QUEBEC, APR. 28, 2001 (Zenit.org).- The battle of Seattle continues.
Debates over free trade and globalization came to the fore again on the occasion of the April 20-22 meeting held here by the political leaders of 34 democratic nations from the Americas. They gathered above all to debate the theme of economic integration by way of a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
It was the third time the presidents and prime ministers of the Americas held a summit. The first took place in Florida in 1994, and the second in Chile in 1998.
A background document prepared by the organizers recognized that in the last few years democracy has been strengthened in almost all countries, yet problems remain. Serious defects still abound in the area of human rights, and the quality of health care and education systems leaves a lot to be desired. And while most countries are growing economically, persistent and in some cases growing inequality threatens to undermine the future.
Easier said than done
The proposal to create a free trade area that encompasses North, South and Central America will not be easy to achieve, Business Week said in its April 23 issue. The combined population of 800 million with a gross domestic product of more than $11 trillion would be the world´s largest free-trade zone. But it still only exists in theory. Officials have been working on the project for seven years, and final agreement on many details is still far off.
The United States has proposed moving up the deadline for finishing negotiations from Jan. 1, 2005, to the end of 2003, but Brazil has strongly resisted this. Moreover, talks on tariff reductions will not commence until May 2002.
Apart from the difficulty of coordinating the process between so many countries, the proposed free trade area has also been the target of protests by nongovernmental organizations and anti-globalization activists. Within the United States, opposition has come from unions who fear the FTAA would prompt manufacturers to move their factories to low-wage locations in Latin America.
Free trade has come under more scrutiny since the November 1999 protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. The WTO is still trying to get the next round of free trade talks back on track after the process was derailed in Seattle. In the meantime, regional trading blocs such as the European Union could be strengthened. And some free-traders, looking beyond regional pacts, are pushing for action on the global level.
Many U.S. businessmen, for now, favor promoting trade in the Americas. Last year, 22% of American exports went to Latin America. Mexico accounted for two-thirds of that sum, so there is plenty of room for U.S. trade to expand in the Americas.
In the 1990s, economic liberalization and the formation of regional blocs such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and Mercosur (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) meant that trade within the continent grew faster than world trade in general, the Economist magazine reported in its April 21 issue. If the formation of the FTAA slows down, the United States may go ahead with separate agreements with Chile and Argentina.
Nostalgic for Seattle
In the months leading up to last weekend´s meeting in Quebec, nongovernmental organizations were calling for protesters to gather in the Canadian city in the hope of repeating their success in Seattle. To hold demonstrators at bay, authorities set up a chain-link barrier around the area where the conference would be held.
At the opening speeches, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien condemned the violence of protesters and said the leaders gathered for the summit represented the will of the citizens who elected them, the Globe and Mail reported April 21. Chrétien also made a clear distinction between the “small band of extremists” who provoked police, and the thousands who marched peacefully against free trade. “Violence and provocation is unacceptable in a democracy,” he said.
Extremist groups made clear their intention to use violent means. As the Globe and Mail reported March 14, the Anti-Capitalist Convergence (CLAC) said it is justified in using any means to stop the negotiations for a free-trade area in the Americas. Any damage CLAC does in Quebec City would be minimal “compared to the day-to-day destruction that capitalism causes on the planet,” CLAC spokesman Jean-François Hamilton said.
Another defender of violence was the French activist José Bové. According to the Globe and Mail on April 18, Bové told a press conference that any violence in Quebec would be the fault of the 34 summit leaders. “The first violence is the institutional violence,” he said. “The first violence is to put a wall all over the city. The first violence is free market. Free market is killing millions and millions of people all over the world now.”
Indeed, some violent clashes took place, but nothing comparable to what happened in Seattle. Several reporters noted that, apart from a limited area, life in Quebec was not adversely affected by the events. The Guardian of London noted April 23 that protesters and police were generally restrained, despite 400 arrests. The worst incident happened April 20, when about 200 members of an anarchist group, Black Bloc, stormed the 10-foot-high security fence. The masked protesters attacked the police with concrete and sawed-off hockey sticks. Other protesters did not follow their example.
During his address to participants, U.S. President George W. Bush encouraged leaders to create a single market in the Americas. He declared that the time had come to “build an age of prosperity in a hemisphere of liberty,” according to the April 22 New York Times.
At the end the participants affirmed their commitment to complete negotiations on the creation of the FTAA by 2005, the Washington Post reported April 23. The only exception was Venezuela, which said it “reserved its position” on the deadline. The calendar adopted at the summit calls for talks to be concluded by January 2005, with the agreement to take effect by no later than December of that year.
The final declaration also included a “democracy clause” aimed at strengthening the region´s democracies. The clause states that “any unconstitutional alteration or interruption of the democratic order in a state of the hemisphere constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to the participation of that state´s government in the Summit of the Americas process.”
Other measures announced included the granting of $40 billion by development banks over five years to support initiatives relating to HIV-AIDS, literacy, education and reducing poverty. They also pledged to fight the world drug problem and related crimes, illicit traffic and the growing threat of organized crime. Ready or not, globalization seems to be moving ahead.