WTO Primer

News & Politics

wto seattle
Protestors at the Third Ministerial of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, 1999

During the last month of 1999, young people were in Seattle to protest the Third Ministerial of the World Trade Organization (WTO). They were lying down in front of delegate busses, withstanding gallons of pepper spray and trashing corporate chain stores such as Starbucks or Nike, which were beneficiaries of WTO policies. They were clearly angry and their anger was directed at an obvious target: the WTO.

The media, controlled by the same corporations that influence US policy within the WTO, did not report the reason for this anger at the time, or even now when the event has become a landmark in the global economy. So before we talk about the Fifth Ministerial in Cancun, let's first examine the WTO and why it is pissing off not just some young people in the US, but also the many of the farmers and working people of the world.


The WTO was formed in 1995 to be the most powerful organization in the world to govern international trade. It was established as the institutionalization of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The WTO was formed as both a legislative and judicial body, both making the rules and then acting as a court where various governments can bring contentious issues to the table.

So far it doesn't seem so bad, but that is because we haven't dealt with the ideological stance of the WTO yet. The WTO is not just a meeting place and does not have neutrality when it comes to trade policies. Its stance as stated on their web site is that "liberal trade policies -- policies that allow the unrestricted flow of goods and services -- sharpen competition, motivate innovation and breed success. They multiply the rewards that result from producing the best products, with the best design, at the best price."

So what does that mean? What does all the technical jargon of neo-liberalism and free trade translate into, and what impact does it have on those who are actually affected by these policies?


cornThe 1994 Zapatista uprising is one of the starkest examples of revolt both because of its armed nature and because of the effects neo-liberal policies have had on Mexico. Corn is the staple of the Mexican diet and has been consumed for hundreds of years, finding its place in ancient Mayan civilizations and dinner tables in contemporary Mexico City. Until recently, the great majority of corn consumed in Mexico was produced by Mexican farmers, or campesinos.

The emergence of free trade, however, has had a devastating effect on the Mexican farmers. The WTO started to let US corn corporations sell corn in Mexico and because these corporations can sell corn at a lower price, Mexican farmers were put out of business.

Why is it that US corn corporations can sell corn at such a low price? Oddly enough, because of our tax dollars. Agricultural corporations receive billions of dollars in government subsidies, which pulls the price of corn below production costs. According to the British non-governmental organization (NGO) Oxfam, the corn industry in the US receives more government assistance than any other industry. In 2000 alone the US government provided 10.1 billion dollars in subsidies to transnational corporations in the corn business. As a result, the price of corn in Mexico has been brought down by 70%.

Since being put out of business, Mexican farmers such as those in the southern state of Chiapas have three options. They can either starve to death or:

1. Try to find work in the one of many US run sweatshops made possible by zero tariff policies of the WTO.

2. Try to make the dangerous and deadly journey (625 deaths in the past five years) across the Mexican-US Border to find some form of work in the US.

3. Join the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and resist globalization.


bechtel in iraq
Bechtel in Iraq.

Another established policy of the WTO, along with its sister organizations the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), is privatization. Privatization is the transfer of power to operate basic services such as water, education, electricity and healthcare from government control to private companies. These basic services, regarded as human rights by many in the world, have now become markets sought out by corporations from the US and Europe who are looking to make a profit.

The best example of this is Bechtel's privatization of water in Bolivia. The IMF and WB routinely demand structural adjustments from governments before lending them money. Part of these agreements involve the privatization of public services, such as water in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The government-owned water system was sold to Aguas del Tunari, a subsidiary of Bechtel, the same transnational corporation that now has control over the water in Iraq. As a result of this new ownership, the water rates rose 300%.

The Future

As you can see from the above examples, globalization's negative effects have been felt by poor and working people for quite some time. Those that characterize Seattle as the beginning of the counter-globalization movement are off point. Since the beginning of the adverse effects of globalization, the people of the southern hemisphere have been in continuous revolt, yet the discontentment needed to hit home for globalization to make the headlines.

In Seattle, thousands of young people were taking militant, direct action in many different forms. In addition to shutting down the WTO meetings, these young people indirectly publicized radical politics to the mainstream. Whether through the corporate filter of the television screen or through conversations with their friends, a large number of people were exposed to radical politics (anarchism in particular, the ideological framework around which the majority of direct action had been planned) and the anti-globalization movement.

Protestors in Seattle launched (unknowingly) a new wave of street protests within the rich countries of the world. From Washington, D.C. to Prague to Quebec City, the streets of the "developed world" were rocked to their foundations by thousands of radicals filled with rage against capitalist greed and solidarity for all the oppressed people around the globe.

Read about WTO protests in Cancun.

Ali Tonak and Tessa Brudevold-Iversen are affiliated with the Independent Media Center

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