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Waking Up to the Dangers of "Free Trade"

WTO+10: When Fran Korten first started warning people about NAFTA, many had never heard of it. But the 1999 protests in Seattle showed that Americans were learning what many in the developing world had known for years: free trade agreements are not just esoteric rules about what goods can cross borders. They are about who rules—corporations or people.
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That fateful week in Seattle 10 years ago held an exquisitely satisfying meaning for my husband Dave and me. In the huge protests against the World Trade Organization, we saw that at last America had woken up to the threat of what many had thought were benign trade rules of little significance to their lives.

NAFTA signing ceremony, federal photo

Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, U.S. President George H. W. Bush, and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (standing, left to right) at the NAFTA initialing ceremony in October, 1992.

Photo courtesy of the George Busg Presidential Library and Museum

In 1993, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was up for a vote in Congress, Dave and I were fresh back from working for 15 years in Southeast Asia. There we had seen the disastrous effects that global trade pushed by powerful corporations has on people and the environment. Now we were apoplectic that the U.S. could be considering enhancing the power of those same forces right in our own country.

So we did something we had never done before. We wrote a letter (yes, snail mail) to every single person for whom we had a personal address—old friends from grade school, American colleagues we had worked with in other countries, parents of our children’s friends, our plumber. Everyone! We stuffed envelopes late into the night. In the letter, we pleaded with them to urge their congressional representatives to vote against NAFTA. We explained that this agreement was designed to benefit big corporations, could override U.S. environmental and worker protections, and run a lot of small businesses into the ground on both sides of the border. We got a lot of responses from our friends who thanked us for writing. Many said they had no idea that NAFTA was particularly important. Some had never heard of it. A few commented it sounded like some kind of cleaning agent.

More reflections on the 10th anniversary of Seattle WTO protests:
Walden Bello
Anuradha Mittal
Sarah van Gelder
Rebecca Solnit
David Korten
David Solnit

Dispatches from the 1999 event:
YES! Magazine archive

We were in agony when NAFTA passed, and even more so a year later when Congress voted for the U.S. to join the World Trade Organization. It felt like the ultimate triumph of corporate power over the needs and rights of human beings. What we did not foresee at that moment was the power of the people.

So in late 1999, when the thousands marched and courageous young people did their lock-downs, we were horrified by the violent response of the police, but exultant at the evidence that America had awakened. The tide had turned. At last, a significant number of Americans knew what many in the developing world had known for years: free trade agreements are not just esoteric rules about what goods can cross borders. They are about who rules—corporations or people.


Fran KortenFran Korten wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Fran is executive director of the Positive Future Network, publisher of YES! Magazine.

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Who Will Rule? :: We the People vs. the Corporate Giants—it’s the power struggle of our time.

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