A reality check

Published : May 12, 2001 00:00 IST

Confrontation at the venue of the Summit of the Americas in Quebec.

FROM April 20 to 24, two sets of acronyms faced each other. Behind a 4-km perimeter metal fence and a force of 5,000 armed Canadian policepersons, stood the sentinels of NAFTA, MAI, WTO, IMF, OAS - those who came to Quebec with neoliberalism as their mantra and with commerce as their currency. They gathered at the Summit of the Americas in this city dating back to the 17th century to try to agree to the parameters of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The 34 members of the OAS (Organisation of American States), minus Cuba, want to adopt a hemispheric version of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). Two days into their negotiations, the leaders produced a declaration that indicated their quest to "create greater prosperity and expand economic opportunities while fostering social justice and the realization of human potential". Even the 30,000 people who stood on the other side of the fence could not disagree with such a banal proposition.

But the second assembly of people did register their sharpest disagreement with their elected representatives who sat within the Quebec Convention Centre and the Citadel, which overlooks the St. Lawrence river. They came with their own set of acronyms - CLAC, CASA, GOMM, OQP, FTQ, CTC, CLC, IUE, SEIU, SCD, SFPQ, ALLIANCE, USW, CAW, ATTAC - names of trade unions, citizens' groups, political organisations, that were emblazoned on banners and T-shirts to announce that the public refuse to be sidelined as policy is being made.

Many of those who came to register their protest did so without organisation or affiliation. "What is difficult to convey in media reports," wrote Naomi Klein, author of the superb No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Picador, 1999: reviewed in Frontline, March 30, 2001), "is that there weren't two protests that took place in Quebec City - one a "peaceful" labour march, the other "violent" anarchist riot. There were hundreds of protests. One was organised by a mother and daughter from Montreal. Another by a vanload of grad students from Edmonton. Another by three friends from Toronto who aren't members of anything but their health clubs. Yet another by a couple of waiters from a local cafe on their lunch break. They didn't join one big protest, they participated in a movement."

The two sides met momentarily at the 3.5-metre high perimeter fence, which the Canadian police said was impregnable, and which the protesters called the 'wall of shame.' The fence represented the contradictions of 'free' trade. While NAFTA and FTAA speak a language of freedom, they mean only the freedom of capital to transgress sovereign borders, but not the freedom of people to move across them. For example, U.S. capital routinely moves to Mexico to take advantage of a relatively powerless labour force and an unregulated environment. On the other hand, Mexican workers face a metal wall along the Rio Grande: more Mexicans have died in the past four years as a result of the U.S. Operation Gatekeeper than all those who were shot from 1949 to 1989 trying to scale the Berlin Wall.

Canadian immigration officials stopped protesters who tried to enter the country. The Canadians used the previous arrest records of individual protesters as grounds for denial of entry (of course George W. Bush's own arrest record for drunken driving was not held against him.)

Hours into the protest, a group of people scaled the fence and eventually tore a part of it down. Hundreds of people rushed through toward the police cordon. "I believe the provocation started with that damn wall," noted Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians, one of the hosts for the protest. The police then opened up with teargas. Part of the drama of the five days that shook the world from Seattle was the teargas, when the police there lost control of the crowd and resorted to its indiscriminate use. The Wall Street Journal called that the "Tear Gas Round", and one might call Quebec, Tear Gas II. The battle was joined. Andre Paradis, executive director of the Quebec League of Rights and Liberties (Ligue des droits et libertes) noted that the police used teargas with only minimal provocation, they moved to weapons such as water cannons and plastic bullets despite the peaceful nature of the protests, and they chased fleeing marchers into residential areas. Anna Dashtgard, organiser with the Common Front Against the World Trade Organisation and an anti-globalisation protest veteran, said: "I've never experienced anything like this. It was so brutal." The police arrested hundreds of people, doused with teargas and stung by rubber bullets. Of those arrested was Montreal-based anti-corporate activist Jaggi Singh, whom the Quebec police charged with participation in riot and possession of a weapon. The weapon in question turns out to be a stuffed toy, one of many lobbed at the police line by Jaggi Singh and his friends from a theatrical catapult!

THE battle over the fence and afterwards made it clear that despite the mass force of the crowd, they could not overcome the well-trained and well-armed constabulary. The protest was a political, not a military one, so that one should only assess it for its political gains. And these are considerable. The clearest illustration of the power of the demonstration was the language of George W. Bush's speech and on the last page of the 43-page 'action plan' released by the officials. Bush told his fellow heads of state that ''some complain that despite our democratic gains, there is still too much poverty, inequality. Some even say that things are getting worse, not better. For too many, this may be true." The "Quebec canaille" forced this kind of language from a man who is otherwise loath to admit either the existence of deprivation or the fact that the government has a role in the creation of equity. More important as the Summit came to a close the leaders released their 'action plan' filled with tasks to shepherd the FTAA movement from Quebec to Buenos Aires, Argentina where it will meet in 2004. The last page of the plan notes that "we further support consideration by the Organisation of American States and national governments of ways in which civil society can contribute to the monitoring and implementing of summit mandates." This bureaucratic language simply means that the organisers of the Summit plan to make the talks more transparent by opening the discussion to those who right now are on the streets. This is a remarkable development, even if its vagueness raises fundamental questions. For example, will the representatives of civil society enter the discussion as observers who will not get an opportunity to confer with their amorphous constituencies?

Will civil society organisations get the same access to the texts of the Summit Implementation Review Group process that are now made available to business groups? "Am I jumping for joy?" Maude Barlow noted when the plan was released, "No. Will we take everything we can get? Sure." The Summit organisers want to make available to the public the FTAA draft text and "additional information on the process of negotiations," both pieces of information hitherto difficult to find. If these promises are kept, then the movement will have gained a real measure of strength in the creation of public policy. If the Summit organisers renege on them, then it will be one more betrayal and one more reason to come out in strength at the next round.

The protests on the streets enabled the dissent of several of the 34 nations attain some measure of media exposure. At each of these summits, at least one leader of an exploited nation steps forward to render a strong critique, but this is frequently mocked by media silence.

Not in Quebec. Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, onetime Marxist sociologist but now a neoliberal, noted that the protesters are "motivated by fear of the free trade agreement or globalisation without a human face." Their protests and the woes of Brazil pushed Cardoso to pledge to fight for "trade openings that are reciprocal and to help close rather than widen the disparities in our region. We will insist that the benefits of free trade are shared equally." Mexican President Vicente Fox reminded the Summit that of the 220 million people in Latin America, a quarter of the FTAA's projected population, live far below the poverty line and take little pleasure in the $ 17 trillion in goods and services produced in the region. "There is a lot to celebrate," said this former head of Coca-Cola Mexico, "but there is also a lot to lament. We need a strong expansion of economic citizenship, to democratise markets. Only by doing that can we develop the energy of the millions who have been excluded from economic development." Fox, despite his affiliation to a pro-corporate rightwing party, is a member of the Buenos Aires Consensus or Latin American Alternative, a group formed by his Foreign Minister Jorge Castenada and Brazilian legal scholar Roberto Mangabeira Ungerto in order to offer an alternative to the Washington Consensus. Further to the Left of Cardoso and Fox stood Prime Minister Kenny Anthony of St. Lucia, who pointedly noted that "until all the peoples of the Americas are free from hunger and fear of unemployment, we cannot celebrate the benefits of trade liberalisation."

Surrounded by these warnings about the nostrum of free trade, George W. Bush announced that "free and open trade creates new jobs and new income. It lifts the lives of all our people, applying the power of markets to the needs of the poor. Trade helps spread freedom." But the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that 70 per cent of the gains of the Uruguay Round of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) have been absorbed by the advanced industrial states, that in the name of freedom these states have further impoverished the bulk of the world. The FTAA, like NAFTA, is based on World Trade Organisation (WTO) law and on the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS): as of now, nine working groups are negotiating rules about agriculture, investment, intellectual property rights, subsidies, government procurement, market access, dispute settlement, competition policy and utilities (water and electricity). There is no formal discussion on labour rights, human rights, the environment, consumer safety or democratic governance. These fundamental elements of human freedom are not to be part of the equation, so that when Bush says that "trade helps spread freedom," he means the freedom of commerce and not of communities. The FTAA, like NAFTA, will weaken the power of individual states (that are accountable, in theory, to an enfranchised populace): Metalclad, a California-based garbage company, forced Mexico, through the in camera NAFTA tribunal, to pay it $16.7 million in damages when its toxic dump was closed by local authorities in San Luis Potosi. In the FTAA-NAFTA-WTO logic, a private firm can sue nation-states to circumvent, indeed disable, local rules.

But all states that join the FTAA will not be equally debilitated. Although the FTAA document says that its states must "strive to limit military expenditures," the centrality of the 'Anti-Drug Strategy' enables the U.S. to continue its routine military dominance over the territory south of its borders: Plan Colombia will not be threatened by the FTAA. The 34 states that will join the FTAA, in other words, will commit a sort of statutory suicide, just as it seems clear that they will suffer the indignity of being under the will of the multinational firm and the firm hand of the U.S. military.

But before this can happen, the citizenry are ready to assemble, the stuffed toys are at hand, and the rags have been soaked in water...

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