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Naked in Quebec

Quebec City is the new battleground in the movable class war between those who advocate the corporate takeover of the planet and the ragtag, polyglot army of “globalphobes” that waged the Battle in Seattle.

This time around the face-off has a Latin flavor, with the heads of 34 countries gathering Friday for the three-day Summit of the Americas. They are expected to declare the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA, or ALCA in Spanish) open for business. The trade pact, which will be a done deal no later than 2005, creates a potential 800-million-consumer market from the North Pole to Tierra del Fuego, though few Latin Americans earn enough to qualify as consumers.

The agreement is distinct from its junior partner, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the 1994 free-trade pact forged between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, which merely codified existing commercial relations. This broader pact imposes “free trade” upon what George W. Bush labels “our back yard.”

“The ALCA is a reiteration of the Monroe Doctrine,” writes Argentine globalphobe Guillermo Almeyra in the Mexican daily La Jornada. “It seeks to perpetuate U.S. commercial domination of the Americas.”

Although its contents remain under lock and key, the 900-page document is expected to prioritize the immediate opening up of Latin energy sectors, communications and financial services to transnational investment.

All things considered, this is not a propitious season to advance the fortunes of the Free Trade Area of the Americas. The U.S., which accounts for 85 percent of the hemisphere‘s $13 trillion Gross National Product, appears to be on the brink of a recession. U.S. and Latin stock markets, which are heavily dependent on Wall Street, are in serious free fall, and Argentina has just gone belly up. A recent Wall Street Journal poll underscores that enthusiasm for free trade is waning in both the U.S. and Latin America.

Indeed, backbiting and bickering over trade issues has broken out all over. Brazil, Argentina and Chile are engaged in a nasty squabble as the latter two nations edge away from the Brazil-dominated Mercosur trade group and instead seek bilateral agreements with Washington. Brazil and Canada are at odds over military-aircraft sales and “mad cow” disease. “If they want war, we will give them war,” Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardosa growls.

Brazil is also involved in a shouting match with the White House over the high price of AIDS drugs. Meanwhile, Washington threatens to haul Canada (soft-wood dumping) and Mexico (reluctance to open the long-distance market) before the World Trade Organization, the supreme arbiter of planetary commerce.

But the main event in the backroom at the Quebec City summit will be between the U.S. and Brazil, respective heavyweight champions of North and South America. Brazil dominates the Mercosur, the world’s third largest trading bloc, which waves $15 billion in goods a year, and is understandably resistant to U.S. commercial penetration.

With Bob Zoellick -- the free-trade guru who invented NAFTA for the elder Bush -- in his corner, George W. Bush, who in the first 100 days of his presidency has trashed the Kyoto global-warming treaty, resumed U.S. bombing of Iraq and hinted he‘d invade China to get a spy plane back, will probably try most anything short of sending in the Marines, to blow open Brazil’s 170 million consumer market.

The Quebec City junta is the third Summit of the Americas. The first, held in Miami in 1994, was Bill Clinton‘s opening gambit to Latin America, a continent that he virtually ignored during eight years as U.S. president. The second, mounted in Santiago, Chile, in 1998, drew out the first protesters to the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. Quebec City is the first post-Seattle summit.

Since protesters shut down the World Trade Organization meeting in December 1999, sending representatives of 135 trading nations home with the taste of tear gas on their tongues, few huddles of the transnational corporate elite have escaped the attention of their foes.

Quebec City has been chosen by host country Canada precisely because the stoutly walled city affords structural control of who gets near the summit meeting. Authorities are throwing up six miles of fencing, topped by rolls of razor wire, to keep protesters even farther away.

Confrontation in Quebec City will be de rigueur -- globalphobes have been preparing for this free-trade Armageddon for a year now. But how many will actively take the field is unpredictable. If past outings are any measure, it depends upon labor participation. In Seattle, 20,000 trade unionists marched, but, scared off by street violence there, did not repeat their participation in Washington four months later at demonstrations against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Similarly, European workers -- and farmers -- swelled the ranks at a Nice meet of the European Union last summer, but only 12,000 anarchist youths showed up in Prague to protest the World Bank IMF. Union participation tends to temper police attack -- 500 were arrested in Seattle, while 13,000 were hauled off to jail at the labor-less Washington events.

Demonstrators themselves come from constituencies as diverse as food purists and revolutionary communists, and are often divided on the use of nonviolent vs. violent tactics. In Quebec City, alternative events have been fueled by an unlikely source -- city and provincial governments, which have reportedly contributed $300,000 Canadian to setting up the anti-summit sideshow. Many Quebecois are furious because Quebec, which considers itself a nation and whose struggle for independence has threatened to split Canada asunder for many years, has been denied a place at the summit (other than dirty-work policing). Local authorities have actually encouraged peaceful protest. Indeed, in seeking to win Latin American sympathies for independence from Canada, the mayor of Quebec City insists that the Quebecois “are the Latinos of the North.”

Despite all the ballyhoo surrounding Quebec City, the years of lobbying and the extravagant security precautions to keep the globalphobes at bay, there is one large fly in the ointment, and its name is “fast track.” No Free Trade Area of the Americas can be created unless the U.S. president can guarantee that agreement will be approved as a whole rather than picked apart, piece by piece, in the U.S. Congress.

“When I sit down in Quebec City, I expect that I will be able to guarantee fast-track passage,” candidate Bush told Miami supporters of the global-trade pact last August. But faced with hostility from those who still question his electoral “victory” last November, and by a Congress that Republicans and Democrats divide down the middle, Bush has been unable to deliver fast track to Quebec.

Although they are loath to say so out loud, all parties concerned know perfectly well that the agreement is a fiction without fast track. Forget the grandiose Summit of the Americas. When George W. Bush sits down in Quebec to deal without fast-track authorization in his pocket, the name of the show ought to be “The Emperor Has No Clothes.”


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