Seven activists were arrested recently in Soweto, South Africa, for blocking the installation of prepaid water meters. The meters are a market economy 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 cholera-infested water.
On the same day South Africa’s “water warriors” were locked up, Argentina’s negotiations with the Washington-based 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.
In the media and at international conferences, debates about privatization can seem wonkish and abstract. On the ground, they are as clear and urgent as the right to survive.
After September 11, the mainstream media couldn’t bury the global justice/antiglobalization 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 U.S. antiwar movement fell into a similar trap: Now was not the time to focus on divisive economic debates; it was time to come together to call for peace.
But, in reality, the brutal economic model of privatization advanced by the IMF, the World Trade Organization, and wealthy nations 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, impoverishing the small farmers who still make up a large portion of the population in poor nations. War because those who resist and “refuse to disappear” (as Mexico’s Zapatista rebels say), are routinely arrested, beaten, and even killed. And, finally, war because when this kind of low-intensity repression in developing nations fails to clear the path to corporate control, the real wars begin.
The global antiwar protests that surprised the world last February 15 grew out of networks built by years of anti-globalization activism, from Indymedia Web sites to the World Social Forum held each year in Brazil or India. And despite attempts to keep the movements separate, their only future lies in the convergence represented by global justice activists in Seattle, Quebec City, Genoa, Cancún, and, most recently last November, at rallies in Miami at a meeting to establish a pro-privatization Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Political movements of the past have tried to stop wars without challenging 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 American in an orange jacket with the courage to face down Israeli bulldozers, at the time of her death Corrie already had glimpsed a larger threat looming behind military offensives. “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 also to dig deeper, to search for the economic interests served by the Israeli attacks. This digging — interrupted by her murder — led Corrie to investigate wells in nearby settlements, which she suspected of diverting precious water from Palestinian communities in Gaza to Israeli agricultural land.
Similarly, when Washington started handing out reconstruction contracts in Iraq, veterans of the global justice movement spotted an underlying agenda in the familiar names of privatization pushers like Bechtel and Halliburton. If these guys are leading the charge, it means Iraq is being sold off, not rebuilt. Even those who oppose the war exclusively for how it was waged (without U.N. 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 Soweto, Argentina, and Cancún — mass privatization, which means unrestricted access for multinational corporations and drastic cutbacks in public services. Occupied Iraq is being turned into a twisted laboratory for freebase free-market economics, much as Chile was for economist Milton Friedman and the notorious “Chicago boys” — right-wing Chilean technocrats he trained at the University of Chicago — after the U.S.-backed coup in 1973.
Thirty years have passed since that other September 11, when General 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 Latin American neighbors reject neoliberalism at the ballot box and on the streets. The Bush administration recently negotiated a trade deal with Chile, modeled on NAFTA with Mexico and Canada. Insignificant in economic terms, the deal’s real goal is to create a wedge to bully Argentina, Brazil, and other Latin nations to support the FTAA, a pro-privatization trade pact covering the entire Western Hemisphere. In August 1976, an article appeared in The Nation 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, D.C.
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 movements for peace, economic justice, and the environment are beginning to converge, so must we.
Movements Converge at World Social Forum
Under the banner “Another World Is Possible,” representatives of social movements from across the globe will gather January 16-21 in Mumbai, India, for the fourth annual World Social Forum. Founded in 2001 as an alternative to the annual World Economic Forum — where corporate and government officials discuss global economic policy in the Swiss resort town of Davos — the WSF was established as “an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a society centered on the human person.” The first WSF drew 20,000 environmental, peace, and global justice activists to the Brazillian city of Porto Alegre. Last year’s event in Porto Alegre drew over 100,000, including numerous heads of state. After this year, organizers plan to alternate between India and Brazil. For more information on this year’s gathering, visit www.wsfindia.org.
— Leif Utne
Naomi Klein is a Toronto-based author and activist. Her book No Logo (Picador, 2002) chronicles the birth of the global justice movement. From The Nation (Sept. 29, 2003). Subscriptions: $39.97/yr. (47 issues) from Box 55149, Boulder, CO 80322.