When President Clinton addresses trade ministers today at the World Trade Organization conference, he will have some rather embarrassing explaining to do. Seattle, host of this week's activities, is in a state of "civil emergency," according to the mayor, following a successful shutdown of the ceremonial opening by protesters.

From 7 p.m. PST yesterday to 7:30 a.m. today, a curfew is in effect. The National Guard, along with 300 state troopers, have been called in. Helicopters circled over the nearly empty city center, and police used tear gas, pepper spray and bright lights to disperse remaining protesters.

"This is worse than in Haiti when the multinational force came," noted a Haitian journalist as he walked to his hotel through the center after curfew. Another journalist in the media center quipped, "This is the great American f*@#-up."

For their parts, the U.S. delegation refused to accept embarrassment for the situation. In a press conference Tuesday night, Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, said the president felt the overwhelming number of demonstrators marched in a peaceful and organized way "in the best tradition of free speech and democracy."

Unfortunately for Seattle, downtown merchants and Clinton, a small fraction of the demonstrators, apparently unaligned with any of the larger protest groups and acting against the vocal wishes of the majority, trashed a Starbucks cafe, burned trash bins and vandalized shops, cars and buses throughout downtown Tuesday night. The aggressive actions have nearly overshadowed the over 20,000-person-strong march by labor and environmental groups that circled downtown Tuesday afternoon.

Union members from Quebec to Southern California joined more mainstream environmental organizations to call for "Fair Trade -- Not Free Trade." Marchers walked the city's center slowly and quietly, save for the occasional, "Unions -- Yes!" slogan. Near the Convention Center, the labor marchers were joined by many of the 6,000 or so protesters who had maneuvered the shutdown. As the mixed demonstration reached the Paramount Theater, where Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had been scheduled to talk earlier that day, the two groups split off with the larger group following the route they had secured with the city.

U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky reiterated Tuesday evening that the U.S. agenda for the WTO meetings reflected many of the protesters' concerns. "We believe that this is a constellation of issues environmental and labor standards, job dislocation and transparency that needs to be addressed by the WTO as we move into the next century," she said.

Indeed, the U.S. appears to be fashioning itself as the unlikely defender of lesser-developed countries and U.S. labor -- as if the Clinton administration wants to deflect its image as the world's policeman, while passing a trade baton to Vice President Al Gore that is not weighted by issues surrounding China.

Despite the earlier delays, plenary sessions began on time with delegates from more than two dozen countries presenting their formal positions. In closed sessions, other trade delegates worked on what have become the five working groups of the Seattle summit: market access, agriculture, implementation issues, new issues such as investment and e-commerce, and institutional reform.

The agriculture group is expected to present a revised text Wednesday morning and a final text perhaps by Friday. Barshefsky remained optimistic that the great differences that divide the European Union, Japan and the U.S. on issues such as export subsidies and emergency farm aid will be bridged. Yet even if the U.S. and other delegates are able to salvage this week's meetings and produce concrete agenda and declarations, it remains to be seen whether the U.S. can salvage its image.

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