During the third week of November 2004, heads of state from 21 countries met in Santiago, Chile to hammer out the latest details of APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. APEC is currently the largest international trading bloc in world history, whose member states comprise over one-third of the world’s population. Unknown even to many veteran globalization activists, APEC transforms the Pacific region into the largest free trade bloc in world history, incorporating far-flung nations of Asia, North America and South America into a single, common market. Based on much the same principles of more notorious free trade agreements – NAFTA (North America Free Trade Agreement) and the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) – APEC seeks to remove protective tariffs and dismantle trade regulations, encouraging economic development, privatization and the free flow of capital across international boarders.
Ironically, like NAFTA and FTAA, APEC has generated the most resistance from those populations whom it claims to serve. In countries around the world, workers, farmers, environmentalists, students, intellectuals and grassroots organizations have articulated opposition to neoliberal free trade agreements like APEC. They claim such trade agreements are anti-democratic, because they shift control of a country’s resources from the local population to foreign business interests, whose only interest in a country is its ability to facilitate the accumulation of capital. While proponents of free trade argue that “first world” foreign investment in “developing” nations is a sound economic policy for alleviating poverty and improving social welfare, its results in these countries have been far from impressive.
In Chile, hawked by free-tradists as Latin America’s glowing neoliberal success story, frequent conflicts between the state and various social actors allude to the high social costs associated with the free market agenda. In the south of Chile indigenous people are violently evicted from their land to make ancient forests accessible to foreign loggers. The national public university system, historically among the strongest in Latin America, is being privatized; two-thirds of Chilean students will be unable to pay the new tuition rates. Urban poverty in Santiago and other cities is on the rise as rural populations emigrate in search of employment and create massive shantytowns on the outskirts of cities, plagued by crime and a lack of social order. Similar developments are occurring in nations across Latin America, as well as in Asia, as a result of the conditions imposed by a neoliberal free trade economic agenda. And so, as they have for many years, people across the world, dissatisfied with the results of these destructive economic policies, continue to rise up.
In response to the APEC summit and the visit of U.S. President George Bush, massive protests have been planned in Santiago, Chile’s capital city and home to one-third its population. The ostensibly democratic state has responded by deploying heavy security forces throughout the city in an effort to control protests. The BBC reports that on Wednesday November 17 during a national student march police fired tear gas and water cannons on demonstrators, and detained between 120 and 500 individuals in the streets of downtown Santiago. The government has declared Friday November 19 a national holiday in an effort to reduce chaos associated with a major nationwide protest against Bush, expected to draw up to 10,000 people. In addition to protests, dozens of concerts, forums and anti-APEC activities are taking place around Santiago.
General resentment toward Bush and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq runs deep in Chile, as it does in most other countries around the world. Bush’s appearance at the APEC summit, with this year’s special focus on counter terrorism, is the symbolic embodiment of U.S. economic and military hegemony, especially contentious in the wake of the recent election. As free trade continues to ravage the societies of the global south and U.S. bombs continue to fall on civilians in Iraq, the dynamism of the APEC demonstrations in Chile, as well as the level of corresponding state repression, will set a precedent for the growing international consensus against four more years of U.S. imperialism. The whole world is watching.