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Strategies From the Global South

The alliances and alternatives that aim to defeat corporate-driven trade

By Deborah James

In September 2003, the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit in Cancun, Mexico came to a screeching halt after a large bloc of the world’s developing countries refused to expand the WTO unless the wealthier nations made existing trade rules fairer. The “Group of 21” developing nations emerged as a powerful South-South alliance.  Led by India, South Africa and Brazil, the Group includes 13 Latin American and Caribbean countries.

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That November, government trade ministers meeting in Miami to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)—an expansion of the failed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) model—barely reached consensus for moving ahead with talks. Another developing country bloc began to emerge in opposition to the FTAA. This stalemate revealed a clear divide between the pro-FTAA “Group of 13” (the United States, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and the Central American countries) and the other primary regional alliances: Mercosur (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay); Caricom (the 14 members of the Caribbean Community); and the governments of Venezuela and Bolivia.

In response to Latin American and Caribbean regionalism, the United States has mounted a political counterassault. It has employed divide-and-conquer strategies on several fronts, and used aid and diplomatic pressure with a number of FTAA countries as levers to pry apart the coalition of countries. For example, the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)—including Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic—would bind these nations even more closely to U.S. economic domination, surpassing even NAFTA in its enshrinement of corporate rights over the rights of communities, workers and the sovereign citizenry. CAFTA could be sent to the U.S. Congress for ratification soon. The United States has also launched a series of bilateral trade negotiations with Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, in an attempt to isolate Venezuela from the rest of the Andean Community.

Post-Miami, the FTAA has been divided into two distinct tiers, the contents of which are still undergoing highly charged negotiations. Tier 1 requires a minimum level of commitment that would be acceptable to all of the countries; Tier 2 aims for full, comprehensive trade liberalization. This two-tiered system acknowledges that the United States is not going to get its prize—a full comprehensive agreement for the hemisphere—and is a victory for the social movements working against the FTAA. But it also contains a dangerous trap that could still be damaging for many countries.

Turning the Tide on Free Trade
The stalling of the FTAA, originally scheduled for completion by the beginning of 2005, is due to various factors. The political scenario in Latin America has changed significantly in the last 10 years. Social movements in some countries have recently elected governments that represent, or are at least sympathetic to, the perspective of the poor majority. In addition to progressive governments, the strength of the social movements in the hemisphere have brought within reach the opportunity to defeat the FTAA. Campesino groups, labor unions, Indigenous networks, youth and women’s organizations, and advocacy groups across the hemisphere have built strength through international coordination, mounting the Continental Campaign Against the FTAA. This campaign includes regional networks such as the Hemispheric Social Alliance (HSA); the Jubilee campaigns against the illegitimate foreign debt; the Convergence of People’s Movements of the Americas (COMPA); Grito de los Excluidos (Cry of the Excluded); Friends of the Earth Latin America; as well as country-based campaigns.

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A striking aspect of these efforts has been the relative unity of the social movements across geographic, ethnic, age and occupational differences. For example, the Peruvian No!! FTAA campaign is composed of the national trade union, four national family farm organizations, small and medium artisans’ groups, human rights organizations, fair trade groups, feminist alliances, anti-debt campaigners and consumer organizations. In Uruguay, the Anti-FTAA Campaign Secretariat includes the central workers’ federation, the university students’ federation, the national federation of housing cooperatives, small business owners, and environmental groups, among others. An Assembly of Caribbean People in August 2003 brought together more than 1,000 people from 100 organizations in 11 different Caribbean nations and several different languages against militarism and the FTAA.

Oftentimes the Indigenous and farmers’ organizations form the backbone of the popular mobilization capacity of these alliances because corporate globalization threatens not only their wages or their health care but their entire way of life. For that reason, regional farmers and Indigenous coalitions like Via Campesina and the Coordinadora Latinoamericana de Organizaciones del Campo (CLOC), and the various national farmers federations, have played key roles in educating their populations and mobilizing in the streets.

Holding Leaders Accountable
But the relative success of the social movements in changing the negotiating position of their governments has depended on their ability to move from “resistance” to “taking power”—and then holding those governments accountable to the people’s demands. For example, the social movements in Ecuador, particularly Indigenous groups and family farmers, have mobilized strong popular resistance to the FTAA, including a massive rally and march of more than 10,000 peasants during a previous FTAA Ministerial meeting in the fall of 2002. Citizens there recently elected Indigenous rights leader Lucio Gutierrez to the presidency, but have not been successful in holding him accountable to the social movement’s demands. Active social movements in El Salvador fought very hard last year against privatization of the national health care system—an issue intrinsically linked with the FTAA agenda of privatization of basic services—and yet their government’s position is still aligned with U.S. interests.

On the other hand, Argentine President Néstor Kirchner rode into office on a wave of sentiment against the International Monetary Fund’s enforcement of privatization and structural adjustment policies. Social movements have formed thousands of cooperatives there to meet the basic needs of people who have been plunged from relative prosperity to abysmal poverty. Groups allied with the AutoConvocatoria en Contra el ALCA (Call to Action Against the FTAA), for instance, continue to pressure Kirchner to side with the poor instead of the United States by linking their campaigns against militarization, debt and free trade. In Bolivia, strong and strategic social movements have linked massive resistance to natural gas and water privatization to the struggle against the FTAA and bilateral agreements. After successfully unseating a pro-business president last year, they have achieved positive changes in their country’s negotiating position in recent months.

Similar sentiments are roiling Brazil, where President Lula da Silva heads the first Workers Party government in the country’s history. Brazilian social movements including the CUT (the national labor federation), the Landless Peasant’s Movement and religious groups organized a people’s plebiscite on the FTAA in which over 10 million citizens voted; more than 98 percent rejected the FTAA. Though many business interests in Brazil advocate for a comprehensive FTAA, and some sectors want the minimum FTAA to earn enough money through exports to pay back their foreign debt, the anti-FTAA forces have so far managed to keep Brazil from giving in to U.S. demands.


View From Venezuela
The staunchest opposition to the FTAA at the negotiating table comes from Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez has become a hero among the country’s poor majority.  In 1998, Venezuelans elected this Afro-Indian son of schoolteachers who has resisted U.S. economic domination and strives to redistribute oil wealth. They then voted to elect a Constituent Assembly to write a new Constitution, which was approved in 1999 by more than 71 percent of the vote.

Venezuela’s negotiating position in the FTAA, based on this Constitution, most closely resembles the priorities of the hemisphere’s social movements. It mirrors several key aspects of civil society critiques, which assert that the negotiating process is undemocratic and non-transparent; that the agreement would give rights to corporations at the expense of sovereignty and democracy; and that the privatization of services is a death knell for poor people across the region.

Because of its anti-FTAA position, Venezuela has called for an extension of the January 1, 2005 deadline. According to article 73 of the Constitution, the government would have to hold a popular referendum on the FTAA so that citizens could decide whether to approve it or not. This commitment to citizens directly voting on the FTAA is the primary strategy of the social movements in the hemisphere.

In addition, Venezuela has argued that the proposed FTAA cannot truly be fair until the member countries are more equal economically. Its leaders have put forward a detailed proposal for the creation of Funds for Structural Convergence. This fund, which has now gained the support of 24 nations, would involve a massive shifting of wealth from the rich countries to the smaller, more vulnerable nations, to ensure that inequalities among countries are reduced.

These policies have raised the ire of the U.S. government, which has been supporting opposition elements that were responsible for the failed military-business coup of April 2002 against the democratically elected government. That failed coup, which was outright praised by Washington, was reversed by a massive outpouring of hundreds of thousands of citizens in the streets. [As of this writing, a recall election is pending.] As achieving a comprehensive FTAA remains the Bush administration’s number one goal in Latin America, the lack of cooperation from Venezuela in pursuing the FTAA has ruffled many feathers—from the Trade Ministry, to the State Department, and all the way to the White House.

Envisioning the Alternatives
Social movements in the hemisphere have learned that we must promote our own vision of an alternative to the proposed FTAA. To that end, anti-FTAA organizations, working together through the Hemispheric Social Alliance (HSA), have developed the Alternative Agreement for the Americas. It starts with the premise that the people should have a voice in determining the future of regional integration. It also asserts that the first step toward more equality in the hemisphere would be debt reduction. Enforcement of core labor and environmental rights and standards should also be at the center of any new agreements. Governments should be encouraged to adopt new local, national and global rules to discourage harmful speculative activity, and to encourage lasting investments in productive and sustainable local economic activities. Access for foreign products and investments should be negotiated with adequate concern for national development plans and priorities. Protection of critical sectors, such as food production, must be the right of each country so as to ensure the rights and well-being of all people. This document, collectively endorsed and produced by hundreds of social movements and organizations in the Hemispheric Social Alliance, is available in its entirety at

Venezuela has also produced a model vision of how nations in the region could work towards regional integration, based on shared concern for the environment, health, education, food security and human rights. The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas—ALBA, in Spanish—was drafted as a counterweight to the argument that the only path towards regional integration is economic subservience to the corporate elite in the North. ALBA is the only national proposal that closely mirrors the vision of the social movements in the hemisphere. It includes counter-proposals to every negotiating area of the FTAA, including market access, investment, services, government procurement, agriculture, intellectual property, competition policy, subsidies, dispute settlement, and special and differential treatment. But it also includes sections to ensure that any agreement addressing regional integration is also compatible with previous commitments and social justice goals relating to the environment, human rights and women’s rights. The ALBA proposal is available in Spanish through the Venezuela Information Office, at (202) 737-6637, x27.

If global justice advocates are to achieve our goal of stopping the FTAA, we must strengthen our alliances across the continent. We must work together with our partners in Latin America, and share information and organizing strategies. We must integrate the movements against corporate globalization with domestic struggles for economic justice and community empowerment. We must envision, develop, and promote alternatives with the same fervor that we oppose the current model. And as U.S. citizens, we must defend democracy in those countries, such as Venezuela, where our own government seeks to destabilize it—precisely because of the government’s social and economic justice policies. 

Deborah James is the global economy director at Global Exchange, where she has been promoting fair trade, demanding corporate accountability, and organizing against corporate globalization for ten years. She is currently on sabbatical to direct the Venezuela Information Office.

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