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.

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.

NAFTA, implemented in January 1994, was held up as a windfall for the economies of the United States, Canada, and Mexico. “Since Mexico came into our agreement, we have been at full employment,” says Crane, “and it’s our second largest trading partner.” The Institute for Policy Studies, however, says that more than 400,000 industrial jobs have been lost in the U.S. as companies shifted their work south of the border, and some 8 million Mexicans have slipped from the middle class into poverty, many of them farmers who’ve been unable to compete with giant U.S. agricultural corporations.

Some nations at the Summit of Americas plan to resist portions of the FTAA, as developing nations opposed the WTO agreement in Seattle. For Canada, the sticking point is “Chapter 11,” which, under NAFTA, allows corporations to sue governments if they believe their profits have been harmed by domestic laws that protect the environment or public health and safety. In 1998, the U.S.-based Ethyl Corporation sued Canada before a three-member NAFTA tribunal, charging that the country’s ban on the polluting gasoline additive MMT was bad for business. When the tribunal ruled against it, Canada dropped the ban and paid Ethyl $13 million for lost profits.

Brazil worries about the privatization of public services, such as health care. By producing generic drugs, the Brazilian government cut the incidence of AIDS in half. But under FTAA, multinational pharmaceuticals could sue Brazil for impinging on their markets, with catastrophic consequences for people.

In Buenos Aires, Argentina, where trade ministers met this past weekend to hash out a final FTAA draft, 10,000 people took to the streets in protest. Police blasted them with water from canons, sprayed tear gas, and shot rubber bullets.

FTAA “is like the reconquest of the Americas,” says Eric Laursen, a member of NYC Direct Action Network. “First the Europeans, and now the corporations.”

Protests and Solidarity Actions:

Quebec City:

The NYC Coalition Against the FTAA will run buses from New York to Quebec City. Buses will leave Union Square at 6 P.M. April 19 ($75 round-trip) and April 20 ($60). For information on travel and housing, send an e-mail or phone 212-663-7622.

The Autonomous Direct Action Working Group (Autodawg) will hold a convergence site in Burlington from April 16-18 for activists going to Quebec City. The gathering will include training and planning sessions, and media, legal and medical centers; call (802) 863-0571. For information on transportation from New York, e-mail Autodawg or call (917) 334-3781, ext. 1759.

Smash the FTAA! will head from Burlington to the border in a caravan on April 19. For information, see the group’s Web site or e-mail the Kingston Community Union.

April 20th: Day of Direct Action in Quebec City. Activists, union members, indigenous people and others will demonstrate against the FTAA. For information, see the Anti-Capitalist
Convergence’s Web site or send an e-mail.

April 21st: Legal demonstration in Quebec City.

New York:

Direct Action Network and Ya Basta! are raising funds to transport and house thousands of activists at the Quebec City protests. To make donations or to find out how to join an affinity group, e-mail or phone NYC-DAN at 358-3966, or e-mail Ya Basta!.

“Dancing down the Border,” a benefit for protestors going to Quebec City, will take place aboard the Frying Pan, a salvaged lighthouse ship at Chelsea Piers, Pier 63, West 23rd Street. Music by Akim Funk Buddha and more, Sat., April 14, 10 P.M., $10.

Related Links:

Direct action:

Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch
Global Exchange

Official sites:
Free Trade Area of the Americas
Summit of the Americas
U.S. Trade Representative

Independent Media Centers:
Centre for Media Alternatives of Quebec