Trade ministers from across the Western Hemisphere gathered at the Marriott Hotel in Quito, Ecuador from October 31-November 1. The occasion: the 2002 ministerial meeting on the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
Thousands of other people gathered in Quito that weekend too--in the streets. Organized by a coalition of indigenous, labor, environmental and student groups, approximately 10,000 people marched to protest the FTAA. After enduring tear gas and intimidation, the protesters won a meeting to present their demands to the assembled trade ministers. At the confrontational meeting, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick was told he should be ashamed for "trying to force Latin American governments to sign a trade agreement that will only bring them misery and poverty"--a spectacle that made the news on Ecuadorian TV (FoodFirst.org, 11/1/02).
Coverage on U.S. television was rather different--that is to say, virtually nonexistent. According to a search of the Nexis database, no major national broadcast television or cable news program in the U.S. did a single story focused on the protests or the Quito ministerial. Nor did National Public Radio's national news programs, or the three major newsweeklies, Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. USA Today, the country's largest circulation newspaper, ignored the story as well.
A challenge to democracy
The FTAA would link all the countries in the Americas (except for Cuba) in one massive free trade zone. Though it's often described as an expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)--which would be momentous enough--in fact the FTAA is far more powerful than that.
As envisioned by the U.S., the FTAA would follow the undemocratic approach of the World Trade Organization's proposed General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Under a proposed "liberalization" scheme, the FTAA would all but force member nations to allow privatization of vital social services including water, energy, education, healthcare, and postal and financial services, whether or not their electorates support it (National Catholic Reporter, 5/24/02).
Sounds like an agreement the public should have a say in, doesn't it? The FTAA, however, has been negotiated largely in secret, with virtually no input from civil society. The provisions that are known make clear that if enacted in its current form, the FTAA could seriously erode national sovereignty by allowing corporations to override the laws of democratically elected governments.
One such provision is modeled after NAFTA's investment chapter (also known as Chapter 11), which allows a corporation to sue the government of a member country in a secret tribunal if it feels that a law or policy--for instance, an environmental or labor regulation--adversely affects its investments. These proceedings are also called "investor-to-state" suits.
During the last round of FTAA negotiations, at the April 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec, most mainstream U.S. news stories on the negotiations omitted any mention of Chapter 11 (Extra!, 7-8/01). This year, there was so little coverage of the negotiations that a Nexis search (10/1/02-11/18/02) of TV transcripts, major newspapers, magazines and wire service articles revealed only two U.S. stories dealing with the FTAA and investor-to-state suits (Miami Herald, 10/13/02; American Prospect, 11/18/02).
The lack of coverage of these controversial provisions is all the more striking given that grassroots activism--and, more recently, opposition from the U.S. Congress--may be initiating a shift in U.S. policy.
During recent bilateral trade negotiations with Chile and Singapore, the U.S. for the first time suggested limits on such suits, including rules that would better protect health and safety laws by narrowing the basis on which corporations could sue governments (Financial Times, 10/2/02). The Miami Herald (10/13/02), the only major U.S. outlet to report this important change, suggested that as a result, the U.S. may now modify its support of investor-to-state suit provisions in the FTAA.
It's hard to say how likely such a reversal is; it might be easier to judge, and for the public to influence the outcome, if mainstream media mustered an interest in the subject.
A threat to public health
The FTAA also includes proposals for intellectual property protections that are even more stringent than current WTO rules. If included in the final agreement, these rules would make it difficult for Western Hemisphere countries to override patents in emergencies, hindering states from producing generic, affordable HIV/AIDS drugs (Foreign Policy In Focus, 4/29/01).
Despite the serious consequences this would have for global public health, mainstream U.S. media have largely failed to pick up on the story. In the month before the summit and the two weeks following it (10/1/02-11/18/02), there were no stories examining the FTAA's potential impact on the availability of HIV/AIDS drugs in any major U.S. newspapers, national television shows, major magazines or national NPR programs. The only U.S. wire service story on that subject to appear during that period was from Inter Press Service (11/1/02).
IPS reported that the health advocacy group Doctors Without Borders issued a strongly worded warning that "if the FTAA creates a system that blocks use of equivalent but cheaper drugs, it will be a catastrophe for our patients and for all people with HIV" in the Americas, because "the difference in price can be the difference between life and death." IPS noted that the Caribbean is "the second-most HIV/AIDS affected area in the world, after sub-Saharan Africa."
Interestingly, the New York Times' Business section did run an article during this period about intellectual property conflicts between the U.S. and developing countries (10/14/02). The article addressed the question of how WTO rules affect HIV/AIDS drugs--described as "the lightning-rod issue" in intellectual property--but did not mention the FTAA.
An international movement
A common conceit in mainstream U.S. coverage of the globalization movement is that critics of trade pacts like the FTAA are, for the most part, spoiled rich (North) American kids who have no clue what the world's poor want or need. Writing about the 2001 FTAA protests in Quebec, New York Times columnist and globalization guru Thomas Friedman dubbed globalization protesters "The Coalition to Keep Poor People Poor," and claimed that these "protectionist unions and anarchists" were hopelessly out of touch with the public of developing countries (New York Times, 4/24/01).
Had the U.S. media paid attention to the demonstrations at the October FTAA summit, they would have seen this assumption turned on its head. The Quito protests were a thoroughly Latin American manifestation of the globalization movement, organized by a broad coalition of groups that included the National Campesino Social Security Organization, the National Indigenous Confederation, the Andean Indigenous Federation, the Ecuadorian Federation of Free Trade Unions and grassroots environmental groups Acciín Ecológica and Cequipus.
According to Food First's Peter Rosset, who confronted Trade Representative Zoellick during the meeting between protesters and trade ministers, only "seven or eight" of the thousands of demonstrators in Quito were North American. "Almost everybody there was an indigenous person, was a small farmer, was a trade unionist or was a student from Ecuador or from somewhere else in Latin America," Rosset told FAIR's radio show CounterSpin (11/8/02). "It really gives the lie to this notion in Western media that nobody in the Third World is against free trade," said Rosset.
Initially, Ecuadorian authorities greeted protesters with barricades, water cannons and tear gas, resulting in a number of injuries. It became evident that the tide had turned, said Rosset, when indigenous members of the police force were shamed by indigenous women activists into switching sides and marching with the protesters. "Once the police broke ranks" Rosset told CounterSpin, "the government immediately freaked out" and insisted that Zoellick and the other ministers agree to a meeting.
Like most of the events at the FTAA ministerial, this remarkable activist victory went unrecorded by the U.S. press, though not, perhaps, unnoticed: Rosset also told CounterSpin that he spoke to reporters from the New York Times and Miami Herald who had done "extensive interviews with indigenous leaders and farmers" which never appeared in either paper. Evidently, the reporters were aware of these perspectives, but they--or more likely their editors--did not judge them newsworthy enough to share with U.S. readers.