On July 24, 2006, World Trade Organization (WTO) Director-General Pascal Lamy was forced to halt the five years of negotiating of the so-called Fourth WTO Ministerial Doha Round that began in Doha, Qatar in November, 2001 and ended (for now, at least) in Geneva, Switzerland. The talks had been ongoing to strike a trade deal but broke down because the US, as usual, demanded all take and little give in return expecting it could strong-arm developing nations to accept whatever it proposed as it's always been able to do in the past.
No longer, apparently, as nations with growing clout like Brazil, India and others justifiably refused to knuckle under. Even European (EU) Trade Commissioner and US ally, Peter Mandelson expressed his ire when he accused the US of trying to exact a "disproportionate" price from developing countries. He added: "Surely the richest and strongest nation in the world, with the highest standards of living, can afford to give as well as take." Mandelson is right, of course, but he also understands the US considers itself the de facto ruler of the world and claims the right in that status to make all the rules and expect all other nations to agree to and obey them. It wasn't to be this time in Geneva and may never be again as a growing number of nations are fed up with Washington's notion of trade that's "free" in words but never "fair" in fact. The tone of frustration was expressed by India's Commerce and Industry Minister in his concluding comment that Doha is "definitely between intensive care and the crematorium." He and others thought it would be months to years before further talks could be restarted and likely never again on same basis as the current round that broke down.
That basis is the same business as usual one when the US is involved - promise them (the developing nations) everything, or at least an equitable arrangement for rich and poor countries alike, but in the end deliver little or nothing. It's just another example of US duplicity and disingenuousness as the initial Doha declaration promised that the rich nations would make most of the concessions and the poorest ones would need make few or none. It never happened, and the biggest obstacle was over farm subsidies so important to developing world countries that need protection for the major part of their economy along with ease of access to the US and European Union (EU) to assure growth. The US and EU made no teeth proposals to end their agricultural subsidies by 2013, but less developed countries rejected the kind of vague forked-tongue language the US especially has used before which in the end always failed to deliver what it promised.
A clear example of the kind of trade agreement the US wants is reflected in its subsidies to cotton farmers the WTO ruled illegal last year. Despite the ruling, the US did nothing to bring the subsidies into compliance, and Brazil may now ask the WTO to allow it to impose $1 billion in punitive duties on US imports in compensation. Brazil and other countries may also have justifiable rice, soybean and other crop claims against the US. Uruguay has complained about unfair US rice subsidies depressing world prices, and Oxfam International charged that these illegal subsidies, valued at $1.2 billion a year, hurt rice farmers in a dozen countries.
Call it just more of the "same old US same old." A key provision of the Doha "development round" clearly shows it. With a backdrop of high-sounding language promising to help poor countries grow their way out of poverty by granting them greater access for their goods, the EU extended the "Everything but Arms" initiative (EBA) under which it would unilaterally open its markets to developing countries. That was before the US hypocritically muddied things up by purportedly agreeing to a 97% opening of its markets to the developing world. These countries were initially disappointed with the original EBA initiative, and the EU promised to address their concerns to reach a more equitable compromise. US intentions, however, were quite different. While using market-opening language, the US, in fact, proposed just the opposite by claiming the right to choose a different 3% exclusion for each country to rig the deal to end up allowing developing countries the right to freely export everything but what they produce. So while they can freely export aircraft, jet engines, supercomputers and computer chips, they can't have free access for their agricultural products, processed foods or textiles. Hardly a fair trade initiative, and one sensible trade ministers would never accept. They didn't.
The net result is that the 3% EBA initiative is just another disingenuous multilateral trade scheme corrupted by US undermining to unfairly give this dominant country free access to world developing markets without having to grant equivalent access here in return. Based on the outcome in Geneva, developing countries, led by those with the most clout, no longer are buying it and walked away. They did it before at Cancun in 2003 and no doubt will stand firm in any future WTO negotiations.
A Disturbing Cloud on A World Trade Silver Lining
At the same time developing nations are resisting sweeping trade deals like Doha, some of them are agreeing to bilateral ones with the US with terms just as unacceptable as the WTO ones they rejected. So far the following countries have agreed to such "free trade agreements" with the US or are in the process of negotiating them: Australia, Chile, Peru, Colombia, Panama, Bahrain, Israel, Jordan, Malaysia, Vietnam (seeking WTO admission), Morocco, Oman, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the Central American nations included under the Dominican Republic Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) of the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica (the only CAFTA country that hasn't so far approved the agreement).
In addition, and less publicized, there are other agreements in place and being negotiated under various names like the so-called US-India Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture that gives US giants like Monsanto free access to the Indian market for their GMO products ravaging Indian farmers since gaining entry and causing thousands of suicides among them because of onerous debts they were forced to assume that ended up killing them; Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland for wheat at unaffordable prices increasing hunger and malnutrition and destroying the lives of still more small farmers; and the king of giants - Walmart - that wants to dominate the Indian retail market, and if successful, will do to thousands of small retailers in the country what Monsanto alone did to its small farmers.
By using the tactic of one-on-one negotiations, the US is showing it's not standing pat in the face of overall trade defeat that first erupted on the streets of Seattle in 1999, began in earnest in direct talks in Cancun in 2003 and culminated with the collapse of those talks in Geneva in July. It's trying to overcome it by undermining the unity of the developing world one nation at a time and do it with selective agreements covering products and services it's able to get its negotiating partners to agree on. In the case of India that stood firm against a sweeping Doha agreement, it's clear that country so far has been willing to trade away its food and retail small business security for whatever benefits it hopes to gain in return that when dealing with the US may turn out to be meager at best.
It's too early to know how successful this US strategy will be over time, but so far it's had enough success to show developing nations determined to hold their ground that their battle to do it has just begun, and it won't be easy prevailing in the end. Nonetheless, the ones willing to resist US bullying tactics have decided, so far at least, that sweeping agreements on US one-way terms are unacceptable. At most, they'll go for a limited one hoping for some expected gain in return for what they have to give up. So the bottom line thus far is that while Doha is either dead or on life support, so-called US-style "free trade" is very much alive and thriving.
Alternatives to the WTO Doha Round
Despite US trade ingenuity and chicanery to turn defeat into partial victory, challenges to its dominance have emerged showing a spirit of resistance and unwillingness to continue the old corrupted one-way neoliberal way of doing things that's little more than a race to the bottom. That spirit wanting change is more alive in Latin America than anywhere else, even though so far it's more hope than reality. Still, for the first time, more people in the region are fed up having to live under the oppressive heel of US dominance and are inspired by what's happening in Venezuela to overcome it and beginning in Bolivia as well. Call it a start, but all great social movements have modest beginnings. There's never a guarantee how far they'll go, and many just fade away or are destroyed by those of privilege using their power to do what they know how to do best - remove all threats to the interests of capital by whatever means it takes to do it.
That battle is now being waged in Venezuela against its democratically elected President, Hugo Chavez and his Movement for the Fifth Republic Party (MVR). Chavez was first elected in December, 1998 and from the start created the beginnings of a new mass social and political Bolivarian revolution based on participatory democracy and social justice. Privileged "sifrinos" and the corporate ruling class in the country aren't happy with the way things are now and have engaged the Chavez government in confrontation relentlessly since he came into office. Those forces have a strong ally in the Bush administration that's done all it can to aid them and continues to relentlessly.
The reason is because of all Chavez has done to help his overwhelmingly poor people emerge from their desperate state and have the essential social services and other help they need. He's accomplished much in a short time despite everything done to subvert him by powerful and determined internal rogue elements and the far more hostile threat from the huge shadow cast on his government from Washington that's tried and failed three times to oust him and now is planning a fourth attempt that may include an armed assault and invasion and likely attempt to assassinate him as well.