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Stop the bosses' free trade rip-off

April 13, 2001 | Pages 10 and 11

THOUSANDS OF people from Canada, the U.S. and countries across the Western Hemisphere are planning to descend on Quebec City to protest this month's Summit of the Americas. That's if they can get there. GEOFF BAILEY reports on the Canadian authorities' police-state tactics to try to stop demonstrators from expressing their opposition to the bosses' Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Cost of tables and chairs for 34 national leaders: $420,000
Cost of buses to transport 9,000 delegates during the three-day summit: $300,000
Cost of translators for delegates: $1.6 million
Cost of staging a world-class summit inside a fortified security zone: Priceless

BY CONSERVATIVE estimates, the cost of this month's Summit of the Americas in Quebec City is somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 million. Some 1,000 people will attend the Canadian prime minister's lavish welcome reception, where they'll eat a four-star dinner and receive hand-made sculptures by Quebec artists.

Most of the hotels in central Quebec City are booked throughout the summit. George W. Bush and his 1,200-person entourage have rented an entire hotel.

Meanwhile, the Canadian authorities are planning a very different reception for people arriving to protest the FTAA. Authorities are constructing a 10-foot-high fence surrounding downtown Quebec City.

And Public Security Minister Serge Menard says that 6,000 police are receiving special training for the event--at a cost of $1 million a day. "Our security measures are not meant to intimidate anyone," Menard insists. For example, Menard said, "We didn't buy pepper spray. Police have the normal amount they always carry."

In fact, Menard said, there were potential benefits for protesters. "It's not a hotel," he said of the cells in a local prison that are being cleared out for demonstrators who are arrested. "But there will be beds, you can wash, you can eat hot meals, you can meet with lawyers."

When a local community coalition called the Comité Populaire Saint-Jean-Baptiste published a pamphlet protesting the attack on civil liberties, two members were arrested on a street corner for passing it out. "The fact that they were arrested for distributing this pamphlet tells us that we're not completely paranoid in talking about attacks on civil liberties," said Nicolas Lefebvre Legault.

Of course, there's an easier way than getting arrested to get past the chain-link security fence and the rows of riot cops in central Quebec City. Just write a check for $500,000. For a cool half million, corporate sponsors will get a "potential speaking opportunity" at a reception for the 34 heads of state--and plenty of opportunities to mingle at social events.

"This has everything to do with giving corporations preferential access," said Alexa McDonough, leader of Canada's New Democratic Party, the country's labor party. "Half-million dollars, you're in, no problem, instant access. No money, stay behind the chain-link fence."

Stop the bosses' free-trade rip-off

ASHLEY SMITH explains what's wrong with the Free Trade Rip-off of the Americas.

YET AGAIN, political leaders and corporate honchos are meeting to plan a trade agreement that will benefit the rich at the expense of workers, the environment and democracy. This time, it's called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Essentially, the FTAA would extend the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to 34 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Only Cuba has been excluded. Originally devised by George Bush Sr. and then pushed by Bill Clinton, negotiations for the FTAA were launched at the Summit of the Americas in Miami in 1994.

But the people who will be hurt by the agreement weren't invited. Only top trade officials from the 34 countries--along with representatives of 500 multinational corporations--have participated in drawing up the treaty.

The FTAA is the most extensive trade deal yet. It combines features of the World Trade Organization (WTO), NAFTA and the failed Multilateral Agreement on Investment.

Activists have taken to calling it "NAFTA on steroids." The potential impact of the FTAA can be seen in the consequences of NAFTA, which was implemented in 1994.

When the governments of Canada, Mexico and the U.S. agreed on NAFTA, they claimed the deal would lead to an economic boom, increase the number of good jobs, build democracy in Mexico and limit damage to the environment. They lied.

Immediately after NAFTA was implemented, Mexico's peso crashed. In the resulting crisis, workers' wages were slashed by more than 50 percent. Now half of Mexico's population lives on less than $2 a day.

On the job front, NAFTA gave the bosses a tool to pit workers against one another in a race to the bottom. The result: the loss of numerous well-paid manufacturing jobs--many of them union--in Canada and the U.S.

Mexico has been hit even harder. More than 1 million small farmers have been forced off their land since NAFTA went into effect. Many flooded into the maquiladoras--border-region factories run by the multinationals to take advantage of Mexico's low wages and weak unions.

NAFTA exacted a steep price from ordinary people in all three countries. And this is their model for the FTAA!

While the details of the FTAA have been kept secret, public pronouncements from the nine negotiating groups give a clear picture of what's in store. In every area--services; investment; government procurement; market access; agriculture; intellectual property rights; subsidies, anti-dumping and countervailing duties; competition policy; and dispute settlement--the FTAA is designed to give more power to multinational corporations to take advantage of workers.

Let's look at a few examples.

The service negotiating group wants to allow private corporations to compete with government-owned programs in health care, education and water provision--and even buy them out. This privatization scam would put essential social services in the hands of for-profit companies.

The investment group is working on a scheme to allow corporations to sue foreign governments over laws and regulations that would cost them "present and future" profits. Under a similar provision in NAFTA, U.S.-based Ethyl Corp. forced the Canadian government to overturn a 1997 ban on MMT, a toxic gasoline additive. A NAFTA dispute resolution tribunal ordered Canada to pay Ethyl $13 million in "lost profits."

The market access group wants to eliminate barriers to the trade of goods and services--tariffs (taxes on imported goods) but also non-tariff barriers (regulations that have an impact on trade). According to negotiators, non-tariff barriers can be just about anything--from regulations to protect the environment to the minimum wage.

The group on agriculture wants to eliminate restrictions on agricultural exports in the interests of the big agribusinesses--and force countries to accept genetically modified foods to boot.

And that's not the half of it. U.S. multinationals have a number of reasons to be for the FTAA.

As the biggest bullies on the block, they have the most to gain from a treaty that will reduce restrictions on trade in the name of "leveling the playing field."

But U.S. leaders also want the FTAA to create a hemisphere-wide trade bloc that would ensure U.S. dominance in Latin America and the Caribbean--and keep out competition from Europe and Japan. But the U.S. may not get what it wants.

Fights have broken out in the negotiating process that threaten the FTAA from the inside. For example, Brazil has protested Canadian bans on its beef exports. Canada, meanwhile, has declared that it will oppose the right of corporations to sue foreign governments.

Much more importantly, unions, peasant organizations, environmental activists and others from around the Western Hemisphere are mobilizing to scrap the FTAA. From the mass protests against the WTO in Seattle to the struggle against water privatization in Bolivia to this month's general strike in Argentina, millions of people across North and South America are rejecting the corporate priorities of free trade and the free market.

The April 20-21 demonstrations against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City and elsewhere will mark a new stage in the struggle. We can show the bosses that we don't want their free-trade rip-off.

Building strong links across the border

JUSTIN AKERS describes how activists from Mexico and the U.S. worked together to organize for a precedent-setting joint demonstration against the FTAA.

ON APRIL 21, activists from Mexico and the U.S. will join together for a historic protest on the border near San Diego. We hope that thousands of people will come together at one location on both sides of the border--in a show of solidarity and internationalism.

The demonstration, organized to coincide with protests against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City the same day, is the work of activists from both countries. These activists began to forge links and assist each other over the past year.

This alliance was inspired by the fight against corporate globalization that exploded onto the stage with the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999--as well as growing opposition in this region to maquiladora exploitation and racist U.S. border policies, such as Operation Gatekeeper. The campaign called itself the "Network of the Globalphobics"-- after a remark made by former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo criticizing antiglobalization protesters.

Regular meetings have led to a series of activities--from organizing a solidarity caravan to meet the Zapatista rebels in Mexico City last month to supporting northern Mexico's maquiladora and agricultural workers, who have been devastated by NAFTA and neoliberalism. Now we're organizing the Tijuana-San Diego protest--around opposition to the FTAA, solidarity with the protests in Quebec City and the struggle of the Zapatistas, and fighting for the rights of workers, indigenous communities and immigrants.

A regional meeting to nail down details for the demonstration drew some 40 activists to Tijuana to the offices of the FZLN, the support network for the Zapatistas. Those present represented an array of organizations from San Quintin to San Francisco. Among them were Jaime Cota, a well-known maquiladora organizer; Carmen Valadez, who organizes female maquila workers; and Alejandro Kurczyn, the FZLN organizer in the Northern Baja region.

The meeting was electric! The group took up plans for the protest as well as the key political issues facing our movement. We set out plans for teach-ins and speaker exchanges--and a post-protest conference in Tijuana to assess the campaign and to discuss where we go from here.

As I sat there, I couldn't help but think that this was a huge step forward in building solid links between Mexican and U.S. activists that can lay the basis for bigger struggles in the future. This is just the beginning of our fight--against the FTAA, corporate globalization and all the injustices that workers face, whichever side of the border they're on.

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