Ali Tonak

The Marine at the Youth March

I arrived at Columbus Circle for the Youth and Student Feeder March organized by the Youth RNC Welcoming Committee at 9:15 AM. This was to be one of the many feeder marches converging in Union square for the massive anti-Republican National Convention march planned by United for Peace and Justice. On my way to the meeting point I had memories of the Youth and Student Feeder March in February of 2003, which was organized by an unnamed coalition of students from a multitude of schools in New York. At the time I was studying at a small liberal arts college with a student body of only a thousand students in upstate New York and we organized over 200 students to attend the anti-war actions in the city.

The recollection of the day still sends a chill down my spine. We, the students and young people numbering over a thousand, were full of rage and defiance against an administration which was about to send our peers over to kill innocent Iraqis over geopolitical domination. We weren't intimidated. And we took the streets in open refusal of police orders.

Sunday's march had a much smaller crowd, about three hundred. This was in part because most schools haven't started their fall semesters, but also because the war now feels less present in our lives. Our hopes of stopping the War from starting energized and inspired people to take action a year and a half ago. The media's spotty coverage of the ongoing atrocities in Iraq further the public's increasing sense of detachment about our military endeavors abroad.

The organizers of the march were easy to identify by their red t-shirts and gold armbands. Two young women were negotiating with the police with the help of a legal observer from the National Lawyers Guild. Lieutenant O'Brien finally caved into Monique and Leah's assertive negotiation and allowed them to take up one lane on 5th Avenue for their un-permitted march.

While all the negotiations were going on, Jared, 23, from Parsons School of Design was leading chants for the other young marchers. He said his plan for the week was to "make sure that the delegates have a shitty time" and to drive out the Republicans responsible for “the war on Iraq." He thinks that the police are being "ridiculous in their militarization of the convention.” Jared also said he believed that such a show of force “can only become provocative."

A big factor during large-scale protests is the pens that the police use to limit the movement of dissenters. For Jared, these pens are a great source of intimidation and he believes they keep many immigrants and people of color from participating. Since once you are within a pen you cannot get out without the permission of the police, those without an ID and those vulnerable within what he calls “the racist system” are taking a great risk just to be there. He echoes the frustration that many young people in the United States have with the two-party system and tells me that he plans to vote for Ralph Nader on November 2nd.

As people slowly line up, getting ready to march, someone whom I had noticed watching the congregation from a distance walks up to us and asks for a cigarette. He is dressed all black and a shining cross hangs from his neck. I feel a sudden gravitation towards this young man and follow him to the side of the park where he sits glaring at the protesters. He is clearly uneasy speaking with me, one of the protesters, and it takes a while and a few more cigarettes until we are able to speak comfortably.

Mike tells me he joined the Marines when he was 17. Now he is 24 and lives in Central Park. While Jared represented the radical end of the political spectrum of youth (he is a member of the International Socialist Organization), Mike is a perfect example of how serious the alienation of many American youth has become.

Mike is not just any young person but, he tells me he is a young soldier who has served both in Afganistan (in the Tora Bora region) and in Iraq as a sniper with one of the Infantry divisions. He says he is not going to vote because he doesn't think it matters. He says he is afraid that the Democrats will bring some soldiers back and leave the rest there, further out-numbered. He believes that they should all be brought back. All he can think about when he sees the anti-war protesters is his friends still fighting in Iraq.

I asked Mike whether or not the military helps him out at all. First he replies "When I came back I ripped my dog-tags off" and then he corrects himself, "I mean, I locked them away." Mike tells me he is, essentially, a fugitive. He has not reported back to his unit and is hoping for an honorable discharge at some point in the future. He also tells me he is conflicted about the war, the military and politics. He is angry at the president but he thinks that he must be respected. He feels that it is OK to protest ("It's the first amendment, right?") but it is definitely not OK to disrespect the president, and it is unacceptable to cuss at him. "After all, he is the President," Mike says.

I am intrigued by both the vast differences and the incredible similarities between Mike with the hundreds who have already marched off leaving me behind to converse further with him. He has respect for the police and feels for the officers who won't be able to go home to their families on time. Most radical young people regard the institution of law enforcement as the “unrelenting iron fist of the State.” And only some of them are able to see that policemen and women are also being exploited and used against should-be allies.

Mike is a soldier but he is also aware that the military did not allow him his first amendment rights, which he clearly values. While he was serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, he says, he would send back four page letters to his family only to hear later that they had arrived drastically shortened and censored.

After about half an hour of talking with Mike I am sure that he wants to join the marchers, but he decides against it. He says it is because of his fugitive military status and his fear that the protests could get violent. But I understand it is also because of the political fence he is sitting on. I say goodbye and get on my bicycle, completely bewildered by our conversation. This was not what I expected, coming to the “Bush-bashing event of the year.”

By the time I reach the march, it has had grown and stretched for about a street block. The chants are electrifying all of 5th Ave and bystanders are stopping to watch the protests they have heard so much about on the news. When they see that we are not violent, nor hostile, most people give the thumbs-up and applaud in support.

The crowd chanted: "Books Not Bombs!" "While You're Shopping, Bombs Are Dropping!" "Hey Hey! Ho Ho! The RNC Has Got to go!" and "No Justice! No Peace! US Out of The Middle East!" I was chanting, as well, but my mind was still in Central Park with the young Marine. The Youth and Student March was energetic and lively but I asked myself, “What about the youth and the students who are still in Iraq? Would these young people come back and stage their own feeder marches to anti-war demonstrations and repeat the history of the Vietnam War? Would this be the mass movement necessary to stopping this war and to changing the system? Or would they end up alienated, outside the system like Mike?

After marching for 40 blocks we finally arrived to join the tens of thousands of protestors at Union Square. Confronted with the liberals holding Kerry/Edwards signs I remembered Mike's reaction when I asked who he voted for in 2000. First he snickered, then he replied, "I voted for Bush... in Florida."

What is the FTAA?

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This week the city of Miami will be hosting an international meeting of all the governments of the Western Hemisphere (except for the communist government of Cuba). The topic of the meeting is the highly controversial Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The FTAA is an expansion of the now 10-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which eliminated trade restrictions between Canada, the US, and Mexico.

In its previous gathering in Quebec City, Canada in 2001, the FTAA was met with incredible resistance where the perimeter fence protecting those at the meeting from the voices of dissent (yes, there will be a fence in Miami as well) was torn down and the Canadian police were overwhelmed by the amount of people actively resisting the summit.

But why were so many people protesting in Quebec City, and why are thousands of protestors, many of them young people, going to Miami to protest? In order to better understand how the proposed expansion of a continental free trade zone could negatively affect the rest of the countries in central and southern America, it is useful to look at what NAFTA has done for the people of Mexico and the US.

NAFTA allows free trade between Canada, Mexico, and the US. This may sound like a good thing for the economies of the countries, but working people of North America and the environment have suffered negative consequences.

Workers and Farmers

ftaa flyer
A flyer for the protests.

Seven years into NAFTA, the minimum wage in Mexico has dropped 18 percent while the manufacturing wage has dropped 21 percent. The drop in manufacturing wages has come with the increase of maquiladoras, which are factories established within Mexico that are run in sweatshop conditions. During these first seven years of NAFTA the number of maquiladoras in Mexico jumped from 546,433 to 1,240,840 (more than double). These jobs, however, did not come out of nowhere, but are jobs that had once resided in the US. Many companies have escaped south of the border for cheaper labor and lax environmental laws. While the number of US workers that have lost their jobs due to NAFTA is not available, as of June 2001, 356,000 workers had qualified for a special retraining program for workers whose previous employees had moved to Mexico or Canada or had shut down due to competition from these countries.

One of the counter arguments against this critique is that the corporations that move to Mexico are providing a source of income for the population by providing them with work. This is not the case as the number of people living in poverty has actually increased by about 10%, even though productivity has also increased by 47.7 percent.

Also, many of the employees of the newly formed maquiladoras were not necessarily unemployed from the start. The central aspect of free trade, as the name implies, is the free flow of goods into and out of countries without any imposition of tariffs. As a result, large farming corporations from the US have flooded the Mexican market with cheaper crops. Farmers who have traditionally relied on agriculture for their sustenance and income have not been able to compete with the large American corporations and have been pushed to working in maquiladoras.

The Environment

The effect that NAFTA has had on the environment is especially devastating. Corporations that are constantly looking to maximize their profits are cutting their costs, and the environment is paying the price. According to research done at Tufts University, air pollution levels in Mexico have doubled in the three years following the implementation of NAFTA. While US and Canadian corporations benefit from NAFTA, they do so at the expense of the Mexican environment.

Those who participated in the creation of NAFTA -- many of them the same people who reside on the boards that govern corporations -- have not considered protecting their own environment. One of the starkest examples of this is a case brought forward by Canadian corporation Methanex.

Under Chapter 11 of NAFTA, corporations are able to sue governments for profit losses (whether they actually lost profits or potentially might lose profits). In 1999 Methanex attempted to sue the state of California for $1 billion because of a ban on MTBE. MTBE, a gasoline additive, was banned due to the environmental and health impact it had in polluting groundwater. Methanex was claiming that this ban was a trade barrier. The NAFTA panel that examined the case refused to award Methanex the $1 billion in estimated losses.

The environment and people of Mexico have not been as lucky as those of California. In 1997, US corporation Metalclad sued the Mexican government for a local decision to stop the construction of a hazardous landfill near the city of Guadalcazur in the state of San Luis Potosi. After three years the NAFTA panel decided that the Mexican Government was to pay $16.5 million in damages to Metalclad.

FTAA: Bigger and Worse

The FTAA would effectively expand NAFTA to all of the western hemisphere. By opening up the markets of large economies such as Brazil and Argentina, the FTAA would crush the local autonomy of indigenous communities, put labor under immense pressure from corporate control, and devastate one of the world's most biodiverse environments.

Why are the leaders of these countries allowing such horrible trade agreements to literally take control of the internal affairs of their countries? The answer is twofold. First of all, they are left without a lot of options since most of the governments of Latin America are already underneath a huge amount of international debt accumulated by years of borrowing from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and now are in a disadvantaged negotiating position. Their unstable economies enable the US to strong-arm the countries of Latin America who are desperate for stability and relief from financial burden.

The second part of the answer lies in the true nature of most Latin American governments. While in recent years great changes have taken place in electoral politics all over Latin America (Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina), most of the leaders still represent the economically privileged class and race of their countries. Indigenous representation is still far from realization and many leaders are also investors looking to profit from free trade agreements through relationships with multinational corporations.

This misrepresentation is being challenged today with popular uprisings across the hemisphere (and soon in Miami).

This past October in Bolivia, a huge revolt led by indigenous and working people ousted the president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (Goni) because of his insistence in implementing neo-liberal policies. He fled with his family, interior circle of ministers (including the minister of defense who undoubtedly would have been held accountable for the 80 civilian deaths that had occurred in the past month during protests) and $85 million from the National Bank. His current location is particularly significant because it is none other than the city of Miami... and while Goni might be safe in Florida, his ideals, embodied in the FTAA, are not.

Read more: Why are people protesting the FTAA? | Day One | Day Two | Day Three

Ali Tonak graduated from Bard College after studying molecular biology. He is currently employed as a construction worker.

Source of statistics:

The Real Cancun

greetings from cancunCancun is infamous for its never-ending strip of hotels, interrupted only by bars and clubs. It has one purpose, and that is the fulfillment of every rich tourist’s desire. It is intentionally divided into several parts, and is always expanding to fit the number of settlers coming here to find jobs.

Most tourists never leave the Zona Hotelera, the long row of expensive shops, hotels, restaurants, and bars. It is designed so that no American will feel far from home, with McDonalds, KFC, Hard Rock Cafe and Margaritaville right around the corner. And for the more exotic tastes there is always the Rainforest Cafe. Through the middle of all of this runs the "street of opportunity," where one is able to acquire drugs of one’s choosing.

Going down Avenue Kukulkan, a long strip of golf courses and polluted lagoons, you come along Km. 0, the point at which the scenery begins to change. Still there are the multinationals like Pizza Hut and OfficeMax. The hotels are gone, as well as the beach and most of the gringos. Here are the markets and smaller “quainter” restaurants. Here is where the tourists would come to experience some “culture.” Beyond this is unknown to them.

Not far away are the barrios that are overflowing with those without work. The myth has spread like wildfire. People have surged here in the hope of attaining success by the power of the dollar. Now, all of the positions are filled, and even with knowledge of English there is little hope of ever finding work.

Here, in these neighborhoods, there is often no fresh water or electricity, and no sewage treatment plants. The groundwater is contaminated from sewage runoff, so self-sufficiency is hopeless. Education is often ignored in the face of poverty, and drugs have become a useful response to the boredom that goes along with it.

wto logo cancunThe lagoons are becoming polluted by leakage from the hotels. The very attractions which support the infrastructure of Cancun, the beaches and the sea, are perishing under the weight of capitalism. This means that Cancun is dying, and with it goes the whole population of Cancun. Those who have built Cancun will surely go down with it, while only those who profit will escape, unharmed.

It was in Cancun, against this contradictory backdrop of luxury and poverty, that the Fifth World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial Conference was held from September 10th to 14th, 2003. It was also where activists from around the world converged with workers and farmers to bring light to the economic issues threatening their existence.

Need some background on the WTO? Click here.

Independent Media Center

independent media logoOne of the main reasons why we braved the tourist hell was to set up the Independent Media Center (IMC). The Independent Media Center is a vast network of independent journalists around the world who strive to produce an alternative to the corporate media coverage experienced by most of the global population. It was started during the Third WTO Ministerial in Seattle which took place in 1999, and from there it has multiplied exponentially to 120 centers around the world.

Four years later, the IMC is continuing its coverage of social and political issues surrounding neo-liberalism at the Fifth WTO Ministerial Conference in Cancun. In addition to the IMC in Chiapas, Mexico, the heartland of the Zapatista rebellion, Independent Media Centers have been active in south and central America in the last couple of years. IMCs have been covering the uprising initiated in Argentina against neo-liberalism in the winter of 2001 and similar struggles in countries such as Columbia, Ecuador, Brazil and Guatemala.

The Preparation

The WTO Ministerial in Cancun was an opportunity for campesinos (Mexican farmers) to confront one of the many institutions that imposed a lifestyle of poverty upon them. Demonstrators from all over the world were also coming to Cancun to voice their solidarity with the campesino struggle and show how widespread and far-reaching the economic effects of WTO policies are.

Since the Third WTO Ministerial in Seattle, which was marked by a huge wave of protests and riots, dissidents had been waiting for another chance to confront the WTO. The Fourth WTO Ministerial in 2001 was held in remote Doha, Qatar under military protection, which meant that activists could not access the meeting. Cancun, however, was a difficult but feasible location where real people could confront the businessmen and women who sought to increase free-trade.

Most protestors assume that demonstrations happen spontaneously. Housing seems to magically appear, and food is somehow provided for thousands of people. This is obviously not the case, and Cancun was an especially difficult place to organize, which emphasizes the importance of many people arriving early to pitch in their effort.

Cancun was an especially difficult place to organize.

Being a tourist city, Cancun was politically void of any opposition to the governing forces, and any opposition was strongly oppressed and discouraged. Also, the hotel zone, where the talks were being held, is located on a peninsula, making it easy to block off from the downtown district. There were also financial difficulties to confront. Cancun caters to rich tourists and is a very expensive place, relative to the rest of Mexico. The combination of all these factors proved to be a challenge to organizational skills, and resources were taxed.

What is always required in atmospheres of difficulty and oppression is solidarity. This is another vital reason for early presence. We needed a local opinion to help us with our work and had the good fortune to meet two young activists from Mexico City who arrived one month before the protests started. They served as a channel of communication between planners in Mexico City and activists on the ground. They also provided the desperately needed presence of Mexican organizers.

Alternative Meetings

The dissent towards the WTO kicked off during the first week of September. Media activists joined to organize the Hurukan Alternative Media and Technology Convergence, which was created to focus and coordinate coverage for the protests, as well as share information regarding alternative forms of media. Over 120 media revolutionaries gathered to plot against Clear Channel and other media giants, and workshops such as radio building and Internet streaming were conducted, which later resulted in coverage of the protests through a variety of media. The Convergence connected social movements from the south with the media activists from the north and provided the groundwork for the Cancun Independent Media Center.

In addition to media activists, fisherman, unions, campesinos, indigenous organizations, Zapatista university students and anarchist punks were formulating their strategies against globalization.

In addition to media activists, fisherman, unions, campesinos, indigenous organizations, Zapatista university students and anarchist punks were formulating their strategies against globalization before the WTO Ministerial. All of these groups had their alternative forums and intellectual gatherings to discuss the problems with globalization and the best strategies to start moving the wheel of change.

The forums brought together many of the top writers and thinkers on the issue of globalization with the people who are directly harmed by its effects. While some organizations decided to have their forums inside of the Zona Hotelera, most decided to have their alternative forum outside so that it could be attended by the general public without the hindrance of security forces. In fact, the Mexican government did make attempts to stop the meetings of the International Forum on Globalization, which was taking place inside the security parameter.

Throughout the events there was an unspoken agreement among the thousands who had arrived in Cancun that the clock was ticking towards the beginning of the WTO meetings and the start of street actions. While there was a well-attended student march on September 9th, the real kickoff came with the campesino-initiated march on September 10, the first day of the Ministerial.

Rage at the Barricades

The end of the Campesino Forum, put forth by the largest farmers' organization in the world, Via Campesina, brought the beginning of the street actions. Thousands of farmers and their supporters marched in unison from Casa de la Cultura (House of Culture), where the Campesino Forum took place and where the students and the farmers set up their encampments during the demonstrations. The tone of militancy, commitment and sacrifice was present in every chant that came from the massive crowd. “Zapata VIVE VIVE!” (Long Live Zapata!) shouted someone in the crowd and the franchise-ridden streets of Cancun answered, “La Lucha SIGUE SIGUE!” (The struggle goes on).

lee kyung-hae
Lee Kyung-Hae

Of all of the diverse groups that came out to protest on this arid September day, the most intriguing were undoubtedly the 180 farmers from South Korean organizations and unions. As the march came 100 feet from the metal barriers separating the public from the WTO Ministerial, the Korean contingent left the main march and moved to the head, directly in front of the barricades. Immediately the barricade was scaled and two Koreans stood on top of it triumphantly. One of them was wearing a plaid shirt with a sign over his neck which read, “WTO kills Farmers.” This man lead the crowd in a chant as he repeated “WTO Kills Farmers!” three times. Moments after this, still on the barricades, he pulled out his knife and stabbed himself directly in the heart, falling into the crowd beneath him.

Not fully comprehending the dramatic event that had just occurred, the crowd continued its relentless attack on the barricade and the police who were standing behind them. Members of Via Campesina tore behind the barricades and attacked the police officers' plexiglas shields. Eventually the fence had a gaping hole, leaving a line of the police exposed. The militants continued on, with the Korean contingent in the lead. They attacked the police with anything in hand, from rocks to metal poles to karate kicks.

After an hour of this it was realized that even if this line of police was beaten here at Km. 0, there was no possibility of making it to the convention center, past the eight checkpoints on the way. The symbolic destruction of the fence was ended as the news of Lee Kyung-Hae’s death was being whispered amongst the crowd.

The Korean delegation was just as shocked at Lee’s final act of desperation as were the thousands attending the protest. Lee Kyung-Hae had been on a relentless struggle against the WTO after farm subsidies awarded by rich governments ruined his rice patties and his family’s subsistence. He had gone on a hunger strike at the front steps of the 1998 WTO Ministerial in Geneva and issued a press statement to bring meaning to his actions.

After his suicide in Cancun, the elite of the WTO refused to acknowledge the significance of this action and presented this as a non-event. Instead they should have read his words from Geneva:

“I am 56 years old, a farmer from South Korea who has strived to solve our problems ourselves with a great hope in farmer’s unions, but I have mostly failed as have many other farm leaders elsewhere.

Soon after the Uruguay Round (UR) Agreement was settled, we Korean farmers realized that our destinies are already out of our hands. Further, so powerlessly of ourselves, we could not do anything but watch the waves destroy our lovely rural communities that had been settled over the hundred years. To make myself brave, I have searched for the real reasons and major forces of those waves. Reaching to my conclusion now here in Geneva, at the front gate of the WTO, I am crying out my words to you that have boiled so long in my body.

My warning goes to all citizens that human beings are in an endangered situation that uncontrolled multinational corporations and a small number of big WTO official members are leading a globalization of inhumane, environmentally degrading, farmer-killing and undemocratic policies. It should be stopped immediately, otherwise the false logic of neo-liberalism will kill the diversity of global agriculture with disastrous consequences to all human beings.”

Mexican Students

Mexican students (a majority of them from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) showed a strong commitment to powerful resistance against the WTO's policies. They were instrumental in bringing the fence down on the first day of the Ministerial and later on teamed up with foreign activists to organize an invasion of the convention center. On the third day of the Ministerial, hundreds of people leaked into the hotel zone in cabs and on public buses. Everyone was able to fool the various checkpoints along the way under the cover of being tourists.

Everyone was able to fool the various checkpoints along the way under the cover of being tourists.

Just as the delegates were coming out of the meetings and returning to their hotels and restaurants, dozens of activists jumped into the streets and blocked both directions in the only road in the hotel zone, completely shutting down the tourist center. Ultimately, through negotiation, an agreement was reached with the police and two buses were brought to shuttle the activists back to Km. 0, where there was an ongoing vigil and encampment commemorating Lee’s life.

The bus ride turned into an incredible opportunity for all of the blockade participants as they rode on top of the bus, chanting throughout the Hotel Zone on their way out. The determination of the students was inspiring for everyone there, especially the youth from other countries, including hundreds of young activists from the US.


In addition to alternative forums and street action, protesters also found ways to show their dissent through the use of media. The week of the WTO Ministerial proved how well-prepared people were for thorough alternative coverage. Journalists, photographers, and videographers were everywhere, with little room it seemed, for the protestors. This allowed for a lot of cooperative work and networking for future coverage of ideas and events. It also resulted in projects such as "Km. 0," the documentary that was spit out in two days after the demonstrations. There were also other projects, such as a film festival showing "The Fourth World War," a recent film from Big Noise. Another result was Radio Hurukan, an FM radio station that was set-up as a result of the media convergence.

NGOs Realize the Power of Action

cornpileAccording to David Martinez, filmmaker and writer from Texas, one thing that became clear in Cancun is that the non-government organizations (NGOs) were following in the footsteps of those in the street. This was demonstrated by the number of spontaneous actions and disruptions by NGOs of the WTO meetings. In one instance, the environmental organization, Greenpeace, poured kernels of Mexican corn on the table where the US government was having its press conference to protest the destruction of Mexican corn. In another instance a vigil was organized for Lee, within the walls of the WTO.

We also witnessed what was probably the most visible expression of dissent within the NGO wing of the participants when the meetings came to a collapse on the last day of the Ministerial. As the US Trade Representative’s Press Meeting was coming to an end, a woman from the back of the briefing room yelled out, “There are some delegates outside who are saying that they are pulling out, can you comment on this?”

US Trade Representative deputy Josette Sheeran Shiner replied, “I will go outside and see what is happening.” When she went out she was greeted by massive commotion on the floor. Multiple representatives from developing nations were holding press conferences and announcing that they were pulling out of the negotiations. This was the culmination of a bitter struggle between the Group of 21 (G-21) countries and the US and European Union over agriculture and issues relating to investment.

While the G-21 countries were making their dramatic pullout, those in solidarity with these poorer nations were flooding the main hall of the convention center. Some were singing songs against US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and others were embracing each other with teary eyes.

The Future of the Movement and the End of Neo-liberalism

The Cancun Ministerial was one with extreme expectations and, ultimately, extreme implications for both sides of the issue. There was a clear victory on the side of the thousands in the street. Cancun will become an energizing factor to the counter-globalization movement.

Those affected by the horrors of free trade demonstrated that they are still ready to put up forceful resistance to corporate globalization in defense of working people and the planet. The purveyors of free trade are now faced by organized resistance on the part of the developing nations. A majority of these nations that said no to the bullies of the WTO are from south and central America and the Caribbean (Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Guatemala).

This presents an interesting challenge at the upcoming negotiations of the Free Trade Area of The Americas (FTAA) in Miami during the third week of November. Both to activists and neo-liberals, the FTAA negotiations in Miami represent the next round in the free trade agenda. The countdown has begun, the CEOs are in a panic and the counter-globalization force in the US is preparing for its biggest surprise since Seattle.

Ali Tonak graduated from Bard College after studying molecular biology. He is currently employed as a construction worker. Tessa Brudevold-Iversen recently graduated from Bard College, where she studied ecopsychology. She currently lives in San Fransisco and loves to ride her bike, sleep, and cook/eat vegan food.

WTO Primer

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

Happy Holidays!