No Confidence in 'Free Trade' Platitudes

The 34 national leaders who convened the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City April 20-22 managed to agree that trade was a good thing, and so was democracy. Whether they will rank trade ahead of democracy, and what priority they will place on worker rights and/or environmental protection remains to be seen as they draw up the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas for implementation targeted in 2005.

The record so far in expanding "free trade" throughout North America is not encouraging, as our cover story reports. Talks to open trade throughout the hemisphere have gone on for more than six years behind closed doors, between trade ministers and representatives of the multinational corporations that are the main beneficiaries of liberalized trade. Working people have been pointedly excluded from the process.

That division was neatly symbolized in Quebec City as the hemisphere's government leaders met at the top of a hill, behind a 10-foot-high wall of wire and concrete, guarded by more than 6,000 police and soldiers. The "People's Summit" was in a tent at the bottom of the hill. Any people who got near the real summit without the proper credentials were greeted with tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons and/or rubber or plastic bullets.

The Progressive Populist was not privy to the real summit, as our correspondents were told that we were not a newsgathering periodical but an opinion journal and therefore not entitled to credentials. (We are willing to bet that journalists at least as opinionated as ours got badges that allowed them through the "Wall of Shame," to gain access to the press releases, the spinmeisters and the hospitality rooms within the wire; but most of the action was on the streets anyway.)

From their reports, it does not appear that the credentialed press from the US got any more insights into the decisionmaking than we did at home scanning the coverage of the Toronto Star and the Globe & Mail and other sources on the Internet. Not only did those Canadian newspapers have reporters assigned to cover both sides of the summit; unlike the New York Times, the Washington Post and the other newsgathering elites of the United States who started their coverage the day before the summit, the Canadian papers had been following the trade issue for months.

The Post's Dana Milbank typified the US approach in his April 23 wrapup from Quebec: "For Bush and Quebec Summit, a Light News Weekend." He wrote, "What little news there was came from unexpected places," such as questions about president Bush's table manners after he eschewed the crystal glasses in the summit ballroom to drink water straight from the bottle, then tried to engage his "amigo," the nonplused Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, in a discussion of baseball, and said, with Chrétien at his side, that he would not answer questions in English, French or "Mexican."

Milbank wrote that the demonstrations disrupted the summit on Friday evening, "but over the weekend turned out to be quite tame. Anti-trade demonstrators tossed golf balls and teddy bears at police without bothering to determine where objects were manufactured. Demonstrators acted more as if they were at a carnival than a protest. At night, some protesters and riot police could be seen hanging out and talking, the former playing drums and the latter listening. Even some Bush aides could be seen milling through the crowd of protesters like tourists."

Milbank apparently missed the reports of the plastic bullets fired at protesters, some causing serious injuries, and the 450 arrests, including a protest leader who was tackled and pummeled by undercover police, then bundled into an unmarked van and "disappeared" for five days before he got a bond hearing.

Our correspondents will report more fully on the protests in the next issue but intrepid Kati Winchell reports that residents of Quebec City expressed their opposition to the "Wall of Shame" and were more worried about the arbitrary police offensives than the protesters' demonstrations. Unlike Milbank and his credentialed colleagues, Winchell explored some of the more than 100 rallies and demonstrations and talked with some of the estimated 50,000 protesters, many of whom proved to be very articulate.

In the end, the summiteers agreed to release the FTAA draft outline "sometime soon." In the meantime the first leak was a 42-page chapter on investment rights obtained by the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (available at www.iatp.org). The document appears to follow NAFTA's lead in permitting corporations to sue governments and demand financial compensation or force changes in laws if they can persuade a secret panel that a government policy has cost them money. Among the cases brought under NAFTA's "Chapter 11" rules, US-based Ethyl Corp. sued Canada for banning use of a fuel additive MMT that already was banned for health reasons in some states of the US. Canada was forced to pay the company $13 million and rescind its law. Other cases challenging other regulations in all three nations are quietly working their way through the system.

Some free trade advocates have questioned the legitimacy of protesters who would stand in the way of improving developing nations, but South American trade unions and social activists expressed similar concerns in massive street demonstrations at a meeting of the hemisphere's trade officials in Buenos Aires, Argentina, earlier in April.

US farmers and ranchers, burned by their NAFTA experience, also are concerned. Dena Hoff, a farmer from Glendive, Mont., and chair of the Northern Plains Resource Council, said multinational meat packing companies already have used cattle imports from Canada and Mexico to depress the US domestic cattle market. She added that the integrity of border inspections has been eroded by the increased volume of imports and lack of funding for more inspectors.

"President Bush and other advocates of corporate-managed trade agreements are once again promising us the land of milk and honey -- more jobs, more agricultural exports, and more economic prosperity, if only we would pass FTAA," said Hoff. "We've heard these empty promises before, and we should not fall for it again."

The summit's Declaration of Quebec contains a democracy clause that allows nations in the FTAA to throw out any member state that abandons democracy, but many Latin American countries oppose placing labor and environmental standards in the agreement. Also, Brazilian president Fernando Cardoso made it clear that his country will not go along with the FTAA if the US is not willing to lower agricultural subsidies and make it easier for regional economies to enter the US market.

Canada is perhaps our best hope to insist on labor and environmental standards. Prime Minister Chrétien managed to sign a bilateral trade pact with Costa Rica that includes measures committing both countries to enforcing domestic laws on labor and the environment. Chile is proposing a bilateral free trade deal with the United States, but Republicans aren't likely to push any meaningful labor or environmental protections. In fact, congressional Republicans are resisting a trade deal which the Clinton administration reached with Jordan last year with labor and environmental standards, because of the precedent it might set.

In Quebec Bush mouthed the platitudes, saying that the trade proposal must be matched by a "strong commitment to protecting our environment and improving labor standards." But later, Bush seemed to return to familiar Republican ground when he clarified that the agreement should include no codicils that destroy "the spirit of free trade."

Fair trade is a noble goal, but elevating trade to the highest priority, above worker rights and environmental protection, is wrong. Bush's statements at Quebec show he is not to be entrusted with "fast track" negotiating authority. Congress will need to take a very close look at any trade deal he presents them. -- JMC

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