All the way to Seattle

International protesters spice up WTO protests.

Credit for the enormous attendance at Tuesday's protests must go to the Seattle-based organizers who turned out apathetic Northwesterners in the cold and wet. But that misses much of the story. The opposition to the WTO and its free trade policies has been global, and it has been steadily growing in the five years since the WTO's creation. Even with the 1997 defeat of fast-track authority in Congress, most of the anti-free trade activism has been taking place elsewhere in the world. This is a party to which Seattle and the rest of America arrived decidedly late.

As a result, many of the voices heard in Seattle this week came from the far reaches of the globe. Just as ministers arrived from over 130 delegations spanning the globe, so, too, came representatives of activist movements from around the world. For these dissidents, however, the journey to Seattle wasn't always easy.

Alvaro Vasques Juarez and Fernando Hernandez Mata are two Zapotec Indians from Oaxaca state in southern Mexico, representatives of the indigenous campesino group AZACHIS (La Asambles de Autoridades Zapotecas y Chinantecas de la Sierra). They came to Seattle at the invitation of the University of Washington's Human Rights Education and Research Network and the Seattle chapter of the Labor Party. But they almost didn't get here at all.

When Vasques and Hernandez appeared for their scheduled appointment with the US Embassy in Mexico City on November 16 to get their visas, embassy officials refused to issue the visas and seized their formal letter of invitation. Vasques attributes their rejection to sheer racism: They were peppered with questions about their jobs and income in Oaxaca (which, being indigenous campesinos, doesn't amount to much), and rejected due to suspicion that they were really coming to Seattle during the WTO ministerial meetings to work. The attitude, according to the two, was that poor Indians couldn't possibly actually be coming to Seattle to speak and that cultural exchange with Indians was a laughable concept. As a consequence, they missed their prepaid flight two days later and spent a week waiting in the world's largest city while activists at the Seattle end of the journey mobilized.

After being flooded with phone calls, faxes, and e-mails, the offices of Patty Murray and Jim McDermott made inquiries to the Embassy as to why the visas had been denied. As a result, says Vasques, the demeanor of the embassy staff had markedly changed when they returned the following Monday: They were whisked through with no problem and no reference to their apparent previous scurviness.

Vasques and Hernandez were lucky; a number of other would-be Seattle protesters from around the world didn't get here at all. The People's Global Assembly, an international peasants' group, lost seven Nepalese and two Bangladeshi members of a caravan before it was scheduled to leave New York in late October on a cross-country journey to Seattle. Reports also flooded the Internet of activists from Nigeria, the Philippines, and Kenya who were denied entry to the United States. And, of course, many of the thousands who came to Seattle from Canada worried about the demeanor of guards at the border crossings. Whether or not activists were denied entry specifically because of their proposed activities in Seattle, it still added up to a significant barrier that international proponents of free trade didn't need to worry about.

What activists like Vasques and Hernandez brought to Seattle was a firsthand account of the impact of WTO policies on the poor of the Third World. Politics, says Vasques, is the main barrier to the ability of the indigenous of Oaxaca to develop their economy. He claims that their traditional barter-style economy and the emphasis of the WTO on developing exports at the expense of the peasants' own sustenance agriculture is colonialism that is only an escalation of policies essentially unchanged since the 16th century.

In contrast to the profit emphasis of the WTO, the focus of Zapotec development is on community. The story is a familiar one: An indigenous group's culture and ability to provide mutual support is threatened as church groups, governments, and transnational corporations all work to extract resources and labor and give as little as possible in return. Under such conditions, enabling groups like the Zapotecs to develop becomes a virtually impossible challenge. It becomes that much harder when the suits of the WTO are busy dismantling the few constraints available to unbridled transnational corporate profit. To help slow that process, say the two, it was worth the long and uncertain journey to Seattle.

Alvaro Vasques Juarez and Fernando Hernandez Mata will speak on "Human Rights and Cultural Preservation in Oaxaca" on Friday, Dec. 3 at 12:30pm in room 101, Thomson Hall, on the UW campus. The talk is free and open to the public. For more information, call 425-352-5421.

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