Clinton on the WTO:
So Many Lies in So Little Time

Revolutionary Worker #1034, December 12, 1999

The WTO meeting in Seattle was supposed to be a major opportunity for the U.S. president to firm up his "legacy" as a "world leader." The New York Times wrote, "Clinton had seen the talks here as a chance to secure his reputation as a free trader with a social conscience."

But as Clinton flew into Seattle, he saw the downtown streets locked down in martial law. He saw clouds of tear gas wafting by his hotel. He learned that his secretary of state and trade representative couldn't even get into the opening session of the WTO conference because of determined protesters. Was this hyped-up presidential visit going to be a total bust?

In his typical fashion, Clinton tried to make the best of the situation. His motor mouth hardly skipped a beat during the quick one and a half day visit--as he rushed from one appearance to another and made his "free trader with a social conscience" pitch. So little time...yet so many lies, so much hypocrisy.

"Free Trade" = Increased Inequality

Lie #1: Employing his trademark rhetoric of "inclusiveness," Clinton said he agreed with some of the protesters that the WTO needs to be "more open and accessible." He told a meeting of delegates, "The sooner the WTO opens up the process and lets people representing those who are outside in, the sooner we will see fewer demonstrations..." But he insisted that the WTO, "free trade" policies and globalization in general make the world "more prosperous" for everyone.

Truth: Imperialist globalization and "free trade" have NOT made life better for everyone. Instead, they have increased the inequalities between rich and poor countries, and between the rich and poor within countries.

While total world trade expanded rapidly in the past two decades, the 48 poorest countries--where 10 percent of the world's population live--saw their share of world exports decline by almost half. The U.S. and the Western Europe countries have roughly the same total population as the 48 poorest countries--but account for almost half of the world's exports. More than 80 countries in the Third World are worse off today economically than they were a decade ago. Global food production increased almost 25 percent between 1990 and 1997--yet 800 million people around the world are malnourished.

There are small sections of society within the oppressed countries that have benefited from globalization and "free trade." Mexico, for example, has one of the highest concentrations of billionaires in the world. But since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1995, the incomes of the poor have been cut in half, and the percentage of people living in poverty has increased from 30 to 50 percent of the population.

Polarization and inequality are also growing here in the "belly of the beast." There is a growing army of low-wage and sweatshop workers. The cutbacks in basic welfare programs are throwing many more people, especially children, into poverty. An entire generation of basic youth --with little prospect of decent jobs--is being brutalized and criminalized.

Will greater "openness" and "inclusion" by the WTO and similar institutions make any real difference in this situation? No. The WTO--along with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund--were created by the U.S. and other major powers. And they exist to serve imperialist needs and interests. The rules enacted and enforced by the WTO increase the freedom of action of imperialist capital--so that investments can be moved quickly from one location to another around the world to lower costs and maximize profits. And the WTO adds to the power of the imperialists to further open up Third World countries to foreign investments and control.

Who Is the Real Enemy of Small Businesses?

Lie #2: Clinton said that he "welcomed" the protests in Seattle--but claimed some of the protesters had "hurt small businesses" with their actions.

Truth: First, the targets of people's anger were not "small businesses" but big capitalist corporations like Nike, Gap and Starbucks. The cut-throat executives who run these corporations don't think twice about ruthlessly exploiting workers in Third World sweatshops--or closing down factories when they are no longer profitable and moving operations elsewhere, ruining lives in the process. These are the real crimes--not a few broken windows and graffiti.

There is another level to Clinton's deception on this point. Clinton tried come off as a champion of small businesses--but the system of imperialism that he represents continually crushes small owners and producers around the world. For example, small business owners in Mexico were hit hard in 1994 when foreign investors pulled out huge amounts of capital from the stock and bond markets, causing a major peso crisis and raising interest rates sky high. A whole movement, known as El Barzon, represents small business owners and other people in deep debt and forced into bankruptcy.

"Free trade" and globalization are also leading to further impoverishment and ruin of peasant farmers around the world. Small farmers in countries like Mexico, India and the Philippines cannot compete with cheaper agricultural imports from countries like the U.S. This is contributing to massive social dislocation in the countryside of the Third World and accelerating concentration of land ownership--while traditional agriculture and basic food production are being destroyed. When the NAFTA Treaty went into effect in 1994, there were estimates that millions of Mexican peasants were going to lose their land over the next decade. Small family farms within the U.S. have also become an endangered species, at the expense of huge agribusiness corporations. And even small farmers in Europe and Japan are threatened by U.S. agribusiness exports.

Imperialist globalization is leading to the growth of a particular kind of "small business"--in the informal/underground economy. The streets of Third World cities are filled with peddlers, especially small kids, selling gum, cigarettes and other items--trying to make a few cents to keep their families from starving.

Imperialism Can't Exist without Exploitation and Oppression

Lie #3: In Seattle, Clinton put forward the U.S. as an enlightened upholder of worker rights around the world. He signed a treaty that bars the "most abusive forms of child labor." He said this should be a "model" for other international standards on worker rights.

Truth: The imperialists--at least those who see beyond the immediate profit margins--know that the horrors of globalization are giving rise to explosive anger and mass resistance around the world. In 1997, a million peasant farmers marched in India to oppose the patenting of seeds by U.S. monopoly capitalist corporations. And the "battle of Seattle" showed that there is fierce opposition right within the U.S. Clinton's talk about worker rights is in part an attempt to alert others in the monopoly capitalist class about the dangers of this situation--and the need to mitigate the most outrageous forms of exploitation like child labor (or at least appear to be doing so) in order to protect imperialist interests. Clinton was also trying to deal with the fact that major sections of the Democratic Party social base, like the AFL-CIO, are calling for higher pay and better conditions for workers in Third World countries.

It's totally ridiculous for the U.S. president to pose as a promoter of worker rights--when U.S. multinational corporations go around the world making billions of dollars in profits from brutal exploitation. Look at the women in maquiladora factories in Mexico who work under dangerous health conditions until they can no longer "keep up" and are replaced by younger, faster workers. Look at the growing number of sweatshop factories right here in this country.

The treaty on child labor signed by Clinton has no enforcement mechanism, and the WTO meeting ended without any agreement on worker rights. But even if there were international rules on child labor and worker rights--and even if these rules were enforced--this would not change the basic realities of imperialism. Kids in Pakistan slaving for a few cents an hour to make soccer balls for export; crowded toy factories in Bangkok that are deadly firetraps--these and other outrages of today's global economy are rooted in the very nature of imperialism.

Even if some of the most vicious abuses like child labor were reformed (and that's a big if), this is still a system that cannot survive without exploiting the labor of proletarians. It is a system that splits the world into oppressor and oppressed nations, into haves and have-nots.

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