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Soren Ambrose © 2003

 

 
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[This is Part Two of this article. Click here for Part One]

It was clear at the opening press conference that the group saw its actions in a historical context, beyond the economic aims of their trade agendas. And it was clear that the leaders of the largest Global South countries perceived the global justice movement and the protests it has mounted as a key part of that context, and one it wanted to claim for its side. Amorim, the Brazilian foreign minister, concluded the session by declaring that it might previously have appeared that the fight for social justice was going on outside the WTO meeting rooms, while we focused narrowly on specific issues. Now we hope you will see that we have brought the struggle inside.

As the negotiations dragged on, and after the talks collapsed, U.S. officials blamed the G-20+, though seldom by name. According to people who saw his final press conference, the lead U.S. delegate, Robert Zoellick, was clearly driven to distraction by the collapse of the talks. His threats to shift the U.S. focus to bilateral trade treaties, such as those recently concluded with Morocco, Singapore, and Chile, seem likely to go forward, even though the E.U. and WTO officials say they further complicate the global system. In fact, the U.S. has already been adopting this strategy, moving forward in negotiations for sub-regional pacts like the Central American Free Trade Agreement and a Southern Africa Free Trade Agreement. (The Free Trade Area of the Americas [FTAA] is another matter -- with Brazil at the center of it, it more closely resembles the WTO talks than these smaller arrangements.) The U.S. has nearly unlimited leverage in those sub-regional and bilateral agreements, and can maneuver countries into giving in on more issues than are brought up at the WTO. Chile, for example, pledged to abolish its capital controls, which were long pointed to as the model for Southern countries wanting to exercise some control over hot money foreign investments that can be quickly pulled out of a country at the hint of panic.

Tempting as it may be to see the governments of the G-20+ as warrior-heroes facing down the evil empires of the North, we should not lose sight of the fact that they are all political formations too, many of them unsavory or at least as prone to self-serving, corrupt actions as our own. India’s fundamentalist-fascist government is not likely to become a progressive model as a result of being a leader in the G-20+, and China is not going to adopt a new conception of human rights. Indeed, it would be foolhardy to spend too much time trying to trace the history and character of the G-20+ or create a fan club, when the group itself may well shift form, split apart, or evaporate in the relatively near future. Toward the end of the Cancún meeting, there were rumors -- still unsubstantiated -- that certain countries in the G-20+, including Brazil and China, were eager to find a way to make some sort of deal.

A case could be made that the real mavericks, the ones who would not abandon their unity or their positions, were those in what became known as the G-32 or G-33 (lets call it G-30+ for consistency). Drawn largely from the ACP group (Africa-Caribbean-Pacific, from a trade treaty between the E.U. and the more impoverished exporting nations), the G30+ was usually represented by Indonesia, and did have other overlaps with the G-20+. But the bulk of its membership was the poorest countries, particularly in Africa. In distinction from the G20+ groups that sought cuts in Northern subsidies and access to Northern markets, the G30+ was focused on special products -- that is, identifying a range of agricultural commodities, perhaps different from country to country, that governments could protect without penalty (e.g. prohibiting the importation of rice in a country with rice farmers vulnerable to dumping of cheaper rice grown in the U.S.). It was also fully committed to resisting the Singapore issues that the E.U. and Japan wanted to force into the Cancun statement.

The G-30+ did not have the high profile of the other group, and had a less active media strategy. But in political terms its aims -- maintaining unity in the face of intense pressure from the North -- were similar, and its success at least as great. There were efforts to unite the two groups, and reports on the fourth day that a large group of African countries was close to joining the G-20+ as a bloc. Indeed, remarks made by the Argentinean trade minister at the G-20+ debut press conference -- that the group gave equal priority to the three pillars of the Southern agricultural agenda, namely market access, elimination of Northern subsidies, and protection for farmers -- seemed part of the campaign to lure the poorer countries over. In the end they were not persuaded in time, but it did not matter a great deal. The two groups were clearly cooperating strategically. The take-home idea from Cancún will be, as intended by both the G-20+ and the G-30+, that the South will not be easily broken in future trade negotiations at the WTO, and perhaps other fora as well. Even if all the G’s become obsolete in a matter of months, it is that specter that will haunt Zoellick and his E.U. counterpart, Pascal Lamy, from now on.

Anatomy of the Final Standoff

It is one of the measures of the distortions of global trade negotiations that in analyzing Cancún, few commentators in the mainstream press have questioned the notion that one of the Southern-country blocs is responsible for the failure at Cancún. In the sense that they acted out of (previous) character, that’s true, but that strategy was basically to roll over and play dead. The implicit idea, made explicit by some, is that all of the Southern governments have simultaneously been captured by radicals; Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Josette Shiner even went on the PBS NewsHour with Jamaica’s chief negotiator Richard Bernal and said she thought the developing countries were getting poor advice from NGOs like Oxfam. Apart from the bold effrontery necessary to go on national television and accuse a high-ranking official from another government who is seated next to you of borrowing his positions and strategies from an NGO, Shiner seemed to be asking viewers to accept that every Southern country from Mali to China was also content to leave their strategizing and policy making up to Oxfam. It is hardly the first time that the Bush Administration has demonstrated a commitment to ideological positions so strong that officials accuse, and even seem to actually believe, that other countries could have no rational reason for opposing U.S. wisdom, but it never ceases to be breathtaking.

It’s not that all the governments of the G-20+ and G-30+ were suddenly infected with anti-imperialist fervor. Most of them want to make trade deals with the U.S., E.U., and Japan -- many of them are downright desperate to do so to get more hard currency. But the recognition that the WTO, and indeed the entire global economic system, is rigged to keep them in the role of suppliers of cheap labor and cheap commodities has finally become undeniable even for trade and commerce ministers trained at schools like the London School of Economics or veterans of places like the World Bank.

Whether one considers the collapse promising or distressing, it should be clear that the real obstructionists were the Northern countries. The U.S. took the lead in remaining intransigent on agriculture concessions, and the European Union and Japan staffed the barricades on the Singapore issues. It was their unwillingness to give any ground, not the new refusal by the South to insist that they deal openly and fairly, that prevented progress toward an agreement. Although agriculture got the great bulk of the attention during the meeting, it was lack of common ground on the Singapore issues that led the Mexican hosts to declare the meeting over. And on those issues, the G-30+ were merely standing by the terms agreed to at the 2001 summit in Doha; it was the E.U. and Japan (and, oddly, South Korea, which swings between Northern and Southern identities) which took a new hardline position and refused to budge.

In Doha, under pressure to show support for the United States in the weeks after the 11 September attacks and send a reassuring message to the global economy, the countries of the South were reluctantly drawn into an ambiguous declaration initiating the Doha development round of negotiations -- so named as an inducement to the South, which was told that the rich countries would allow the development needs of the poorer countries to weigh more heavily than the usual imperatives of corporate profit during this round of talks. In the run-up to Cancún, many commentators and Southern country officials were complaining that the North had not carried through on its promise; by the time they got to Cancún the cynicism of that pledge was old news, and hardly even mentioned.

Doha ended in a chaotic jumble, after several extensions of the final session (ultimately reaching 38 consecutive hours). Having exhausted their counterparts from smaller delegations and won a number of concessions, the U.S. and its allies finally had to make one concession, by accepting the Indian governments insistence that negotiations on the Singapore issues-- the effort to agree on common rules for investment, competition policy, government procurement, and trade facilitation (customs procedures, etc.) -- could go forward only if and when WTO member countries approved with explicit consensus. Such phrases, which have no precise legal definition, often turn out to be the key to trade agreements. The object is to come up with an expression that all parties think could be interpreted to mean what they want to hear. Usually the side with the best lawyers wins in the end, but in this case, explicit consensus turned out to be vital to the Southern position.

When the WTO was created in 1995, at the culmination of the Uruguay round of talks under the predecessor organization, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the U.S. and its allies successfully insisted on the inclusion of a number of issues which had been excluded from GATT talks. Notable among those were agriculture, the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which applies to commerce in everything from insurance to water provision to postal delivery and has yet to fully come into effect, and Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), or patents, which has been the source of the international debate on pricing of HIV/AIDS medications and other life-saving drugs that can be manufactured cheaply by producers of generics. That last controversy was temporarily resolved just before Cancún with an agreement between the pharmaceutical industry and the U.S., E.U., Brazil, South Africa and Kenya -- an agreement widely, though not universally, denounced by HIV/AIDS advocacy groups.

The inclusion of each of those issues, which, with the exception of agriculture, had not been considered part of trade, in the new WTO was considered a significant concession by many developing countries. Government procurement, competition policy, trade facilitation, and investment were successfully put off until the first WTO summit, held in Singapore (hence the Singapore issues).

Almost no Global South countries declared themselves in favor of opening negotiations on any of those issues. Coming into Cancún, seventy countries joined in an unequivocal rejection of taking them up. During the course of the meeting that number swelled to ninety. It seemed that no one could possibly argue that explicit consensus to go forward existed.

The World Development Movement, a British NGO, clearly knew better. The E.U. had made clear that it wanted all four issues to go forward, so the WDM made badge holders -- the nylon necklaces that hold picture-identification credentials at meetings like the WTO’s -- with the phrase “Explicit Consensus” printed in English, French, Spanish, Arabic, and Hindi. They were widely distributed, and became the subject of a ban on the conferences fourth day. Security personnel were ordered to confiscate them at all entrances for several hours, until someone pointed out that the action would probably not pass a Mexican constitutional test. A WDM t-shirt, with the words explicit and consensus given simple dictionary definitions, was less common, perhaps because demand was so high: the Brazilian delegation was said to have ordered ten of them immediately.

The WDM folk weren’t the only ones that arrived with props. From out of nowhere a document from the government of Niger (sound familiar?) which seemed to express interest in supporting the Singapore issues started circulating; it was soon revealed to be out-of-date and from a low-level bureaucrat. Then Togo, a tiny country with the longest-reigning dictator on the African continent, indicated it would support the new issues. The rest of the African countries repudiated Togo’s stand.

The E.U. stuck by its position. Never addressing the question of explicit consensus, Pascal Lamy, together with his Japanese and Korean counterparts, insisted that a commitment to begin negotiations on the Singapore issues should be included in the final declaration. A last-minute offer by Lamy to drop the two more controversial issues, competition policy and investment, was not enough. The G-30+, and many other countries as well, saw the E.U. position as an unbearably arrogant dismissal of clearly-articulated positions by a majority of WTO member countries. After quick consultations with its African partners, the Kenyan delegation was the first to say that there could be no compromise with Lamy, and a member of the delegation was sent down the escalator to the media center to tell the throng of reporters its over.

What’s It All Mean?

The simplest assessment is that it means no changes in the status quo: the round is stalemated for now, though there will be attempts, however faint, to revive it in Geneva in the months to come. And it means the next WTO summit, set for Hong Kong in either late 2004 or early 2005, could be the last gasp of the Doha round. The WTO may become more of an administrative body, interpreting treaties and adjudicating disputes rather than hosting negotiations.

For Northern governments it can be taken a sharp repudiation of the coercive negotiating tactics they have used since Southern countries first entered the GATT. There have been calls from many parts of Europe for Lamy to resign. A different perspective is offered by The Economist, the British weekly of the elite classes: for its editors, Cancún is the most vivid sign that Southern countries have been given too loud a voice in international fora. It recommends following the lead of the Bush Administration, with its firm squelching of Africa’s request for slightly expanded board representation at the World Bank and IMF.

For Southern governments it is positive reinforcement for the impulse to at last refuse the exploitation of the North. While there may well be occasions to regret emboldening Southern governments (like any government), for the balance of the world economy, world peace, world ecology, and the welfare of the people of the world, a more assertive South and more equitable power relations are necessities.

For people in both the North and South, its good news. It means a greater chance for peace, fair trade, decent livelihoods, dignity, healthy food, a more sustainable ecology, and a global sense of solidarity.

For the global justice movement, Cancún takes its place in the honor roll of victories that includes Seattle and the freezing of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) in 1997-98. Ironically, it was the attempt to revive the MAI in the form of the Singapore issues investment provisions that sealed the fate of the Cancún talks.

Cancún should be publicized as a major victory for the global justice movement even though the result was not precisely a direct result of the movements efforts. In fact, it is not too far-fetched to say that that is the reason it should be celebrated. The resolve of government negotiators in Cancún to stand up to the Northern plutocracy was undoubtedly created, in part, and significantly reinforced by the pressure mounted by the movement. From the policy wonks at organizations like Focus on the Global South, Third World Network, ActionAid and yes, Oxfam, to the vivid, courageous, and persistent street demonstrations proclaiming an abiding belief in people before profits, the movement was indispensable to the triumph in Cancún. It is a rare occasion when we can join with government officials in celebration, but if the movement is able to sustain the momentum and the pressure, it may be the beginning of a positive shift in the way governments deal with social movements, with their own constituents, and with those who would exploit their people; it may even be the start of the political paradigm shift so many have been working for.

The Immediate Future

Lest the movement give into the temptation to euphoria, it should immediately be said that history recommends preparation for betrayals and buy-offs. But it should also be said that there are other indications of a positive shift: in the same week as the Cancún meetings, Argentina was able to negotiate a new deal with the IMF to re-schedule its massive debt to the institution. By exercising its power as a large debtor (when you owe the bank $100 it owns you; when you owe the bank $100 million, you own it), and wielding the support of its neighbors and others, Argentina successfully resisted most of the key demands made by the IMF, including dramatic hikes in utility rates and increased mortgage foreclosures. Such successful bargaining is practically unheard of at the IMF, and together with the news from Cancún it suggests that when the power of public opinion is brought to bear on governments, governments will sometimes stand up for their people. And the centers of the North’s concentrated power can be overcome.

Finally, all eyes turn to Miami, where trade and foreign ministers from around the western hemisphere will gather in mid-November to continue negotiations on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Continued success is necessary there to preserve the momentum from Cancún. The buzz about the event across North America’s activist communities is probably the loudest it has been since Seattle, and promises a very interesting few days (17-22 November). The key to Miami, from the inside perspective, is the position of the Brazilian government. With Brazil’s new president, Lula da Silva of the Workers Party, there are reasons for optimism. But Lula has also made alarming noises about wanting to have the FTAA in place by 2005, even as other signals suggest a desire to subvert the plan. Brazilian activists are uncertain about where Lula will finally come down on trade with the U.S. The stakes are very high this time: Miami will tell us a lot about the future of globalization.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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