Please accept this bulletin from the edge of consciousness. I don’t know whether I feel like crying because I am so moved by what I saw today, because my mucous membranes are shot to hell from too much tear gas, or from sheer exhaustion. But I want to get this out while it is fresh in my mind.
Tonight I watched some of the most oppressed people in this world confront some of the most influential. Tonight I watched a group of poor farmers, indigenous people, and workers speak, shout, sing truth to power.
When the day started, I was 20km south of Quito with maybe just 300 indigenas, one of two protest caravans that had crossed the country spreading the word about the protest against the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Quito. But soon after we got off the buses near Quito, the number of people seemed to mysteriously increase, as buses from the South disgorged fresh groups of protesters.
People lined the street to watch as we passed by. One shopkeeper explained to me that theindigenous people were like burros, dragging along the rest of the country, who also opposed the FTAA because it would devastate the economy.
As we headed north we were joined by groups of campesinos, students, trade unionists, and international activists who had already been fighting running battles with police attempting to turn everyone back from the summit.
Soon we were stopped by riot police, who refused to allow a delegation of civil society groups into the summit. So we headed west toward the Volcan Pichincha. More groups drifted in from the sides, and soon la Avenida Colon was packed for perhaps 8 or 10 blocks. There must have been between 8 and 15,000 people.
As we approached the Avenida Amazonas, the police opened fire with tear gas. I couldn’t see or breathe. The president of the National Judicial Workers Union was hit with three tear-gas cannisters and taken to the hospital. Several children almost asphyxiated. A reminder that ‘free’ trade can only proceed via brutal repression.
At 6 pm we made our way to the Suissotel, where the trade ministers were meeting with assorted CEOs and trade lobbyists at the 7th Americas Business Forum. 2000 people marched up to police barricades. Clearly hoping to avoid the kind of confrontations that have occurred in past uprisings, the government allowed 40 people to come in and address the visibly uncomfortable ministers, including US trade representative Robert Zoellick, who stared fixedly at his shoes.
The first speakers were representatives of an international meeting of parliament and congress members from across the hemisphere. They condemned the FTAA process, and called for an alternative integration, one that respects the needs and particular situations of the people of each country. Next came several representatives of a "civil society" forum organized by a number of pro-neoliberal NGOs with close ties to the government. Their tepid proposals were for the most part drowned out by the crowd.
Finally, the social-movement representatives spoke. Leonidas Iza, President of CONAIE (the Ecuadorian indigenous federation), rejected the FTAA and neoliberalism in general. "We are in desperate shape," he told the ministers. "You couldn’t possibly understand, you who were born in golden cradles and have never suffered. But we don’t have food to feed our children. Our markets are flooded with cheap imports. When we complain, the US government calls us terrorists. We are not threatening anything, but we are hungry and tired and things have to change.”
Today the hemispheric resistance to free trade and the FTAA took a huge step forward, even if this is but one day in a long struggle. Tonight’s show of force may also strengthen the resolve of poor countries in the negotiations that follow.