Big protests for a big trade zone

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

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.

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.

Just before the FTAA summit opened, anti-globalization groups held their own People's Summit of the Americas in Quebec City with 3,000 delegates hoping to stop the sweeping trade accord. They count as their biggest victory so far the decision by the governments to release the text of the proposed FTAA accord. The model they hope will be followed: that of the failed Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which suddenly collapsed in 1998 after the text was released and a vigorous grassroots campaign against it sprang up.

Peoples' Summit activists here expect to conduct a similar campaign against the FTAA. "A lot of people accuse us of protesting without offering alternatives," Tom Hansen of the Alliance for Responsible Trade told a news conference here Friday as he introduced "Alternatives for the Americas," a 78-page counterproposal to the FTAA produced by the Hemispheric Social Alliance. "This document represents a consensus of organizations with 47 million members."

The group calls for, among other things, abandoning structural changes imposed by global lending institutions; making trade and investment tools for sustainable development rather than ends in themselves; and giving individual governments the right to make rules on intellectual property rights that fit their own national contexts.

Some of the activists in Quebec were veterans of the anti-globalization movement like Alejandro Villemar of the Mexican Network Against Free Trade, who got involved about 10 years ago. "We discovered the secret negotiations that had gone on in NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement], and so credit unions, social groups, and farmers got together and founded networks."

Those networks ended up in the Hemispheric Social Alliance, organizer of the Peoples' Summit, which, chased away from tonier venues by nervous government authorities who didn't want them too close to the official summit, met under a big tent at the bottom of a hill, in Old Quebec's Lower Town.

"If they'd tried to move us again they would have thrown us into the river," said Dorval Brunelle of the University of Quebec in Montreal, one of the organizers.

Critics of the mainstream approach to free trade are divided into two camps: those who believe trade liberalization is necessary but not of itself sufficient to bring about long-term development, and those who believe free trade will only siphon profits out of local economies.

"All dollars leave the local economy eventually; the question is, how many times do dollars turn over in the local economy before they leave?" says Kristin Dawkins, vice president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis.

Ms. Dawkins, who was at the People's Summit as a commentator, favors regional cooperation agreements rather than free trade accords, which, she suggests, are likely to end up pitting American farmers against Brazilian farmers for the privilege of being exploited by the global grain merchants.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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