To read the headlines in the morning papers during these Bush years is too often an exercise in exasperation, as each day’s new outrages seem to top the last. But hidden quietly on the inside pages, and rumbling through alternative news sources, there is also a more encouraging story: Despite the challenges presented by the current administration, the global justice movement has made impressive strides in recent years. Arguments for trade and development policies that truly address poverty and serve working people have moved from the left margins into the mainstream of international debate. The paradigm of “neoliberalism” that dominated world development for two decades has been steadily losing legitimacy. And, in its wake, some important spaces for building alternatives have appeared.
Whether in the Democratic sweep of the midterm elections, in the eruption of domestic protests supporting immigrant rights, in the leftward realignment of Latin American politics, in the collapse of the Doha round of talks at the World Trade Organization, or in extended victories in issues like debt relief, these trends continued in exciting ways in 2006.
Given that Bill Clinton’s Democrats were the party of NAFTA, and that the Dems continue to rely on big money from corporate America, many global justice activists have long grown skeptical that a push for real change can be led from Capitol Hill. While this view has merit, the Democratic landslide nevertheless represented a serious blow to the reactionary Bush administration, and you would have to be unusually jaded not to see any bright spots in the electoral sweep. In fact, in terms of trade and development issues, the midterm elections helped foster a major realignment within the Democratic Party away from a corporate globalization agenda.
As the watchdogs at Public Citizen have documented, seven seats in the Senate and 28 in the House changed hands from “free trade” to “fair trade” advocates, who support using international agreements to promote stronger labor and environmental protections. Important wins include those of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a steadfast critic of neoliberalism, and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, long-time activist and author of Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed. November 7 also produced numerous state- and community- level victories, bringing into office grassroots leaders who see their local work in an internationalist context. As just one example, longtime global justice champion Mark Ritchie, founder and former executive director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, was elected as Secretary of State in Minnesota and will be leading the effort to make the state a model for conducting clean and fair elections.
Another type of democracy–more colorful and direct–was on display in the streets this year. Most notably, 2006 witnessed a wave of massive demonstrations in favor of immigrant rights. In March, a 750,000-person mobilization in Los Angeles staked a claim as an historic event, only to be topped by a march of over a million people in that city on May 1. Such demonstrations were mirrored throughout the country, and coordinated actions were held in over 100 cities nationwide in a matter of weeks. The demonstrations gave voice to some of the most marginalized members of our society: immigrants who help prepare our food, clean our hotels and homes, and care for our children. While it is not yet possible to discern the full political significance of the immigrant rights movement, the inspiring actions challenged us to see the connections between hardship abroad and the struggle for justice at home. And they suggested that a not-so-sleepy giant awaits politicians who promote exclusion and xenophobia.
It was also an election year throughout Latin America, and citizens in many parts of the region continued to reject pro-corporate models of economic “progress.” Chileans elected their first woman president, Michelle Bachelet, a left-leaning doctor whose family was imprisoned by the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1970s. Voters in Brazil reelected former union leader Lula da Silva. And Hugo Chávez also won a decisive reelection in Venezuela, garnering broad support for his New Deal-style social programs. In Ecuador, voters chose economist Rafael Correa, an ardent opponent of the Washington Consensus, over a banana magnate who happened to be the wealthiest man in the country.
Perhaps the most impressive of the leaders has been Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia. Morales, who took office in January, has since shocked the international business press by actually delivering on his campaign promises. Bolstered by well-organized social movements, the Morales government initiated the nationalization of Bolivia’s oil and gas assets on May 1. The process culminated in early December, when the government signed agreements with foreign energy companies giving it majority control over oil and gas extraction and directing over half the profits toward the public good. Given that the majority of the country’s population lives in poverty and has benefited little from living in a resource-rich nation, these efforts are both overdue and welcomed. In late November, Morales’ party went further by passing an ambitious land reform bill that seeks to right an historic injustice by breaking up some of the enormous estates left over from colonial times and redistributing as many as 20 million hectares to campesinos who work the land.
Political realignment in Latin America, coupled with years of popular pressure elsewhere in the developing world, has dramatically changed the tenor of international trade discussions. During July negotiations in Geneva, the Doha round of talks at the World Trade Organization collapsed as developing countries stood up to U.S. and European double standards on agricultural subsidies. While the Bush administration regularly sings the praises of unfettered “free trade,” it in fact supports lavish subsidies for domestic agribusiness–to the tune of $23 billion dollars a year, the great majority of which goes to our country’s largest mega-farms. Delegates from poorer nations demanded significant cuts to these subsidies before they would agree to further liberalize their economies. Needless to say, the rich countries were resistant, and amidst this hypocritical display the talks fell apart.
While deadlock at the WTO does not guarantee a fairer system of global trade, Doha’s demise stopped a bad WTO deal from going forward, at least for the time being. If world leaders take the hint, discussion should turn toward creating a system of trade that values grassroots self-determination and more justly distributes the benefits of international commerce.
Other advances suggest that such an agenda might not be far out of reach. On the issue of debt cancellation, the globalization movement has already succeeded in reshaping policy. Advocates effectively publicized the injustice of forcing nations with sick and malnourished populations to send large portions of their national budgets to rich countries in the form of payments on unsustainable foreign debts, many of which were accumulated by past dictators. In 2005, after a decade of pressure from grassroots groups, world leaders agreed to cancel debts of 18 impoverished nations to the IMF and World Bank. Debt cancellation has often proven to be one of the most effective forms of aid, allowing countries to use their own resources to meet social needs. But the 2005 agreement did not go far enough: it left out major regional banks like the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the leading multilateral lender in Latin America.
Members of the Jubilee debt coalition continued to push to cancel debts from the IDB, and this November they made another breakthrough. The IDB agreed to a deal canceling debts of five of the poorest countries in the Americas. If properly implemented, the agreement will eliminate obligations of up to $768 million for Bolivia, $365 million for Guyana, $1.1 billion for Honduras, $808 million for Nicaragua, and $468 million for Haiti. No doubt, there’s more to be done to ensure that cancellation comes in full, without delays and without strings attached. Yet efforts to push for greater progress should be propelled by the recent string of wins.
Thousands of similar campaigns stood up to local injustices, challenged corporate power, and provided the energy that ultimately unseated presidents. As we are reminded daily of the hard realities that persist in an era of executive excess and superpower militarism, their victories might seem disparate and few. But they have shown that they can accrete and build, gradually bridging the divide that separates us from once-distant possibilities: the death of neoliberalism, the political recreation of the Americas, the end of extreme poverty, a democratic globalization. The quiet wins of 2006 together remind us that change is more possible than we might sometimes despair–and that it is not entirely naive to invest hope in the promise of a new year.