Free trade, closed talks

As authorities build a wall around the FTAA summit in Quebec City, anti-globalization protesters are hoping to infiltrate the discussion.

Published April 20, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

Quebec City is North America's only walled city. The enclave's magnificent stone walls were first built by the French, who were trying to keep the British out, and later by the Brits, who were trying to keep out Americans. Today, the Quebec government is building a new wall, 2.4 miles long and 10 feet high, to separate visiting diplomats from the thousands of anti-globalization protesters who are expected to converge on the city.

The diplomats are there to negotiate the sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement. But to the protesters, Quebec City's new wall is a metaphor for the way the agreement has been negotiated -- with opponents walled out of largely secret negotiations. The FTAA, an idea first spawned at the Summit of the Americas in 1994, would dismantle protectionist policies that ban trade on certain products and services and would eliminate tariffs on goods imported and exported between member countries.

"What they're doing in Quebec City is wrong," says Leo Gerard, president of the 700,000-member United Steelworkers of America union. "They're saying that they want to take down trade barriers, but they're building walls as they negotiate in secret. If you try to get to the other side of the wall, you'll be jailed. All around the world, in order to try to minimize the exposure of dissent, countries are criminalizing the protesters."

The Steelworkers are deploying thousands of members to participate in the People's Summit of the Americas, a shadow summit being organized by human rights organizations, labor and groups like Doctors without Borders. Steelworkers are also participating in actions planned by the dozens of protest coalition groups descending on Quebec City, hoping to disrupt the meeting to hammer out the FTAA. Organizers expect 15,000 demonstrators, some of whom, like anarchists who deride the future pact as "brawny and bigamist 'free' trade" would like to stop the FTAA altogether, while others want its negotiations to be more open and inclusive, and lead to increased protections for labor and the environment.

The Quebec City protests are one of several sequels to the battle over free trade that flared up over the December 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. The Seattle protest drew 35,000, and collateral anarchist violence -- including the smashing of windows at stores owned by multinationals like Starbucks and Nike -- led to 600 arrests. The protest was largely successful in shutting down WTO negotiations, and its organizers hoped for a repeat a year ago, at the annual meeting of the IMF and the World Bank. But the Washington protests were met with a stronger police response (the ACLU would later sue the city for its heavy-handed tactics) and the meetings proceeded without interruption, after 1,300 of 10,000 protesters were arrested.

The battle got a little uglier last September at a World Bank meeting in Prague, where protesters chucked the city's ancient cobblestones at police. While the police estimated that only 6,000 protesters showed up, there were more than 420 arrests and 100 injuries -- including some 63 police officers.

Some FTAA protest organizers are hoping for a rerun of Seattle. "We intend to shut down the Summit of the Americas and to turn the FTAA negotiations into a non-event," declare the leaders of Montreal direct-action group Operation SalAmi ("dirty friend" in French), on the organization's Web site.

Two competing factions are coordinating the main Quebec protests: While Operation SalAmi advocates nonviolence, La Convergence des Luttes Anti-Capitalistes (CLAC, which is organizing a "Carnival Against Capitalism") and the Summit of the Americas Welcoming Committee (CASA) endorse whatever forms of protest are required to shut the summit meeting down.

In a recent article about planning efforts by CLAC and Operation SalAmi, Canadian journalist Andrew Duffy wrote that "Ideological clashes between the camps have colored a series of organizational meetings over the past four months." That rift has centered on whether or not property damage -- like the windows of McDonald's or other multinationals -- should be included in the groups' definitions of violence. That split ultimately led to two different organizations who share the same views but apparently don't hold the same values.

Anarchists have endorsed the Carnival Against Capitalism, and in an anonymously posted call to action on the Web site, have asked fellow anarchists to unite into a "single anarchist contingent" at the CLAC/CASA sponsored events in order to "spoil the fun" of the leaders gathering at the summit. "Together, we will soften their hard-ons," the letter states.

The a20 site notes eight major groups planning actions in Quebec City, but dozens of others will also be represented, many of which can be found on a Web site maintained by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Estimates of the number of protesters converging on Quebec City range from 10,000 to 50,000.

In order for the protests against the FTAA to be effective, organizers must find new tactics in Quebec. Police have had time to learn from the strategies of protesters in Seattle and Washington, D.C., as well as at the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia and its Democratic counterpart in Los Angeles. There are already reports of Canadian customs officials turning away protesters at the U.S.-Canada border checkpoints. As Canadian writer Naomi Klein observed in the Nation last week, "Seattle's direct-action tactics worked because they took the police by surprise ... That won't happen again. Police have now subscribed to all the e-mail lists."

The aggressive efforts of Quebec police to isolate protesters have enraged Canadian intellectuals, who under the nom du protest "Citizen Caged" have distributed a letter condemning the fencing. Among the signatories are such prominent Canadians as authors Klein and Margaret Atwood and film director Atom Egoyan. The letter implores the Canadian government to set a good example for future cities hosting similarly contested events.

"Designed to keep lawful protesters out of sight and earshot, the construction of a security barrier around Quebec City tramples on such fundamental freedoms ... the planned presence of 6,000 police officers around the summit site is not an incentive to peaceful protest. We condemn the practice of arbitrarily refusing entry to concerned citizens of other countries, thereby preventing them from expressing their views about the Free Trade Area of the Americas," the letter reads.

Those who make it to Quebec City will be met by the wall, which will be reinforced by police equipped with rubber bullet-dispensing guns and full riot gear. They've been consulting with Washington, D.C., police, who successfully contained similar protests last spring.

To a remarkable degree, the anti-globalization protesters have changed the international debate over trade since their emergence in Seattle in 1999. "Their public presentation is excellent," says Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics and author of a book praising the economic growth that resulted after the implementation of NAFTA. "They're not saying they're against these agreements, full stop. They're saying they will support the agreements, but that they want a lot of social values to be included -- like increased democracy, women's rights, Native American rights and also provisions for the environment and better labor conditions. These are all values that Americans embrace, so the question is what's negotiable."

What's negotiable will indeed be the big question in Quebec. The proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas would include every North and South American state except Cuba -- forming a zone that, encompassing 800 million people and generating a cumulative $11.5 trillion in trade, would immediately become the world's largest free-trade zone.

Though the zone would probably only lead to marginal economic growth in the United States, it could reap enormous benefits for the developing economies of Central and South America -- reducing poverty and economic inequality between Latin America and the U.S. and Canada. FTAA proponents point to the ascendant economy of Mexico, which has soared since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, as an indicator of what's in store.

"It would improve the economies, make them more democratic," says IIE's Hufbauer. "Maybe over a generation they could reduce the income gap with the United States. Remember, the numbers we projected for NAFTA-related growth were far too modest. The numbers have grown more than anyone expected; it's a huge success."

In pure economic terms, NAFTA has been good for all three of its members. According to data compiled by the Institute for International Economics, Canadian exports grew from $126 billion to $237 billion between 1990-99; Mexican exports more than doubled between 1993 and 1999, from $48 billion to $120 billion; and American exports nearly tripled, rising from $251 billion to $700 billion between 1990-99. Much of that gain was attributed to NAFTA and global market liberalization created by the World Trade Organization.

Carol Graham, who heads the Center on Social and Economic Dynamics at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says "the basic evidence is that countries that open up to the international economy grow faster. Without growth, you can't reduce poverty.

"I'm not sanctioning the conditions of the maquiladoras, but these people would not be doing those jobs if they had alternatives," Graham says, her voice swift. "It's like when people go on and on about banning child labor. Child labor is horrible, but if child labor is preventing a family from dying of starvation, what's the alternative? That doesn't mean we shouldn't pay attention to issues like labor and the environment, but we shouldn't assume that we can fast-forward things and impose on developing economies things that took years for our economies to develop."

But negotiations toward free trade in the Americas is happening too quickly, too secretively and without input from environmentalists and labor, the groups organizing against the FTAA charge.

"There's been a shocking and disturbing lack of transparency to the whole FTAA debate and a deliberate exclusion of the voices of people with an alternative view," United Steelworkers' Gerard asserts. "There is no government that I can find in the FTAA negotiations or NAFTA that is getting participation from anyone other than corporations or elected trade bureaucrats." He describes the current negotiations as the drafting of a "new economic constitution for multinational corporations." (In one small victory for interest groups, the FTAA's organizing body has agreed to publicly release a blueprint for the FTAA at the Quebec City summit later this week.)

The core argument advanced by organizations opposed to the FTAA and other multilateral trade agreements is that environmental regulations and firm labor policies should be a part of any pact. That didn't happen with NAFTA, and these groups are armed with statistics to demonstrate the consequences of that treaty. In the maquiladora industrial zones that skirt Mexico's border with the United States, more than 44 tons of hazardous waste are improperly discarded every day. Cases of hepatitis there are two to three times higher than the national average, according to figures supplied by Ralph Nader's organization Global Citizen.

"NAFTA has been a failure. It certainly is not a model that should be expanded," says Jason Mark of Global Exchange, a San Francisco human rights organization that has been at the forefront of the anti-globalization movement. "In the debate leading up to NAFTA, they said it would not lead to job loss or environmental destruction, but they were wrong on both counts. Just look at the Mexican state of Guerrero, where old-growth forests have been logged for the past seven years; there's been a massive increase in deforestation there and subsequent environmental problems caused by erosion. That's going to happen in other countries."

Mark and other critics also point to Chapter 11 -- a controversial provision of NAFTA that permits corporations to sue member governments if they create regulations that cut into a company's bottom line. The deliberations are conducted in highly secretive tribunals, with no public input. Several high-profile cases have led to sharp criticism of the rule, and not without reason.

Corporations could challenge "any law in the hemisphere they see that could potentially impact the corporate bottom line," says Mark. "You could see a massive rollback of laws we fought so long to get."

The group of protesters don't present the only diplomatic challenge for the heads of state gathering in Quebec City. Though most countries of the Americas are eager to jump on the FTAA bandwagon, there is considerable dissent in Brazil that could pose a formidable challenge, at least in the immediate future. Support for the agreement in Latin America's largest market (Brazil's $800 billion economy is double that of Mexico and roughly as big as Canada's) is low.

"Popular sentiment and business are against the FTAA today," says Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington and an outspoken supporter of the trade agreement. "With the outcome of next year's presidential election totally uncertain, it is hard to make any predictions about Brazil -- but in the end I think they will sign on," he says.

And Hakim believes generating support for the FTAA in the United States could be difficult, since there are, in his words, "no economic downsides or upsides" for Americans. Wall Street and the Fed could also play a role. "If the U.S. economy continues to stumble, and a strong anti-free trade, protectionist sentiment emerges, it could dim hopes for any deal," he says.

Indeed, the current political climate for trade agreements on Capitol Hill -- influenced partially by anti-globalization forces -- has made it difficult for President Bush to seek the fast-track negotiating authority for trade agreements he is seeking to push the FTAA through Congress. Trade ministers from future FTAA member states have set a 2005 goal for implementing the agreement, but Bush would likely need fast-track authority in order to achieve that ambitious goal. Fast-track authority was available for every president since Nixon until it expired under Clinton in 1994, and support in Congress for the power has waned since. As IIE's Hufbauer notes, it's no longer a question of when Bush will get fast-track authority, but whether he will get it at all.

By Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

MORE FROM Daryl Lindsey

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Environment Globalization Unemployment