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by Gumisai Mutume
(IPS) QUEBEC CITY --
Summit of the Americas ended here April 22 amidst street clashes between baton-wielding police and a small section of an estimated 30,000 people demonstrating against the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
Demonstrators charged that the FTAA would grant excessive powers to multinational corporations, was not environmentally unfriendly and would not benefit the majority of the region's poor.
But inside the conference chamber, ironically, governments were expressing concern about the issue of democracy, so much so that the final document of the meeting, the "Declaration of Quebec," contains a democracy clause that allows state parties to the FTAA to throw out any member who breaches that provision.
The 34 leaders agreed to convene a meeting of experts soon to examine, in each country, political party registration, access of political parties to funding and the media, campaign financing and the manner in which elections are conducted.
"The benefits of free trade will accrue only to those who abide by our democratic clause," Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien told the summit.
The summit of 34 countries of the western hemisphere also concluded with an endorsement of a plan to have a free trade area (FTAA) up and running by December 2005.
Once created, the FTAA will be the world's biggest free trade area spanning the hemisphere from Canada to Chile and encompassing nearly 800 million people.
With that in mind, leaders endorsed the declaration of the Sixth Ministerial of the FTAA held earlier this month in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In Buenos Aires government ministers adopted a timetable that will see negotiations completed and signed by January 2005. The agreement is to be ratified and implemented by December 2005.
April 2002 has been set as the date for the beginning of official negotiations on agriculture, merchandise trade, services and government procurement. Proposals on the environment and labor will only be dealt with at the start of negotiations.
Latin American countries have opposed U.S. proposals to adopt a principle established in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that prohibits the lowering of labor and environmental standards to attract investment.
Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso made it clear that his country will not go along with the FTAA if the United States is not willing to lower agricultural subsidies and make changes to anti-dumping laws that make it difficult for regional economies to enter the U.S. market.
Responding to the concerns of smaller countries, the conference endorsed recommendations that a committee be charged with formulating ways to deal with the different levels of development in the region by no later than November 2001. Economies vary in size from $350 million to $9 trillion.
Caribbean countries say they want a mechanism that provides development financing to ensure their countries can compete when the free trade area becomes operational.
Responding to such concerns, Canada announced it would set up an institute for connectivity in the Americas to bridge the digital divide. It pledged $20 million this year towards the center, with additional financing expected to come from regional development banks.
Outside the conference hall, the Canadian police used teargas, water cannons and rubber bullets to stop demonstrators intent on creating havoc on the streets. By Sunday more than 400 protestors had been arrested.
"Unfortunately the media tended to concentrate on the bricks being thrown by a few," says Robin Rosenberg of the North-South Center at the University of Miami. He says some sections of civil society made a number of recommendations through a civil society roundtable, which officials agreed to take up.
But some organizers of a People's Summit which ended the day the regional leaders began their parley, charged that the consultation process was not genuine and was meant only to buy public support. That summit, which saw civil society meeting to discuss the issue of a hemispheric free trade deal, rejected the FTAA, noting that it was yet another accord which would raise the fortunes of transnational corporations and do nothing for the ordinary or poor citizens of the Americas.
Hosting a People's Summit was a last minute decision by the Canadian government in the face of increasing agitation from civil society groups, but only a select few were invited to participate. There were no non- governmental groups from Andean countries or from the Caribbean.
"People from the People's Summit chose not to attend the NGO forum perhaps because they get more attention that way," said Rosenberg reflecting divisions between the various strata of civil society.
The Quebec declaration pledges that FTAA negotiators will increase communication with civil society, "to ensure that it has a clear perception of the development of the FTAA negotiating process."
"We are determined to inform our countries of the contents of our discussions. We need to explain what we are attempting to achieve," said Argentine president Fernando de la Rua whose country hosts the next Summit of the Americas on a date yet to be announced.
"The next summit we will hold in Argentina will not require walls for those coming to oppose, but it will have space for those coming to applaud (our actions)," he said.
April 23, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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