Clearing the air in Quebec

In the city of Quebec, at the just-concluded Summit of the Americas, it was the massive protests that gained most of the headlines and television time. But other business got done as well. Most important was the effort to sort through the issues affecting negotiations toward a Free Trade Area of the Americas - the red flag that brought most demonstrators out in the first place, yet also the cornerstone of broader regional cooperation.

The key players were the hemisphere's two biggest economies, Brazil and the United States, who have been at odds over the timing and substance of a regional trade pact. For some observers, Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's opening address soured the negotiating climate. It laid out tough conditions for his nation's participation in any accord - including some controversial themes that Washington wants to keep off the negotiating table, such as US antidumping measures and agricultural subsidies that curtail imports of Brazilian steel, soybeans, and orange juice.

There is no question that Mr. Cardoso's demands were stiff, but nothing he said was new. If anything, he contributed to the ongoing trade talks by systematically presenting all of Brazil's negotiating positions. And his remarks were not a take-it-or-leave-it final offer. On the contrary, as one of his key advisers told me, these are the issues that need to be discussed; not all of them have to be resolved in Brazil's favor.

It was encouraging that the US did not flinch at Brazil's demands. President Bush, for his part, used his allotted time to make a straightforward, businesslike speech repeating the US commitment to a hemispheric free-trade pact and predicting (but not guaranteeing) that he would manage, by year's end, to secure the necessary trade negotiating authority that Congress had denied the Clinton administration for six years. Bush's chief trade adviser, Robert Zoellick, was particularly reassuring. He made clear that he fully understands (and has some sympathy for) the Brazilian stance, and will be working with his counterparts in Brazil to find solutions. By no means does this mean that the Free Trade Area of the Americas is in the bag, but a valuable clearing of the air took place in Quebec.

Most of the 34 participating leaders also welcomed the US assurance that, if progress toward the free-trade zone was blocked, the US would pursue free-trade talks with individual countries and groups of nations, like those of Central America. The decision of maverick Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to hold off endorsing the agreed-upon negotiating deadline was not viewed as a serious setback to establishing the free-trade area.

The assembled leaders took some pride in their agreement on the so-called democracy clause, designed to exclude non-democratic nations from future summits and hemispheric trade arrangements. There may, however, be less here than meets the eye. Not much has been added to existing regional norms. Even if this new resolution had been in force, not a single country would have been kept away from the three summits held since 1994, except Cuba, which was left out anyway. The biggest problem is that the clause does not address the greatest peril to democracy in Latin America, the inability of many governments to meet the basic security and economic needs of their citizens.

The good news is that the governments of Mexico and Peru, for the first time ever, took leadership roles in an initiative to safeguard democracy - rather than worrying, as their immediate predecessors would have had to, that they could be its targets.

It was disappointing, however, that the presidents and prime ministers failed to give more than pro-forma attention, in their private discussions and public declarations, to those situations where democracy and peace are especially threatened - to violence-torn Colombia, for example, or to the political morass of Haiti. An honest exchange on Cuba would have been helpful as well, to come up with ideas for how the region's democratic governments can work together to facilitate a successful transition toward democracy in that country. That did not happen, but Prime Minister Owen Arthur of Barbados, speaking for the nations of the Caribbean, took a step forward in urging the assembled leaders to constructively engage, not isolate, Cuba.

All told, the summit was a mixed success. But it is hard to imagine a much better outcome, given the political and economic troubles afflicting so many countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. The real test, however, is still to come: whether the hemisphere's governments are able to implement the agreements they reached in Quebec. That will determine whether the summit is remembered for what the heads of state accomplished or for the fireworks generated by the protesters.

Peter Hakim, who attended the summit, is president of the Inter-American Dialogue.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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