Free Trade Is
By Naomi Klein
September 13, 2003
On Monday, seven antiprivatization activists
were arrested in Soweto for blocking the installation of prepaid water
meters. The meters are a privatized answer to the fact that millions
of poor South Africans cannot pay their water bills.
The new gadgets
work like pay-as-you-go cell phones, only instead of having a dead phone
when you run out of money, you have dead people, sickened by drinking
On the same day
South Africa's "water warriors" were locked up, Argentina's
negotiations with the International Monetary Fund bogged down. The sticking
point was rate hikes for privatized utility companies. In a country
where 50 percent of the population is living in poverty, the IMF is
demanding that multinational water and electricity companies be allowed
to increase their rates by a staggering 30 percent.
At trade summits,
debates about privatization can seem wonkish and abstract. On the ground,
they are as clear and urgent as the right to survive.
11, right-wing pundits couldn't bury the globalization movement fast
enough. We were gleefully informed that in times of war, no one would
care about frivolous issues like water privatization. Much of the US
antiwar movement fell into a related trap: Now was not the time to focus
on divisive economic debates, it was time to come together to call for
All this nonsense
ends in Cancún this week, when thousands of activists converge
to declare that the brutal economic model advanced by the World Trade
Organization is itself a form of war.
War because privatization
and deregulation kill--by pushing up prices on necessities like water
and medicines and pushing down prices on raw commodities like coffee,
making small farms unsustainable. War because those who resist and "refuse
to disappear," as the Zapatistas say, are routinely arrested, beaten
and even killed. War because when this kind of low-intensity repression
fails to clear the path to corporate liberation, the real wars begin.
The global antiwar
protests that surprised the world on February 15 grew out of the networks
built by years of globalization activism, from Indymedia to the World
Social Forum. And despite attempts to keep the movements separate, their
only future lies in the convergence represented by Cancún. Past
movements have tried to fight wars without confronting the economic
interests behind them, or to win economic justice without confronting
military power. Today's activists, already experts at following the
money, aren't making the same mistake.
Take Rachel Corrie.
Although she is engraved in our minds as the 23-year-old in an orange
jacket with the courage to face down Israeli bulldozers, Corrie had
already glimpsed a larger threat looming behind the military hardware.
"I think it is counterproductive to only draw attention to crisis
points--the demolition of houses, shootings, overt violence," she
wrote in one of her last e-mails. "So much of what happens in Rafah
is related to this slow elimination of people's ability to survive....
Water, in particular, seems critical and invisible." The 1999 Battle
of Seattle was Corrie's first big protest. When she arrived in Gaza,
she had already trained herself not only to see the repression on the
surface but to dig deeper, to search for the economic interests served
by the Israeli attacks. This digging--interrupted by her murder--led
Corrie to the wells in nearby settlements, which she suspected of diverting
precious water from Gaza to Israeli agricultural land.
Washington started handing out reconstruction contracts in Iraq, veterans
of the globalization debate spotted the underlying agenda in the familiar
names of deregulation and privatization pushers Bechtel and Halliburton.
If these guys are leading the charge, it means Iraq is being sold off,
not rebuilt. Even those who opposed the war exclusively for how it was
waged (without UN approval, with insufficient evidence that Iraq posed
an imminent threat) now cannot help but see why it was waged: to implement
the very same policies being protested in Cancún--mass privatization,
unrestricted access for multinationals and drastic public-sector cutbacks.
As Robert Fisk recently wrote in The Independent, Paul Bremer's uniform
says it all: "a business suit and combat boots."
Occupied Iraq is
being turned into a twisted laboratory for freebase free-market economics,
much as Chile was for Milton Friedman's "Chicago boys" after
the 1973 coup. Friedman called it "shock treatment," though,
as in Iraq, it was actually armed robbery of the shellshocked.
Speaking of Chile,
the Bush Administration has let it be known that if the Cancún
meetings fail, it will simply barrel ahead with more bilateral free-trade
deals, like the one just signed with Chile. Insignificant in economic
terms, the deal's real power is as a wedge: Already, Washington is using
it to bully Brazil and Argentina into supporting the Free Trade Area
of the Americas or risk being left behind.
Thirty years have
passed since that other September 11, when Gen. Augusto Pinochet, with
the help of the CIA, brought the free market to Chile "with blood
and fire," as they say in Latin America. That terror is paying
dividends to this day: The left never recovered, and Chile remains the
most pliant country in the region, willing to do Washington's bidding
even as its neighbors reject neoliberalism at the ballot box and on
In August 1976,
an article appeared in this magazine written by Orlando Letelier, former
foreign affairs minister in Salvador Allende's overthrown government.
Letelier was frustrated with an international community that professed
horror at Pinochet's human rights abuses but supported his free-market
policies, refusing to see "the brutal force required to achieve
these goals. Repression for the majorities and 'economic freedom' for
small privileged groups are in Chile two sides of the same coin."
Less than a month later, Letelier was killed by a car bomb in Washington,
The greatest enemies
of terror never lose sight of the economic interests served by violence,
or the violence of capitalism itself. Letelier understood that. So did
Rachel Corrie. As our movements converge in Cancún, so must we.