What next after WTO 'failure'?
The general reaction among the Caribbean nations is one of relief rather than dismay that the Seattle WTO trade talks collapsed. The primary objective now appears to be to ensure that the time gained is used to push for the concerns of the Caribbean countries.
by Patrick Smikle
REACTIONS in the Caribbean to the aborted Ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle appeared to reflect a consensus that Caribbean nations stood to gain little and possibly lose much from WTO efforts to 'liberalise' world trade.
In a harsh critique of the WTO trade grouping, St. Kitts and Nevis Trade Minister Sam Condor accused the 135-member body of 'trying to enforce policies on the developing world'.
Condor, who attended the week-long event in Seattle, Washington, asserted that industrialised countries were unsympathetic to the concerns of small and developing states.
'The Caribbean and other nations of the Third World have good reason to be happy with the final outcome as highlighted by failure to arrive at a consensus,' said Guyanese technocrat Sir Shridath Ramphal, who heads the Regional Negotiating Machinery (RNM), the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) agency for handling international trade talks, speaking to journalists in Brussels in the week of 13 December.
The 29 November to 2 December meeting in Seattle was disrupted by a loose coalition of activists - mainly US and European - who charged that the globalised trade promoted by the WTO was detrimental to labour and environmental interests, damaging to national economies and beneficial only to transnational companies.
They claimed credit for the WTO's not reaching consensus on a framework for a 'Millennium Round' of trade negotiations.
CARICOM delegates had gone to Seattle to protest the way in which the WTO-led march toward globalisation was proceeding. Dominica's Prime Minister Edison James had urged leaders at the earlier Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in South Africa to ensure that the Seattle talks did not repeat the mistakes of the Uruguay Round and that the WTO, unlike its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), consider the social implications of its policies.
'Globalisation must lead to the development of people rather than deprivation, desperation and destitution,' James said.
At the meeting itself, Jamaican Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Seymour Mullings, argued that so far, globalisation has resulted in the 'systematic marginalisation of developing countries'.
And after the meeting, St. Lucia's Foreign Minister, George Odlum, in less-than-diplomatic language, blasted the developed countries - especially the United States - and accused them of hypocrisy.
'We on the international scene hear people pledging support to small countries, but when you come to actual commitment, you have to fight for every inch of the ground,' Odlum told an audience in Miami.
'The disposition of global trade today requires that you dabble in affirmative action to help the weaker countries,' he reported telling 'that redoubtable woman Charlene Barshefsky' - the US Trade Representative who chaired the Seattle meeting.
'She bristled like a...porcupine,' said an obviously angry Odlum. 'She wants to act as if we don't exist.'
Odlum made it clear that he thought Caribbean representatives should also have been protesting.
'In that Seattle battle, I saw very few black faces on the streets,' said the St. Lucian Minister. 'They were fighting the international cause for developing countries and it was the youth, and the people of the sixties from the developed world, that were taking that fight on. For me, that was a tremendous revelation.'
But other Caribbean spokespersons distanced themselves from the protests.
'The demonstrators in Seattle expressed a wide range of views, some of which were entirely unrelated to the current or prospective activities of the WTO,' said Jamaica's ambassador to Washington, Dr Richard Bernal, considered at home and abroad to be a key player in the talks.
'There was a whole range of people there,' he said in an interview with IPS. 'There were people there about the independence of Kashmir, against racism, warning that the end of the world is near. There were even some anarchists who managed to damage property.'
Noting that the Seattle meeting was only one stage of a process, Dr Bernal did not describe the talks as a failure. But like Shridath Ramphal, he believes that 'the inability of the countries to come to a consensus' gives the region some breathing space to push for its concerns.
Primary among those concerns is to secure WTO agreement that the globalisation process will include special provisions to protect small and developing countries as they adjust their economies to the new world model.
'I think that the failure of the talks under the circumstances may not have been such a bad thing,' says Grenadian economist, Dr Patrick Antoine.
While he disagrees with many of the positions taken by the demonstrators, such as linking labour and environmental issues to trade, he does welcome the extra time that the region now has 'to get our concerns on the table.'
Antoine, Bernal and other specialists interviewed by IPS say the CARICOM countries were very well-prepared for the Seattle meeting and give the credit to the RNM.
Meanwhile, the Seattle demonstrators hope that their protests did not just stall the WTO machinery, but that they have significantly set back the process of globalisation itself.
'Seattle was the defining event at the close of the 20th century,' asserted Brent Blackwelder of Friends of the Earth, one of the groups that took to the streets in Seattle. 'It represents a triumph of values over greed.'
But business groups in the developed world, and others who support free trade as defined by the WTO, dismiss such statements as hyperbole. They see the inconclusive Seattle meeting as nothing more than a bump in the road to globalisation.
'The trade bicycle is still moving forward,' says Willard Workman, Vice President for International Affairs at the American Chamber of Commerce. 'It may be a little more wobbly now after Seattle, but commerce is going to go on whether governments agree or don't agree.'
Notwithstanding any similarities between the positions of the protestors and the interests of the Caribbean, those charged with protecting the region's interests are likely to give more weight to Workman's statement than to Blackwelder's.
Even as Friends of the Earth and the other groups were celebrating their 'victory', the WTO was meeting in Geneva to plan a post-Seattle recovery strategy. - IPS