All posts by Justin Ruben

Anti-FTAA Protests in Quito

An Eyewitness Account

The seventh summit of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) took place in Quito, Ecuador on October 31. The FTAA is an international trade agreement that would create the world’s largest free market zone-affecting 650 million people and $9 trillion in capital. It is a different name for the expansion of NAFTA to every country in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, excluding Cuba. Negotiations began immediately after the completion of NAFTA in 1994 and are to be completed by 2005. The FTAA will make it easier for corporations to bypass environmental or worker protection laws and will increase corporate control over our schools, water, electricity and food. Justin Ruben, a graduate student at Yale has been active in educating and organizing against the FTAA for several years in Connecticut and was one of thousands who came from around the world to protest the most recent meeting in Quito.

Justin Ruben

October 31, 2002

During the first day of demonstrations I found myself 20km south of Quito with maybe 300 indígenas in one of two protest caravans that had crossed the country spreading the word about the protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Quito. As we crowded into buses to head north, I called the other caravan, who reported that they had 80 people. I feared weak numbers but soon after we got off the buses and began a 15km trek to Quito, the number of people seemed to mysteriously increase, as buses from the South caught up with us and disgorged fresh groups of protesters.

The procession was a riot of color, filled with red and blue ponchos and hundreds of rainbow flags (the symbol of the Andean indigenous and campesino movements). People lined the street to watch as we passed by. One shopkeeper explained to me that the indigenous people were like burros, dragging along the rest of the country, who were also opposed to the FTAA because it would devastate the Ecuadorian economy, but who let the indigenous movement carry the torch for their opposition. Old women chanted ceaselessly for four hours, “No queremos, y no nos da la gana, ser una colonia, norteamericana,” (We don’t want, and it doesn’t do us any good, to be a North American colony). One group of Bolivians, led by Evo Morales, the coca-grower who almost became president there, marched with coca leaves taped to their foreheads.

When we finally reached our destination in Quito, we rounded the corner and found not 80 but somewhere around 4,000 people waiting. As the two groups approached each other, people on each side were visibly stirred, and some began to run. At this point, I realized that after 4 months of frantic organizing, the mobilization was a reality, that whatever happened we had already won, that thousands of campesinos and indigenas had come to Quito to unequivocally reject U.S.-style “free” trade. And I simply began to bawl.

Our group didn’t pause, but continued straight toward the Marriott Hotel, where the 34 trade ministers from North and South America were arriving to negotiate a treaty that promises to wipe out small farmers, to hand corporations a sweeping new set of tools to evade environmental, consumer and labor laws, to force the privatization of water, health care, education, culture, and biodiversity.

As we headed north we were joined by large groups of campesinos, students, trade unionists, and international activists who had already been fighting running battles with the police, who were attempting to turn everyone back several kilometers from the Summit. The march was led by a line of campesino and indigenous leaders (“dirigentes”), walking arm-in-arm, preceded by a Shaman conducting rites to improve the success of our efforts. Soon we were stopped by several hundred riot police. The dirigentes asked to send a delegation of civil society groups in to the summit to present a giant letter made up of the proposals and demands of thousands of people who had joined the caravans along their route. They were soundly refused

So the dirigentes deliberated and decided to head west toward the Volcan Pichincha. As we rounded the corner we saw a thousand or more people ahead of us. More groups drifted in from the sides, and soon la Avenida Colon, one of Quito’s widest streets, was packed for perhaps 8 or 10 blocks, with more people out of sight. There must have been between 8 -15,000 people. There were giant puppets, a smattering of black-clad anarchists, a surprising number of international activists and lots and lots of campesinos: 75 year-old women, small children, 20 year olds who wanted nothing to do with traditional dress, mothers and teenage sons marching together. And they were all psyched.

As the most important social movement, dirigente, approached the Avenida Amazonas, the police opened fire with a LOT of tear gas. They shot it at the crowd and over the crowd, so that as people ran away, they ran into more gas. I walked until I couldn’t see or breathe, then began to run, then someone grabbed my hand and led me away. (Why do I never carry goggles to these things?) The president of the National Judicial Workers Union was hit with three tear gas canisters and taken to the hospital. Several young kids passed out and almost asphyxiated. One woman fell on her baby, who was injured and taken to the hospital. A reminder that “free” trade can only proceed via brutal repression, which is now so commonplace at trade summits that it hardly elicits comment.

And so people retreated to the south to regroup, and I retreated to the communications center to try to get the word out about the success of the mobilization, and its repression.

Soon after, 2000 people marched up to police barricades, where they demanded that a much larger delegation be allowed in to deliver the letter. Clearly hoping to avoid the kind of confrontations that have occurred in past uprisings here, the government allowed 40 people from across the hemisphere to come in and meet with the ministers.

Later, in an auditorium where 25 trade ministers sat uncomfortably on stage, 40 campesinos chanted that they had no desire to be a U.S. colony. Peter Rossett of Food First stood up, his arm in a rainbow colored sling thanks to a protest injury. He yelled to Bob Zoellick, the U.S. Trade Representative, that he should be ashamed for pushing an agreement that would impoverish Latin Americans, not to mention many U.S. citizens. Zoellick stared fixedly at his shoe. It was a scene that is, I think, pretty much unprecedented in the history of trade negotiations.

Soon the civil society presentations began. A line of people fanned out in front of the ministers (and TV cameras) holding signs that said “Sí a la vida, No al ALCA” (Yes to life, No to the FTAA). Behind the podium stood an indigenous representative holding a beautifully painted Inca sun with North America and South America, and the words “Si Una Integración Solidaria Con Respeco a la Soberanía de los Naciones”(Yes to an integration based on solidarity, with respect for the sovereignty of nations).

Finally, the social movement representatives spoke. Leonidas Iza, the President of the CONAIE (the Ecuadorian indigenous federation), stated the social movements’ clear rejection of the FTAA and of neoliberalism in general. “We are in desperate shape,” he told the ministers. “You couldn’t possibly understand, you who were born in golden cradles and have never suffered” (at this the ministers looked even more uncomfortable). “But we don’t have food to feed our children. Our markets are flooded with cheap imports. Imported milk is dumped in Ecuador for half of what it costs to produce it, but transnationals [mostly Nestle] sell it back to us at $1.80 per litre. We have no way to live, and the FTAA will only make it worse. When we complain, the U.S. government calls us terrorists. We are not threatening anything, but we are hungry and tired and things have to change.” In the wake of widening protest throughout Latin America, the message was not lost on anyone.

Then a woman worker from Nicaragua spoke powerfully of the details of the FTAA, of the privatization and poverty and social exclusion it would bring, particularly for women. “Don’t think you can simply take your picture with us and push forward,” she told the ministers. “We will stop the FTAA.”

The meeting ended and, unable to contain myself, I stood up and shouted in English and then in Spanish that never again could Bob Zoellick claim that the people of Latin America were clamoring for free trade, because today they had unequivocally rejected it. Then Peter Rossett chimed in that polls consistently showed that the majority of U.S citizens oppose free trade, and that the Bush administration had no right and no mandate to push forward with the FTAA. There were loud cheers, and the moderator hurriedly announced that the ministers were leaving and could we please sit down so they could leave. “NO!” screamed the civil society folks in unison, and they pushed out the door, leaving the ministers sitting on stage.

And, at that moment, I felt something shift. I realized that (unless the media bury this entirely despite our best efforts to get the word out, which is always possible) the FTAA has in 24 hours gone from something whose praises its proponents sing, to something they have to defend. Like the WTO before it, the FTAA has become the treaty that has to be sold to an America that doesn’t want it. Or so I hope. I hope I hope I hope. This is how it feels here. But it may be different elsewhere.

We marched out of the Suissotel, reached the police barricades and were greeted by hundreds of cheering protesters, who had been dancing to traditional Kichwa music while we were inside. Then the partying began, I just said good-bye to a compañera from one of the rural provinces of the Sierra, I asked her what she thought of the day’s events, and she said, “I am happy. Very happy. This was the first time I have ever done this, and I think today we achieved something important, something that will improve our lives. And now I can go back to my children.”

I am so proud, so proud and amazed by the incredible work people have done here over the last few months, so moved by their commitment to this struggle, so humbled by the generosity, patience, tolerance, and trust they have shown me. I am so honored to be part of this fast-coalescing hemispheric movement for a new economic and political order, one based on reciprocity and social justice, on true democracy and respect for human and natural diversity And I’m so happy to be going to sleep.