Will free trade kill democracy?

Thousands of protesters send out an SOS in Quebec: Governments are giving corporations free rein to negotiate a hemispheric trade pact.

Topics: Globalization, Unemployment,

Will free trade kill democracy?

The capital’s old walled city on a rocky bluff above the St. Lawrence River has long been a magnet for tourists, but the tourist attraction this weekend was a new wall. It’s a two-and-a-half-mile, 10-foot-high chain-link fence that slashes through the old city and surrounds the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of 34 heads of state in the Western Hemisphere (excluding only Fidel Castro of Cuba).

The leaders came here to negotiate the Free Trade Area of the Americas — an agreement that would lift protections and tariffs on imports and exports among just about every country between Canada and Argentina, creating the world’s largest free-trade zone. Wrapping up on Sunday a meeting that was more pomp than circumstance, they agreed to proceed with FTAA negotiations on schedule — not at the accelerated pace President Bush had hoped for — and to require that countries participating in future summits be democratic. But the real focus this weekend was on how well the anti-globalization movement has aged since its dramatic debut in Seattle less than two years ago.

The protesters, mainly from Canada but also from the United States and many Central and Latin American countries, streamed into Quebec by the thousands last week. They headed straight to the fence, demonstrating and posting signs, artwork and even bras on the fence with messages like “Solidarity,” “Justice for everyone,” “Act for a better earth,” “Capital is violent” and “Prison for corrupt politicians.” The protesters posed for pictures in front of the fence, making sure that some of the 6,000-man police force, attired in Darth Vader helmets, gas masks and other riot gear, were visible in the background. Greg Murphy, a 31-year-old English teacher who lives near the fence — dubbed by many the “Wall of Shame” — was out for a nightly stroll and observed, “When you see that wall up, it’s a message that ‘we don’t care what you have to say.’ It makes you feel unwanted. I’m against violent protest, but I’d rather have one or two skirmishes than this.”



The wall itself became the focal point for ongoing skirmishes starting on Friday, the opening day, when about 7,500 protesters, mainly young people, marched from Laval University, divided into those going to the “green zone,” where the risk of arrest would be low, and those heading for the “yellow” and “red” zone, where there would be a “diversity of tactics” and a higher chance of arrest. Within a few minutes of arriving at the yellow-red zone, a few protesters began lobbing objects across the fence, starting with toilet paper rolls, then moving on to plastic bottles and golf balls. Within 15 minutes, militants at the front had managed to pull down the hated wall, and about 100 people crossed over to the other side, breaching the police security lines. Ten minutes later, the police launched their first tear gas attacks, and the battle was on.

Protesters launched miscellaneous projectiles as police sought to immobilize them with the tear gas canisters, which the protesters in turn often threw back at the police. Most of the crowd seemed supportive of tearing down the wall, even confronting the police physically, but did not take part personally, simply ebbing back and forth as the stinging gas drove the majority who came without gas masks and goggles to retreat periodically. The police relied more on gas than beatings or arrests, but they also employed water cannons and plastic and rubber bullets.

To the critics of the FTAA, the battle is not over trade — nearly everyone on both sides of the fence voices support for more trade — but the terms of trade and, most important, the rules of investment that are increasingly at the heart of “trade” agreements. The real issue, according to the Peoples’ Summit of the Americas, a shadow gathering of citizen, environmental, labor and peasant groups from the Americas that met during the week before the official summit, is whether democracy and human rights will be trampled as an FTAA protects the rights of corporations and the mobility of capital. “The primacy of human rights should be the signpost for any agreement,” argued Nicole Filion, a spokeswoman for the Hemispheric Social Alliance that sponsored the Peoples’ Summit.

The wall became a symbol of how the summit leaders are pushing ahead with negotiations, which are due to be completed by Jan. 1, 2005, without listening to the concerns of a vast number of citizens who have growing doubts about agreements like NAFTA. With the exception of a few mainstream nongovernmental organizations, the only guests behind the chain-link fence were corporate executives, who paid from $50,000 to $1.5 million to sponsor the event and hobnob with the political leaders. Corporate advisors are intimately involved in all aspects of the negotiations, but there isn’t a single labor advisory group. The draft negotiating text has even been kept from most members of legislative bodies throughout the hemisphere as well as the public, but about 500 corporate executives have had security clearance to see it, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail. At Canada’s urging, the summit finally voted to release the draft, but as the Peoples’ Summit was meeting, a copy of the investment chapter was leaked, confirming that the FTAA was shaping up to be much like NAFTA, potentially granting even broader rights than NAFTA does to corporations.

Unlike the Seattle World Trade Organization protests of November 1999, where a disciplined group of nonviolent protesters used civil disobedience tactics to shut down the opening of the talks, the confrontation in Quebec was aimed at the fence and the police. The largely black-clad and masked militants, loosely identified as anarchists or the “black bloc,” made very few attacks on property, though many businesses had prepared for them by covering windows with plywood. Indeed, many residents of the neighborhoods near the protest were openly sympathetic, offering protesters water to wash the tear gas out of their eyes.

Friday’s protest was leavened with whimsy: Shortly after the anarchists tore down the wall, a medieval-themed faction rolled up its catapult and flung pink stuffed animals at the police. There was street theater, a Statue of Liberty on stilts (later damaged when police rubber bullets knocked it down), a group of “pagans” symbolizing a river and trying to heal the crowd, young men in suits with signs like “Trees or Bush: It’s Your Choice” and a young man, dressed as the Easter Bunny, handing out chocolate eggs to people as they recovered from tear gas attacks.

On Saturday, the ranks of demonstrators mushroomed enormously as the labor movement, prominent citizen groups like the Council of Canadians and other opponents of the FTAA brought supporters to Quebec for a massive peaceful protest. The size of the crowd was estimated at anywhere from 25,000 (by the police) to as many as 68,000 (by an organizer); a good bet is that the real number came close to 45,000, not counting the several thousand militants who were at the heart of a second day of conflicts with the police near the wall. As the big march set off on a beautiful spring day, militants at a crucial turning point tried to divert the crowd to the wall — “to the left, not to the right” became the logistical and political rallying cry — but the vast majority followed the path away from the wall to a large rally.

“I say the real violence lies behind the wall,” declared Council of Canadians chairwoman Maude Barlow, a veteran of Canada’s campaigns against free trade, which have gone on longer and found stronger support than the parallel movement in the United States. Indeed, a poll conducted for the Canadian Labour Congress revealed that one-fifth of Canadians said they would have liked to come to Quebec to protest the FTAA, and other polls indicate a slight majority of Canadians either oppose the FTAA or have doubts about it.

As the march proceeded down the streets of Quebec, it revealed both the political discipline of the labor movement (members of which carried flags saying “Don’t trade away my rights”) and the spirit of a “Carnival Against Capitalism” that had been promised. There were giant puppets and groups like the Radical Cheerleaders and the Radical Cooks Contingent (critics of genetic engineering and corporate agribusiness who called for “Responsible Government” and implored summit leaders to “Fork the FTAA”). Although less dramatic than the street fights, the march was probably politically more threatening to politicians, because it represented a breadth of opposition, uniting doctors and farmers, steelworkers worried about job losses in Canada, Mexican “maquiladora” organizers distressed at the continued lack of labor rights under NAFTA, environmentalists and teachers worried about the potential threat of privatization of education posed by the investment language of NAFTA and the FTAA.

Indeed, the investor rights provision of NAFTA, which even critics did not fully understand when the agreement was signed, has become one of the main focal points of opposition to FTAA. NAFTA and the WTO greatly reduced the ability of member governments to regulate foreign investment and increased protection of intellectual property rights. Pharmaceutical companies (with backing from the United States) have attacked the efforts of developing countries — like Brazil — to provide cheap generic versions of AIDS drugs, and their intellectual property claims have greatly disturbed many people, who see the pursuit of profit leading directly to more and unnecessary deaths. (A group of pharmaceutical companies dropped its lawsuit against the South African government last week, but the U.S. challenge to Brazil continues in the WTO.)

NAFTA goes beyond the WTO and most trade agreements in permitting private corporations to sue governments and demand financial compensation or changes in laws if they can persuade a highly secretive panel of trade specialists that they have lost profits or potential profits because of a government policy. In the first case brought under NAFTA’s Chapter 11 rules, America’s Ethyl Corp. sued Canada for banning use of a fuel additive, MMT, that was already prohibited for health reasons in some U.S. states. The corporation claimed that Canada’s legislative action treated it prejudicially, imposed unfair performance requirements and was “tantamount to expropriation” of its assets. The company won, and Canada settled by paying the company $13 million and rescinding its law.

Another U.S. corporation, Metalclad, similarly won a claim against the Mexican government when a municipal government refused to give it a permit to build a waste-transfer facility in the town. Canada’s Methanex is suing the U.S. over California’s prohibition of future use of the fuel additive MTBE, which is a serious groundwater pollutant. And in a recent case that has public workers and others in Canada and the United States concerned, the United Parcel Service has sued Canada for $160 million in damages, claiming that the Canadian postal service subsidizes its courier operation through the operation of its post offices and distribution system.

Some government officials, including Canadian trade minister Pierre Pettigrew, have expressed misgivings about the rights of investors to sue governments, but the leaked draft text of the FTAA — which includes many bracketed sections indicating alternative wordings — basically follows the NAFTA model. The Council of Canadians’ Barlow said, “In some parts we think it is worse than NAFTA.” There is special concern in Canada that a section bringing services under FTAA rules — which has not yet been leaked — combined with the investor section, will provide ammunition for U.S. corporations to undermine Canada’s cherished national healthcare system, public education and other public services, and possibly force Canada to sell its water and energy to the United States, even when doing so is not in its national interest.

Critics find NAFTA a failure on many fronts. Human Rights Watch recently pronounced the side agreement on labor rights a flop. There has been virtually no cleanup of the maquiladora zone of factories along the U.S.-Mexico border. And the Economic Policy Institute in Washington reported that NAFTA workers in all three member countries have lost ground as a result of a “continent-wide pattern of stagnant worker incomes, increased insecurity, and rising inequality.”

Even a few heads of state — those from Brazil, Venezuela and the small Caribbean countries — took note of the protests in Quebec and widespread doubts among their populations at home about the benefits of the new free-trade regimes. The summit obliquely responded to such popular protests by adopting a new democracy clause, which would exclude nonelected governments from future summits and, potentially, the FTAA. But Warren Allmand, director of the Canadian Center for Rights and Democracy, criticized the statement as too narrow, saying it ignores important components of democracy, ranging from an independent judiciary to equitable distribution of wealth — and the language remains loose enough that governments that the United States doesn’t like could be excluded while repressive governments that nevertheless have some sort of elections are included.

On Saturday, the day of the biggest march, there were reports of 57 serious injuries among protestors and about 300 arrests, including a Latin American-style seizure of a protest leader from a peaceful side street by a group of large men in street clothes who at first didn’t even identify themselves as police.

The protesters did not manage to halt the summit, but their actions and the police tear gas — which was often quite noticeable inside the fence and in the official summit hotels — did disrupt the event. And though Seattle was more of a shock and surprise to the global elite and the mass media, the turnout in Quebec was larger, pushing the battle over globalization to a new level. The protests focused on an issue that has otherwise barely entered into the consciousness of most Americans, North and South, and more people are now aware of the proposed treaty. But they may wonder what it portends for them when government leaders and their corporate supporters secret themselves behind a chain-link fence to plot the future of the Americas.

The critics of the FTAA, while divided on protest tactics, are united more than ever on the idea that the entire NAFTA model must be drastically reworked to provide a new framework of hemispheric integration that puts human rights, democracy and reduction of inequality at the top of the agenda.

The progress of the movement, however, was most evident at the alternative Peoples’ Summit. The prospect of economic integration under rules favorable to big corporations has brought together an unusual hemispheric alliance, linking rich, poor and newly industrialized countries far more intimately than in Seattle. Increasingly, neither labor nor environmental groups think that NAFTA-like agreements can be fixed with the simple addition of a clause protecting workers’ rights or the environment, even though those are still prime demands. These groups not only are challenging the model of free-market fundamentalism more broadly but have taken new steps toward creating an alternative model of social and economic integration of the Americas, building on a document first hammered out two years ago during the first Peoples’ Summit in Santiago, Chile. In the interim, governments have increasingly been forced to claim that they are really acting to reduce poverty, protect the environment and promote human rights and democracy.

Although critics see these promises as hollow window dressing designed to mute protest, they are also a sign that the terms of the debate are shifting: These global “trade” deals, which have for many years been vehicles for the imposition of a deregulatory political and economic model, now must be judged on more than whether they expand trade.

David Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times and a fellow at the Nation Institute.

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