After the FTAA

Tens of thousands of people protested in Quebec City last month, voicing their opposition to a proposed hemispheric-wide trade agreement. The Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, would create a single economic entity, should it go into effect in 2005, stretching from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego.

The protesters came from all over Canada and the U.S. Busloads of students drove in from Toronto, Montreal and points in between. Joining them were thousands of union workers, representing hundreds of different Canadian unions.

In contrast to protests in Seattle, Washington DC and Prague, which were primarily populated by out-of-town protesters, the anti-FTAA events in Quebec City had a distinctly homegrown feeling -- and with good reason. The infamous 2.5-mile chain-link fence that Canadian security forces erected around the perimeter of Old Quebec -- intended to separate protesters from President George W. Bush and his fellow delegates at the Summit of the Americas -- galvanized the local population. Even Quebecois who were divided on the relative merits of the trade agreement itself agreed on a few simple points: the "wall of shame," as it came to be known, was at best an eyesore; at worst, it was an affront to the very idea of a democratic Canada.

In the end, the protesters were not able to shut down the Summit, although they did delay its start. Delegates even made progress on the some terms of the FTAA agreement, stipulating a "democracy clause" that would suspend any country from the free trade zone area that ceases to be a democracy.

Bush and the other delegates did their best to put a positive spin on the Summit, even as clouds of tear gas swirled around their meeting place and local firefighters rushed to hose down the building. But cracks in the free trade edifice were obvious. Inside the Summit, hemispheric leaders like Kenny Anthony, Premier of St. Lucia, warned that while "globalization has brought prosperity to some, we cannot deny [that] it has destroyed the lives of others." Concluded Anthony: "Until the hemisphere as a whole enjoys the fruits of trade liberalization, we cannot proclaim its glory."

Unlike in the U.S., protesters seemed to win the propaganda war in Canada, with newspapers and television stations running a variety of opinions on the Summit and protesters. But regardless of the American media's take, those on the street remained certain of their convictions. "Average workers understand these deals aren't really about them," said Don Rama, a ship builder at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Me. "They're about expanding benefits for corporations."

AlterNet spoke with six activists and trade specialists to assess the impact of the anti-FTAA protests.

Why do journalists in the U.S. often accept arguments for free trade without question?

Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director, Center for Economic and Policy Research: It's definitely the case that the marketing of "free trade" has won over the press and the pundits in the U.S. But the reality is that there is now a big gap between what the press says about globalization and what the general population thinks about it. This shows up in the polls: when asked to describe their views on trade, only 10 percent chose "free trader." Fifty percent chose "fair trader," a label rarely used by anyone outside the labor or protest movement. And 37 percent chose "protectionist"-- a word that is never granted a positive connotation in the press, and has probably become as discredited in official opinion as "communist." Although there were mixed feelings about globalization in general, people most often chose "protecting the environment" and "preventing the loss of U.S. jobs" as a major priority for trade agreements -- putting them very much at odds with our policy makers and trade officials.

When it comes to mainstream reporting on trade issues, confusion reigns. The World Trade Organization is depicted as the protector of poor countries, because it allows trade to take place under a "rule-based system." Similarly, the International Monetary Fund is seen as a lender of last resort, the global equivalent of an individual nation's central bank. Most journalists assume that the alternative to these institutions is chaos, the law of the jungle and a steep descent into protectionist, isolationist stagnation.

The main thing we have to is challenge the idea that these agreements are about "free trade" at all. Take the FTAA, which has very little to do with "free trade." In fact, this agreement will almost certainly strengthen some of the most expensive, economically wasteful and (in the case of life-saving pharmaceuticals) deadly forms of protectionism.

How are international trade institutions understood outside the U.S.? And what kind of support can Americans offer those who are hurt by them them?

Njoki Njoroge Njehu, Director, 50 Years Is Enough Network: The reality is that most of the world's population is all too aware of how much these institutions matter to their every day lives. Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, continues to pay back more to the World Bank and the International Monetary fund than it actually gets from those institutions. As supporters of the movement global economic justice, we have to send a clear message: the movement for global justice continues to grow, and will not stand for continuing efforts by these institutions to structure the world for the benefit of corporations and the wealthy.

The World Bank Bonds Boycott is a good example of how supporters of the movement in the U.S. can work to effect change here at home. We're using the boycott to demand an end to the Bank's policies, which place corporate rights over human rights. At the same time, the boycott is supporting the poor peoples movements around the world who have said "enough is enough." Already, some 25 institutions throughout the U.S. including city governments, trade unions, churches and investment firms have committed not to buy World Bank bonds. And resolutions are pending at more than 20 additional institutions. This gives us a chance to talk about structural adjustment programs and harmful lending practices in a way that is meaningful to organizations and individuals in the U.S.

We're also helping to plan a major mobilization at the end September to coincide with meetings of the IMF and the World Bank in Washington, DC. Activists from all over the world will come to Washington from September 28 to October 4 to protest and expose the illegitimacy of the institutions and officials who continue to claim the right to determine the course of the world economy.

Because of Canadian union participation in the Quebec, it was the first time since Seattle there was a significant union commitment to a trade protest. Why was this so? And why didn't the U.S. labor federation, the AFL-CIO, have much of a presence?

Fred Azcarate, Executive Director, Jobs With Justice: Some people argue that since Seattle, the AFL-CIO and its affiliate unions have backed away from the anti-corporate globalization movement. I disagree with that view. Did Canadian unions play a major role in activities around the Quebec City protests? Thankfully, they did. Of course, the meeting was in Canada. But still, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney spoke at the People's Summit. Other U.S. union leaders were in Quebec City as well, including Leo Gerard of the Steelworkers (full disclosure: he is Canadian and the Steelworkers are one of the largest unions in Canada) and ed Fire of the IUe/CWA.

More importantly labor union leaders and activists were at the core of efforts to localize the movement against the FTAA in the United States. Jobs with Justice worked with the AFL-CIO, SeIU, the Teamsters, the Steelworkers, the Communication Workers and the United electrical Workers to organize over 50 actions across the U.S. during the same week as the Summit activities in Quebec.

Of course, some believe it's more important to move people from big event to big event -- Seattle, DC, Prague, Quebec -- while I believe these meetings should no longer be allowed to take place without the scrutiny of public protest. Over the long haul what we really need to do is to build more power in local communities. We have to make connections between local struggles and global corporate greed. We have to make the case that trade institutions and agreements matter to our day-to-day lives. We have to build solidarity across borders -- and not allow workers or communities in different countries to be pitted one against the other. It's a simple mathematical equation: let's generously assume that there were 50,000 folks protesting in Seattle, Washington, DC, Prague and Quebec City. Also generously assume that no one attended more than one action that would be 200,000 folks. Anyone who thinks that's enough folks to stand up to the collective power of the General electrics, Microsofts and their ilk (not to mention the state power wielded by their political cronies) underestimates what it takes to win.

Since CNN and other major U.S. media outlets cover the demonstrations by filming the "anarchist" Black Bloc, should the movement try to do something to mute their occasionally violent actions?

Mike Prokosch, Globalization Coordinator, United for a Fair Economy: I can't make up my mind about the Black Bloc. I really think that overall we have to shape our tactics to communicate with all of the people involved in the immense coalition this movement could be. Personally, I like the idea of thinking about what we do as symbolic action. If George Bush and the other grey suits are barricaded inside a fortress, we should be outside in bright colors, acting out freedom. This doesn't mean that we have to let the mainstream media shape our message, but it does mean being conscious of them as one important channel. Our protests shouldn't just be for the people in them.

Molotov cocktails and rocks are not a good idea. Pulling down the fence? That was probably a good idea. But the larger question is "Who decides?" We need to have a serious movement-wide discussion about tactics and strategies. But right now, we don't have the kind of political space that would allow that. The civil rights movement used nonviolent direct action to force people to make a moral choice. The question I would ask is what choice is our movement forcing people to make in its choice of tactics?

Were the anti-FTAA protests anywhere as effective as those in Seattle?

Christophe Aguiton, International Officer, ATTAC France:
The Quebec City demonstrations reminded me of May 1968 in Paris. They shared a real sense of fluidity and the unexpected. In both cases, there was a powerful link between young people and other groups: workers, residents, etc. The difference, however, was that in Quebec "all was not possible."

But even what was possible was incredibly powerful. During two days, thousands of people -- probably more than 10,000 -- surrounded the wall that protected the heads of state. The city only has 300,000 residents. Demonstrators came from the U.S. and the rest of Canada, but French was by far the language most spoken in the confrontations around the wall. Solidarity united the residents of the city, the students -- at least 15 universities were on strike -- and the trade unionists.

I think that even the media was effected by this climate. Before the first day's actions, most of the reporting was quite hostile to the demonstrators, and you heard a lot about "troublemakers" coming from the U.S. Then, the journalists, perhaps impressed by the massive presence of young people from Quebec itself, began to broadcast live the "fall of the wall" and the confrontations that followed. From this point of view, you can say that the demonstrators won the war of opinion, even if they weren't able to stop the actual Summit. In fact, this is exactly what the Financial Times reported.

As an American high school student, were you surprised by the number of young people who participated in the protests?

Courtney Babin, Senior, Melrose High School, Melrose, MA
To go up to Quebec and see so many kids, was amazing. I was surprised too by how much they knew about the issues. I went up to shoot footage of the demonstrations for a documentary, and when I showed my video at school, no one had a clue what it was about.

I think that's a big problem. We need to make sure kids get the information they need, whether it means speaking out more or running stories in our school newspapers. When I explain to other students what I was doing at the protests, they don't necessarily understand about the trade agreement. But when I mention the fact that my dad's factory is trying to send jobs to Mexico where the workers only get $6 a day, then they start to understand. Where I live, a lot of kids have parents who work in factories. Once they start thinking about their own families, then the issues don't seem so far away.

Jennifer C. Berkshire is a freelance writer based in Boston. She covered the recent Quebec City protests for the Boston Herald.

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