George Orwell would have appreciated the irony of President Bush and other hemispheric leaders declaring in Quebec their intention to spread democracy, as chain-link fences, tear gas, water cannons and mass arrests prevented citizens from getting anywhere near the April 20-22 Summit of the Americas. George W. Bush and the leaders of thirty-three other nations who agreed to establish a Free Trade Area of the Americas by the year 2005 claimed that their action would improve the lives of citizens from Alaska to Argentina, but their proclamations rang a bit hollow to those arrested for advocating democracy and the alleviation of poverty.
Meanwhile, inside the fortress, even some of the summiteers admitted to doubts about the magic of free trade; at one point when the leaders apparently thought public transmission of their comments had ended, Canadian International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew remarked, "It is not the market or trade per se that can eliminate inequality."
Why are so many people so dubious about the FTAA? The experience of NAFTA, which was recently condemned by Human Rights Watch for creating structures that are consistently biased against the protection of working people, has made skeptics of citizens who can see that a corporate-defined free-trade regimen only enriches corporations. In Mexico, even by the government's conservative estimates, manufacturing wages dropped to $1.90 from $2.10 per hour between 1994 and 1999, after NAFTA came into effect. In the United States, more than 300,000 workers have qualified for training programs set up for those laid off because of NAFTA. It is realities like those that led to the protests in Quebec and to rallies in cities from Buffalo to San Diego. In Chicago, Service Employees Local 1 president Tom Balanoff asked workers: "We know what NAFTA did--why would we want to make the same mistake" with the FTAA? In St. Paul, Senator Paul Wellstone told a crowd that included truckers and teaching assistants, "We speak for a global economy that doesn't just work for greedy multinational corporations."
The broad-based coalition that was so effective in Seattle and that reasserted itself in Quebec will play an important role in the "fast track" fight that will soon stir in Congress. Bush will not have an easy time putting together the majority he needs to win fast track negotiating authority, which would allow the Administration to craft an agreement that could then be only voted up or down by Congress. But he doesn't lack leverage: Obliquely acknowledging the legitimacy of the protesters' demands, he has copied business's newfound rhetoric of sensitivity to labor and environmental concerns in an effort to win the votes of "centrist" Democrats, and there is talk that the Administration might be willing to cut deals with some labor and environmental groups in order to buy off opposition. On the GOP side, Bush faces possible defections among those concerned about home-state industries like steel and those from farm states, as well as a core group of traditional anti-free traders.
In 1997 and 1998 a labor, environmental and human rights coalition defeated Clinton in the House on fast track at a time when the opposition was not nearly as broad-based or well organized, and it can prevail again this year. To win, however, in a way that is viewed as a step forward for citizens everywhere, that effort should focus not only on what's wrong with the FTAA but also on the fact that its critics have developed responsible alternative visions to "globalization at any price" that include such things as right-to-know legislation that would require US multinationals to collect and disclose vital data on environmental damage and workplace conditions in their overseas production.
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien dismissed the thousands who came to Quebec City with the words On va protester et blablabla (they're coming to protest and blah blah blah). But as Naomi Klein wrote, "Quite the opposite. They're coming to Quebec to protest because they've had it with the blah blah blah." The demonstrators bore witness for those who weren't in Quebec--the people on the wrong end of globalization.
The protesters have done their job well, making it clear to the world that the spirit of Seattle is not only alive but growing stronger. Now it's up to US activists to make sure Congress gets the message.