposition into a real campaign. The first national organizing workshop, last April, drew more than 200 people - students, campesino farmers, labour leaders, environmentalists, women's leaders and others. Those people fanned out across the country to spread the word and mobilize support.
Campaigners have already accomplished a good deal more than they expected. The first step, public education, has stained the FTAA with deep public scepticism that is expressed regularly here - in public forums, radio talk shows, private conversations. The second step, to force the Government into formal discussions, is now under way. Their objective is to make participation in the FTAA subject to a referendum.
'The people understand that the politicians and the business leaders have had a monopoly over the information, the discussions and the decisions about these policies that have a huge affect on our lives,' says Olivera. 'What we're doing now is breaking that monopoly so that the people can understand, debate and decide these issues for themselves.'
A deadly new chain of political events may have an even more profound affect. In mid-February, under heavy pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to reduce the nation's budget deficit, President Sánchez de Lozada announced plans for a stiff new income tax that fell heavily on a beleaguered middle class. Protests erupted nationwide, but most especially in the capital, La Paz, where the anti-tax rebellion was led by the national police force. On 12 February (now known as 'Black Wednesday') police and other protesters ended up in a bloody day-long stand-off with military forces in the city's central plaza. More than 20 people - including a nurse, who had rushed to the aid of an injured protester - were killed, most of them at the hands of military sharpshooters.
Whatever public credibility Sánchez de Lozada still had (he was elected with just 22 per cent of the vote) he lost. In a desperate effort to save a presidency on the brink, he sacked his entire cabinet, swore non-allegiance to the IMF and even suggested a willingness to reconsider the pro-privatization economic policies that have been the hallmark of his long political career.
When you talk to the Bolivians organizing against the FTAA - especially young people - you hear about enslavement to an economic future that casts aside everything that is human and of the earth, in favour of making the world safe for the movement of goods, dollars and synthetic values.
Resistance to the FTAA is about something far deeper than an international trade accord. It has taken on the sound of a battle to protect a nation's authentic soul. In some of the most humble people in the world, the would-be makers of the economic commandments may well have met their match.
If any country in Latin America stood to gain from a trade agreement with the US it was Mexico, with its common border offering ease of transport and attractive opportunities for US investors. NAFTA has indeed benefited some groups within Mexico - especially the big export companies - but it has hurt many more. Despite respectable growth figures and an export boom, real industrial wages have fallen. The percentage of the population below the poverty line remains stubbornly high, especially in the countryside.
Mexican social movements such as the influential Mexican Network on Free Trade1 are now fanning out across the continent, telling their story and campaigning hard to prevent the next phase of the expansion of the free-trade juggernaut.
In 1990 Bush senior announced a grand plan for a free-trade zone 'stretching from the port of Anchorage to Tierra del Fuego' - while, naturally, excluding Cuba. Thirteen years later Bush the younger is hoping to finish the job. In theory, agreement should be reached by January 2005.
Washington believes it can get a better deal from the FTAA - without the opposition it faces at the World Trade Organization. In 1994 the First Summit of the Americas in Miami launched the talks undisturbed by protesters. By 1997 opposition was starting to build, with FTAA events increasingly shadowed by civil-society parallel meetings and marches, peaking in Quebec City in April 2001.
Protest continues to build. Much of it is led by the Hemispheric Social Alliance2, a continent-wide network of NGOs and trades unions. Its well-drafted Alternatives for the Americas sets out proposals across the whole spectrum of economic, political and social issues.
Two key themes run through the document: the need to subordinate economic policies to broader social and environmental goals, and to defend national sovereignty against encroachment by unaccountable bodies.
The hopes of opponents rest with Brazil. A plebiscite there in 2002 recorded an extraordinary 10 million votes against the FTAA, with only 113,000 in favour. During his election campaign Lula described it as an 'annexation project'.
© Copyright 2003 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.