Democratic Underground

The New Conquistadors
August 8, 2001
by Christopher Harrison

A little over 500 years ago, Christopher Columbus landed in the West Indies. His landing set off a chain of events which changed our world forever. Once word reached Europe of the vast riches in the New World, ships full of Conquistadors from every major Western European nation set sail to stake their claim.

Never mind the fact that people already lived in the New World. They were a backward people. They were not civilized enough to properly use resources such as gold and silver. Europeans were surrounded by the cloak of self-righteous morality. They were going to spread the glorious word of Christianity with the Bible in one hand and a sword in the other. Those savages who would not convert or surrender, would die. Those who did, would survive only to enrich their captors while ensuring their own destruction through a cycle of disease, hunger and poverty which continues to this day.

Now, some 500 years later, the Conquistadors are still alive and well. Except this time, they are no longer preaching Christianity to the rest of the world. Now their mantra is the righteousness of free markets. Pure, unbridled capitalism is the salve to heal the ills of the world. If only to let it proceed unchecked, then there will be no more poverty and hunger. The only difference between now and then is that the conquerors are clothed in business suits rather than steel breastplates and helmets.

Free trade is not only an economic issue; it is, as President Bush referred to it, a "moral issue" as well. I couldn't have said it better myself. Free trade is a moral issue. True free trade can be used to lift up developing nations and pull them out of hunger and poverty. Unfortunately, the model which is being pushed by multinational corporations and their governement spokespeople is anything but free trade. Rather, it is a mechanism of furthering the current state of impoverishment in the developing world.

The developed nations of the world already have more wealth than they know what to do with. But, much like their Western European ancestors, they are committed to acquiring all the resources they can, no matter the cost to the poor savages who happen to get in the way. The Conquistadors of old accomplished this end through the use of brute force, assisted by the diseases they transported with them. Their modern-day brethren accomplish their goals through a more elaborate web of intimidation, legal nuance and press manipulation, with the sword unsheathed and at the ready, to be used if other coercive measures fail.

The colonial imperialists of Spain, England and France espoused the values of Christianity while simultaneously breaking every one of its tenets attempting to spread its word. They took a religion which taught principles such as love, peace, understanding, compassion and forgiveness; and they enforced them through administration of violent action such as pillaging, raping, stealing and destroying. Unfortunately, it is a legacy being continued through our present day.

The industrialized nations of the world are spreading the gospel of free markets and capitalism, while at the same time applying severely protectionist measures to their own economies. Led by the standard-bearer of unregulated markets, the United States, they are forcing developing countries to adopt measures allowing foreign interests to plunder them for their own enrichment. Once their resources have been exhausted, they are cast aside like a piece of unwanted trash.

The language of these agreements speaks volumes to whose interests they are meant to protect. Commerce and industry are protected by an elaborate web of legalese while issues such as environmental standards and labor rights are spoken of in broad terms such as "promotion" and "understanding." Special attention is given to "free transfer of funds," "intellectual property rights" and corporate compensation against "expropriation."

The list of victims throughout the world is growing as these practices are allowed to continue. The United States, along with its Canadian ally, has established a neo-imperialist empire in the northern part of the Western Hemisphere under the guise of NAFTA. Now, they are attempting to expand and solidify this empire through the implementation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Developing countries are faced with a difficult decision: open their markets to be plundered by the North, with the possibility of a few scraps "trickling down"; or be completely shut out with respect to trade. In essence, it's a choice between two evils without knowing which is the lesser.

Events on the world stage are proceeding in a similar fashion. The IMF and World Bank have encumbered developing nations with debt for years, stating the end goal as "economic development." Unfortunately, the benefits of these loans flow to the wealthy while the poor are left to pay back the debt. This is reinforced through the requirements of privatization and elimination of government services which are tied to the loans. Policies are decided through the "one dollar, one vote" mechanism, where a country's input is directly correlated to their share in the world economy. The United States controls 17% of the world's economy, while all of Africa controls 1%. This means that the US has 17 votes to every 1 for Africa. This could be described as a democratic process in only the most liberal interpretation of the term. And it leaves little doubt as to whose interests will be given priority in the establishment of policy.

Now, the WTO has joined the act. While it is an organization which passes itself off as "democratic," its decision-making processes are anything but. Policies are debated upon and set by 25-30 industrialized nations; while the remaining developing nations, which constitute over 100 of the members, are shut out of the discussions and ensuing votes. WTO head Mike Moore has termed this decision-making process as "non-negotiable." Once again, the economic imperialism of the Conquistadors trumps democracy for all.

But there is hope. Despite the attempts within the Western media to wash away the anti-globalization protests, the message of the protesters is being heard. People from all walks of life are banding together to try and put an end to this cycle of exploitation and destruction which has been taking place for the past 500 years. Even French President Jacques Chirac acknowledged during the recent G-8 summit in Genoa that if hundreds of thousands of people are coming together to protest these economic summits, they surely must have a message which needs to be heard. President George W. Bush took the low road, stating, "Those protestors who try to shut down our talks on trade and aid don't represent the poor." And I guess a person from such a privileged background as President Bush speaks on the poor's behalf.

History is at a crossroads. We as a world community can choose to embrace policies and values to truly eliminate hunger and poverty, preserve the earth for ourselves and our progeny, and make this planet a truly better place for all. Or, we can continue down our present path of violence, poverty, death and destruction for the enrichment of the few. The modern Conquistadors may have the funds, but the people have the numbers. Protesters are being dismissed by those currently holding the reins of power. In developing nations as well as industrialized ones since the G-8 Summit in Genoa they can be killed outright for their beliefs. But, as Mahatma Gandhi once said, "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you. And then you win." Let us hope his words are prophetic in sealing this continually oozing wound of history.

The author is the trade issues lead for the Lower Hudson (NY) Sierra Club, and an overly irate citizen.

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