Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Revolt Against Arrogance




SEATTLE -- Federico Cuello Camilo arrived last week hoping to squeeze open a few more doors for bananas, sugar and clothing bearing the "Made in the Dominican Republic" label.


Instead, the 33-year-old Geneva-based ambassador from that poor Caribbean country became part of a Third World rebellion that helped bring the World Trade Organization summit to an abrupt and embarrassing halt.


Their revolt against the perceived arrogance of the world's richest nations forced the WTO to abandon hopes of launching a new round of trade liberalization - and to admit that it is a flawed organization badly in need of repair.


"They still think the WTO is a club," said Cuello Camilo, a U.S.-educated economist. "They still think 20 countries can decide for the rest of us."


To be sure, there were enormous disputes among the power brokers here - the United States, the European Union and Japan - that might have doomed the talks anyway.


But a critical reason for Friday night's collapse turned out to be the defiance of developing nations fed up with sitting on the sidelines while more powerful neighbors traded away their futures.


For a country like the Dominican Republic, an island nation of 8 million whose tattered economy is at the mercy of larger neighbors like the United States and Mexico, playing backroom politics with the big boys isn't easy.


Last year, Cuello Camilo's tiny staff was responsible for monitoring 2,000 WTO meetings. To increase his clout, the Caribbean diplomat nurtured alliances with officials in Latin America, Africa and Asia who had similar interests.


Then, on arrival in Seattle, he obtained a copy of a WTO draft ministerial agreement that had been generated secretly in Geneva in advance of the meeting and distributed to 10 countries, including the United States, Japan and the Europeans, last Monday.


For Cuello Camilo and others in the Third World, that secret document was an invitation to war - a battle far different than the one about to erupt on the streets of Seattle. But the two confrontations were quickly joined.


On Tuesday, as huge anti-WTO crowds created a human chain to prevent trade delegates from entering the convention center, Luis Manuel Bonetti Veras, the Dominican's minister of industry and commerce, and others were attacked by protesters and teargassed by police.


For the rest of the day, the Dominicans watched the chaos on the streets from the safety of their hotel rooms. Already angry about the draft agreement, they were shocked that authorities had not moved more quickly to protect foreign officials.


"Can you imagine if the same thing had happened in one of our countries?" Cuello Camilo asked. "Can you imagine the kind of criticism we would come under if the U.S. ambassador was attacked in our country?"


By the time the WTO meeting finally started Tuesday afternoon, precious negotiating hours had been lost and tempers were flaring. It wasn't until Wednesday that Cuello Camilo attended his first working-group meeting.


It was a session where officials from 45 countries testified about shortcomings in the trading system, accusing the United States and EU of backsliding on commitments to open up their borders in areas where the developing countries are strong, such as textiles and agriculture. The Dominicans and others declared they wouldn't open up their markets further to U.S. high-tech companies and agribusiness unless they could sell more T-shirts and sugar to Americans.


Developing countries also spoke out against a U.S.-led effort to begin taking into account wage and working conditions in trade deals - which to poor nations are code words for robbing them of their greatest competitive advantage in trade: cheap labor.


On Wednesday, a negotiating paper was distributed that purported to reflect that day's discussions to date. Cuello Camilo noted angrily that the draft was identical to the one he had seen from Geneva - and contained none of the major concessions sought by the developing world. Word of the apparent subterfuge quickly spread through informal meetings of the Latin American and African delegations.


On Thursday, Charlene Barshefsky, the U.S. trade representative, called a meeting and threatened to draw up a final agreement herself if the WTO members didn't start making compromises. Unhappy Caribbean and African delegates charged they were frozen out of a "sham" negotiating process.


Ministers from Guyana and Jamaica tried unsuccessfully to force their way into the so-called "green rooms," meetings where a small group of hand-picked WTO delegates tried to hammer out a deal. Before leaving the conference center that night, Cuello Camilo and his colleagues in Latin America and Africa fired off communiqu?s threatening to torpedo the deal unless their concerns were met. A day later, with talks at an impasse, ministers of the Dominican Republic and seven other Latin American countries visited the WTO deputy director with a message: we won't sign on.


With a trade show moving into the convention center on Saturday, and Seattle officials reluctant to extend their expensive and intrusive security measures into another holiday weekend, extending the meeting beyond its scheduled Friday night close would have been problematic - and likely fruitless anyway.


Barshefsky and WTO Director-General Mike Moore told delegates the Seattle talks were being suspended indefinitely. They also said the institution would engage in some serious soul-searching. From now on, Moore promised, rich and poor nations alike will be represented.


In closing remarks, Moore, a former New Zealand labor leader, was particularly apologetic to the developing countries for failing to obtain greater concessions from their wealthier neighbors. From the back of the hushed room, Cuello Camilo and his companions erupted in applause.


"At last our message was delivered here," said the weary delegate, contemplating the week's events. "We heard some nice words from Barshefsky and Moore. I hope they mean them."