Next Stop, Quebec: A Sweeping Trade Pact, Shrouded in Secrecy, Draws Protesters From North and South

The working draft of a document with the potential to dramatically alter our lives sits in secure reading rooms in Congress and the U.S. Department of Commerce, off-limits to the public. Only those with security clearance may enter and read it. No note-taking. No xeroxing. This is not the code for nuclear missile release or the formula for creating an atom bomb; it is, rather, one of the few copies of the preliminary version of the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement. FTAA is a sweeping trade deal that would make the entire Western hemisphere—from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina—into one big common market.

Supporters believe the FTAA will keep the gasping good economic times rolling, lowering trade barriers to get consumers more goods at better prices. But critics call the plan "NAFTA on steroids." They say that like the North American Free Trade Agreement, which lowered trade barriers between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, the FTAA could allow corporations to weaken labor standards and wipe out environmental laws, among other things. But until the documents are in the open, the debates can't really begin.

From April 20 to 22, 34 heads of state from the Western hemisphere (all but Fidel Castro) will meet in Quebec City, Canada, for the Summit of the Americas, the third formal occasion since 1994 at which the FTAA proposal has been discussed. Tens of thousands of demonstrators plan to show up too. Union members—who haven't been seen en masse since the Seattle WTO protests—will arrive by bus. Caravans of students, activists, and other perturbed people will gather in the city, and along the New York-Canada and California-Mexico borders. Demonstrations will unfold in 50 other cities.

Denied entry: free trade protesters attempt to cross at a Canadian border checkpoint.
photo: Michelle Peterson
Denied entry: free trade protesters attempt to cross at a Canadian border checkpoint.

The Canadian government, anxious about a reprise of Seattle 1999, has undertaken the largest security operation in its history (costing more than $30 million) . A new 10-foot-high, 2.4-mile-long metal and concrete fence now surrounds a portion of the old town, in addition to the wall which circumscribes even more of the city. Six thousand police stand at the ready (four times as many as in Seattle). Six hundred beds in a nearby prison await arrestees. At the border, immigration officials are already turning back potential protesters—after copying their flyers, phone books, even grocery lists.

"The FTAA, like NAFTA before it, has been depicted as an epochal lowering of barriers and removal of borders," says Mike Davis, professor of history at SUNY Stony Brook. "In truth, this is only true for capital and pollution. As the militarization of Quebec City demonstrates, FTAA-NAFTA involves more borders around dissent and the free movement of people."

At stake, the activists say, is democracy itself. At a recent meeting at Judson Memorial Church, Lori Wallach, executive director of Global Trade Watch at Public Citizen, waved a dog-eared, phone-book-size document in the air—the text of NAFTA, on which FTAA is modeled. "Any domestic regulation that undermines a future investment of a corporation is a violation of NAFTA. This language is in the FTAA," she warned. "It is worth not making this [the FTAA] the constitution of the hemisphere."

The FTAA draft is now in the hands of trade ministers, supposedly laden with brackets suggesting amendments from north, south, east, and west. Last year, 63 members of Congress wrote a letter to President Clinton demanding that the document be made public. Summaries of FTAA contents were then posted on the U.S. Trade Representative's Web site. But these are too vague, Wallach explains: "Much of the meaning can turn on a comma or a phrase, so we need to see the actual language." In January, a similar letter arrived on President Bush's desk. Thus far, no response.

Last month, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) brought suit against U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick for keeping the public in the dark about FTAA negotiations. The trade representative's office had denied a Freedom of Information Act request from CIEL to disclose the documents, citing an exemption for "inter- and intra-agency communications." CIEL claims that once the documents were given to foreign governments, this privilege was waived. Zoellick's office did not make a spokesperson available to the Voice for comment.

Representative Charles Rangel of New York, a member of the Subcommittee on Trade of the Committee on Ways and Means, which oversees international trade agreements, says he hasn't read the document. "If the FTAA looks like NAFTA," Rangel says, "I'll oppose it."

The Bush administration aims to implement FTAA by 2005, perhaps earlier if Congress grants "fast track" authority, now euphemistically rebaptized "trade promotional authority." Such power would permit Bush to negotiate a trade deal and then bring it back to Congress to vote yea or nay. No amendments. Limited debate. NAFTA was "passed" this way in 1994. In 1997 and 1998, Congress denied President Clinton fast track authority.

Congressman Philip Crane, a Republican from Illinois, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Trade, says passing FTAA is "our number one priority." He denies that it is being kept secret, arguing that it has been in flux and that trade ministers are meeting in Buenos Aires to hammer out a "draft negotiating text" for Quebec City. So how can the public find out what's in the documents? "I don't honestly know," says Crane.

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