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The Fight for the Americas | The Nation

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The Fight for the Americas

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As tens of thousands gathered in Quebec City on the morning of April 21, 2001, preparing to march en masse in protest against the free-trade agenda of the Summit of the Americas, Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians electrified the crowd with her speech, responding to controversy around the aggressive tactics of some activists. An edited transcript follows.

Maude Barlow's analysis of the FTAA is available in four languages on the council's website, www.canadians.org.

About the Author

Maude Barlow
Maude Barlow is the chairperson of the Council of Canadians. She serves on the board of the International Forum on...

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Not everyone considers access to water to be a human right. A global water justice movement is changing that notion.

In 1998 the World Bank notified the Bolivian government that it would
refuse to guarantee a $25 million loan to refinance water services in
the Bolivian city of Cochabamba unless the local government sold its
public water utility to the private sector and passed on the costs to
consumers. Bolivian authorities gave the contract to a holding company
for US construction giant Bechtel, which immediately doubled the price
of water. For most Bolivians, this meant that water would now cost more
than food. Led by Oscar Olivera, a former machinist turned union
activist, a broad-based movement of workers, peasants, farmers and
others created La Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (the
Coalition in Defense of Water and Life) to deprivatize the local water
system.

In early 2000 thousands of Bolivians marched to Cochabamba in a showdown
with the government, and a general strike and transportation stoppage
brought the city to a standstill. In spite of mass arrests, violence and
several deaths, the people held firm; in the spring of that year, the
company abandoned Bolivia and the government revoked its hated
privatization legislation. With no one to run the local water company,
leaders of the uprising set up a new public company, whose first act was
to deliver water to the poorest communities in the city. Bechtel,
meanwhile, is suing the government of Bolivia for $25 million at the
World Bank's International Centre for the Settlement of Investment
Disputes.

I want to talk about what is on all our minds right now. We had an incredible day yesterday with the youth-led unofficial march and the penetration of the wall. We witnessed unbelievable police aggression and acts of great courage. Like all of you, I was in the thick of it and was hit time and again with tear gas. We also saw the television images of a small handful of demonstrators, or people dressed as demonstrators, throwing objects at the police and vandalizing some media vehicles.

I was bombarded with media interviews about these actions and asked if I didn't think they distort our message. "What are you going to do with your movement's young people?" I was asked. "What are you going to do to bring order?" It was a tough question. One answer, of course, is that they didn't ask me, or anyone else for that matter, for permission to engage in direct action. Nor would they have listened to my admonition to refrain from any but nonviolent protests. Nevertheless, these questions do pose a serious challenge to us as a movement. I want to say very clearly and without equivocation that we are a movement that embraces the Gandhian principles of nonviolence; in my organization, we have taken that position very strongly. We are seeking to reach the hearts and minds of the peoples of the Americas, and they won't be won over with tactics that mirror the system we oppose.

But at the same time, I need to say something else. I don't think that this question has been aimed at the appropriate target. These are not my youth. These are young people born into a toxic economy, a society that deliberately sorts winners from losers and measures its success by the bottom line of its corporations, not by the well-being of its young. These youth are the result of years of poisonous economic and trade policies that have created an entrenched underclass with no access to the halls of power except by putting their bodies on the line. Their anger is our collective societal responsibility. The question isn't what I am going to do with angry young people. The question should be put to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and President George Bush and all the other leaders here to promote the extension of this toxic economy: What are you going to do with them? It is your market economy, with its emphasis on ruthless competition and the wanton destruction of the natural world, that has created such deep wellsprings of anger in such large sections of today's youth, and it is you, the political leaders, so beholden to the private interests who put you in power, who must be held accountable.

And why should young people not be angry? We are poisoning the world's fresh water. By the year 2025, two-thirds of the world will not have adequate access to clean water. Large water transnationals salivate in anticipation of the profits to be made from such shortages as they prepare to commodify and sell water on the open market for profit. That's an abomination beyond anything that any protester did on that wall yesterday. The global economy has corporatized our food system. Now farmers don't grow food for people in communities--they have to produce for profit for food corporations. They feed chicken pellets to salmon and ground meat to cows and inject the DNA of scorpions into corn and then wonder why we are angry. And if any country dares to say no to such practices, they bring it to its knees with trade sanctions.

Their economic system has created a world of winners and losers, and the greatest gap between rich and poor in living memory. "Free" trade brought Canada, cited by the UN as the "best" country in which to live, the highest rise in child poverty in the industrialized world--60 percent and counting. I warned them fifteen years ago when they signed the first free-trade agreement between Canada and the United States that they would create a First World in the Third World, a Third World in the First World. And it has happened. I said they would create a global royalty in which politicians and corporate leaders around the world have more in common with one another than with their own citizens, and that they would start to use their security forces against those citizens to protect their corporate interests. And this has happened. I told them that their policies would alienate huge numbers of us and that we would find each other and build a movement. And this has happened too.

Let's talk about vandalism. There was some vandalism yesterday, yes. But where was the first vandalism? The first vandalism was in that scar of a wall they put up in our beautiful city. That wall was the first vandalism. Where is the real violence? Let's talk about that. Well, I say the real violence lies behind that wall, with the thirty-four political leaders and their spin doctors and their corporate friends who bought their way in, sleeping in five-star hotels and eating in five-star restaurants and thinking they can run the world by themselves. Well, I have news for them--there are more of us than there are of them, and we say, No!

This has been an emotional and difficult time for our movement. There are differences among us, to be sure. But the differences are small compared with what we have in common. And today we come together as a family in our opposition to the soul-destroying FTAA and its plan of corporate domination of our hemisphere. The peoples of the Americas are speaking loudly. We will not be moved. We are making history today and we are standing united.

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