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Big protests for a big trade zone

A 10-foot fence became a focus of anti-free trade protests during summit that ended yesterday.

By Ruth Walker Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2001


As the leaders of 34 nations wrapped up negotiations for an all-Americas free trade zone yesterday, police braced for more protests and the streets remained littered with debris from previous clashes.

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Throughout the three-day summit, demonstrators decried what they see as the pitfalls of a hemisphere-wide trade bloc: exploitation of local economies by multinationals; "corporate-centered" globalization that will not better the lot of the region's millions of poor; and environmental damage from rapacious development.

"We refuse to accept the market as a god which controls our lives," declared the protest group Hemispheric Social Alliance in a counterproposal to the Free Trade Area of the Americas. (FTAA). "We do not accept the inevitability of a model of globalization which excludes half or more of the world's population from the benefits of development."

While most heads of state at the summit hailed creation of a an $11 trillion free trade market stretching from Alaska to Argentina by 2005, some Latin American leaders voiced concern. "We need a strong expansion of economic citizenship to democratize the markets. Only by doing that can we develop the energy of the millions who have been excluded from economic development," said Mexican President Vicente Fox. "We cannot allow ourself to drift ... at the mercy of the whims of market forces."

During their negotiations, the leaders agreed that only democratic nations would be permitted to share in the bounty of the free-trade zone, which would encompass 800 million people.

Work toward a final FTAA agreement is expected to continue over the next four years.

The summit sparked a number of sideshows, including rallies that featured street theater, the singing of old union songs, and giant-size puppets.

While most of the 30,000 demonstrators mobbing the streets of Quebec were peaceful, about 6,000 attacked police with Molotov cocktails and rocks as they repeatedly stormed a security fence. At least 46 police officers and 57 demonstrators were injured. At least 403 protesters were arrested by police, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse them.

Built around the city perimeter to protect summit officials from protesters, the 10-foot-high security fence became for some an unfortunate symbol of the FTAA. Antonio Aranibar of the Washington Office on Latin America described it as the "concrete expression of how the governments of the region are turning their backs to the people."

The perimeter has been a sore point for residents of Quebec, too. Some residents are bitter and angry at the heavy security presence and the inconvenience of having their daily lives and businesses disrupted by what they widely describe as a "wall of shame."

"This is a peaceful city. It's the wall that is violent, that is a provocation," said one young man in the crowd gathered at the perimeter Friday afternoon to watch protesters clash with heavily armed police.