Raj Patel has worked for both the WTO and World Bank, and is currently active in campaigns against them. He is based in Ithaca, N.Y., where he is a Ph.D. student at Cornell University and a co-editor of the Voice of the Turtle.

Monday, 29 Nov 1999

SEATTLE, Wash.

Seattle is a beautiful city, nestled on the edge of Puget Sound, with the Pacific stretched beyond, and bordered by the Cascade and Olympic mountains, which rise majestically over the city’s broad horizons. Or at least that’s what they say. When I got here, though, it was hard to see anything more than 20 feet away due to driving rain. The guidebook forgot to mention that Seattle’s three most important monopolies are operating systems, commercial aircraft, and precipitation.

What I could see, though, was very pleasing. As I arrived at my Seattle hosts’ house, I passed a 20-foot-tall statue of Lenin parked by the roadside. Rescued from Eastern Europe after 1989, the statue is one of very few to show Lenin against a background of guns and flames, without a book in his hand. The symbolism stresses the fact that Lenin was not just a man of words, but one of action. In Lenin’s hand, someone has placed a banner saying, “End Corporate Rule — WTO — Who’s Taking Over?” Surely an auspicious start to the week.

I am not alone in having made the pilgrimage to Seattle. People say that more than 50,000 have arrived and will be out on the streets over the next few days. And all because of three little words: “World Trade Organization.” The WTO is actually quite a small bureaucracy; it has only 500 employees and a modest budget, but it has in the past three years come to represent and promote all that is wrong with the neoliberal world order. This week, at the Third WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle, people are here to tip the scales back the other way.

Already, a great deal has happened, both in Seattle and outside. Constant civil society pressure on, and scrutiny of, trade bureaucrats in Geneva has made it impossible for member states to agree on any sort of negotiable text for the conference. This is very embarrassing for Pres. Clinton, who will be the only world leader (besides, perhaps, Fidel Castro) at the Millennial Trade Talks. It’s striking to compare this to past trade summits, where heads of state have flocked to be associated with the latest bit of trade triumphalism.

The run-up to the conference here in Seattle has seen a number of actions already. For instance, on Friday, a group from the Direct Action Network hijacked Seattle’s post-Thanksgiving department store parade. A group of well-trained cheerleaders inserted themselves into the parade, right behind the mayor’s car, and started chanting anti-WTO slogans. They put in their pitch for “Buy Nothing Day” and gave children “subvertised” dollars, with which to purchase nothing at all. The cheerleaders had clearly been to charm school — more or less everyone thought they were desperately funny.

People in the activist crowd are excited, and with reason. But it was disturbing to get into the central meeting area for activists and find myself one of perhaps 10 non-white people there, in a crowd of hundreds. The organization is committed, fierce, and segregated. With any luck this will change with the arrival of people from overseas. We’ll see.

So anyway, what’s to look forward to this week? For me, one of the highlights of the week will involve the man I’m going to be working for in Zimbabwe next year — Yash Tandon. He will be delivering a keynote address today in the official WTO non-governmental summit. Yash is the most famous man you’ve never heard of. He was a revolutionary intellectual in Uganda, but had to disappear when Idi Amin’s regime came to power. Even today, he gets people coming up to him saying, “We read about you in the history books, but thought you were dead.” Anyway, he’s back in a big way, and deeply critical of the WTO. He has been active in southern Africa persuading governments to take their power and responsibilities a little more seriously, and not to be so cavalier in giving away their countries’ rights by signing on to multilateral agreements without seriously debating them first.

It’s interesting that Yash has been asked to provide a critique of the WTO within the WTO itself — he’s far more radical than most critics, even those on the left. I wonder what the delegates at the WTO will make of him. Interestingly, he’ll be kicking off a panel of WTO critics dominated by Northern environmental NGOs. It’s not like the WTO doesn’t have environmental impacts, but it is a little disturbing that, within the official forum, a profound critique of effects of the WTO on ecosystems and people has been left to only one person from the South. It’s almost as if the resistance to the WTO is being bambified by association with the WWF and Sierra Club. As I say, it’s not as if the shrimp-turtle issue or the proposed logging agreement aren’t important — clearly they are. Rather, it is that these egregious, environmentally unsustainable agreements are part of processes which transform entire societies in both the North and South. And sometimes I fear that the environmental lobby misses this and doesn’t see the wood for the trees.

So, for me Yash’s speech is going to be the centerpiece of my day. Before he does his thing, I’ll check out the African Caucus, to hear what else is up in the world of African civil society. And after Yash has scandalized the NGO forum, I’ll leave to join a 10,000-strong human chain outside the WTO conference center. This will be followed by a rally at which Mike Moore will be the Master of Ceremonies. That’s Mike Moore of Roger and Me fame, not Mike Moore, the oleaginous head of the WTO. The regular laugh-ins are an integral part of the week’s activities. As Walden Bello said at one of this weekend’s teach-ins, the most important thing about monopolists is that they don’t have a sense of humor.

All in all, a packed day. Tomorrow, news about the plans for the N30 protest. See you then!