Tearing Down the Wall

Two Views of Democracy Battle in Quebec City

If the enduring image of Seattle's WTO protests was the smashed window of a Starbucks, the icon for the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City is likely to be a giant chain-link fence, which protesters called a "wall of shame" and likened to the Berlin Wall. It formed a security zone around the buildings where 34 heads of state gathered to discuss the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a proposal for a hemisphere-wide "free trade" bloc that would encompass 800 million people from Alaska to Argentina. It divided two views of democracy as well.

Inside the fence: Black-car motorcades cruise funereally through deserted streets, bringing presidents and prime ministers to the Congress Center, where the VIPs are meeting, or the Hilton Hotel. At the entrance to the hotel, a woman hands out maple leaf sugar candies while a sax toots "Girl From Ipanema."

Outside: The streets throb with thousands of activists. A barrage of tear gas creates 10-foot clouds while defiant protesters haul down a 150-foot section of the fence with ropes, uprooted parking signs, and their bare hands.

The FTAA proposal divides those who see free trade as a means to economic progress and greater democracy, and those who see it as distinctly undemocratic, providing increased freedom for corporations rather than people. There is some middle ground, but in Quebec City this past weekend, divisions ran deep, anger at a high pitch, and the two sides seemed unable to hear one another over the din of their own voices.

Much of the tensions on display in Quebec City could be seen on Wednesday at the U.S.-Canadian border, where many activists were turned back. On Wednesday, John Boots, an Akwesasne Mohawk and retired factory worker, prepared for a fish fry to welcome the 500 to 1000 activists who wanted to cross a bridge that stretches from the U.S. to Canada through Mohawk territory.

Boots has a mission: to tell the visitors about his wish for Mohawk sovereignty, and to encourage them in their protest against the FTAA, "because we haven't seen the benefits of free trade. Only the shareholders have." Throughout the weekend in Quebec City, indigenous peoples will be invoked as the first groups in the Western hemisphere to suffer the downside of trade, which wrought "an ecocide and a genocide."

Two days later, in Quebec City, government leaders acceded to the first demand of protesters, sort of: They agreed to make the FTAA draft public sometime soon. One section had already been leaked to the press. Lori Wallach, executive director for Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, pored over it in a cab. "It ranges from the truly offensive to NAFTA lite," she said. She pointed to a paragraph and explained that the bracketed suggestions indicate opposition—"but we don't know which country has said what." This matters because one strategy of those who oppose the agreement is to point out the very real economic and philosophical differences among nations.

The leaked section includes controversial "chapter 11" language that would allow corporations to sue governments if their laws, say clean air standards, impede profits. Where are the objections she knows Canada has to this one, Wallach wonders. She can't find them. When the document reaches the public, the brackets will be gone, "scrubbed out" as Wallach puts it. Herein lies one of the complications about the meaning of "democracy." Should the public have access to behind-the-scenes arguments in trade negotiations that are supposedly on its behalf? Whom should governments protect—multinational corporations, which they believe to be the engines of economic progress, or the people, who've elected them?

As it happens, Quebec City is itself embroiled in an effort to maintain its identity as a French-speaking city—a familiar struggle in the globalization era, when the language of profits is so often English. The city is divided into the old Upper Town, where the Congress Center is, and the old Lower Town, down by the port. There, by the St. Lawrence River, 20 minutes from the turmoil and the police, the People's Summit unfolds beneath a large white tent. More than 2000 people have registered for forums on human rights, health care, the environment, and discussions of alternatives to the FTAA. Attendees come from throughout the Americas: union members, human rights activists, parents with children in strollers, students, even Seattle's beloved raging grannies.

Maria Louisa Mendonca, a documentary filmmaker and director of Global Exchange's Brazil project, has come here with members from the MST, the Brazilian Landless Workers' Movement. The FTAA proceedings echo "the whole history of colonization," she says: Yet again, the powerful are telling the powerless how to improve their lives. "The U.S. represents 70 percent of the GDP [gross domestic product] for the Americas," she explains. "We can't compete with its level of infrastructure and technology." The Brazilian government stymied Bush's attempt to sign the deal in 2003 instead of 2005, and President Cardoso insisted that free-trade benefits "should be equally shared."

The People's Summit winds down on Friday, after six days, and organizers distribute "Alternatives for the Americas," a 79-page plan demanding that the trade pact "promote economic sovereignty, social welfare, and reduced inequality." Organizers believe they can gradually shift public opinion in their favor. "I think [the heads of state] are more afraid of our ideas than the rocks," says Mendonca.

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