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.
In the Upper Town, on Friday, workers hammer protective boards across shop windows as surveillance helicopters whir over the security perimeter. Paper doll cutouts, balloons, and flowers decorate the hated fence, and graffiti appears more quickly than it can be scrubbed off: “Smash Capitalism,” “Freedom Can’t Be Fenced,” “Quebec City or Berlin?” McDonald’s has removed its golden arches and painted the storefront with yellow daffodils, making it look abandoned. Demonstrators linger by the fence, pulling at it now and then to test its strength.
Thousands gather at the Université Laval, among them jugglers, Lady Liberty on stilts, and the radical cheerleaders, who skip rope to anti-FTAA chants. “Welcome to the carnival against capitalism,” shouts a man through a bullhorn. The crowd divides into three groups: Greens (no arrest risk) head for the Lower Town; yellows (nonviolent direct action with some risk of arrest) and reds (“diversity of tactics”) march toward the fence. Yellows and reds are mostly young, students and nonstudents, from across Canada and much of the northeastern United States. Marie Jacques, a student from Toronto, wears a bar code on the back of her black leather jacket: “With the FTAA we will become commodities, not people,” she says. “Our genes will be for sale.”
At Boulevard René Lévesque, a man scales the fence to the sound of riotous cheers mixed with the heavy footsteps of police moving into formation. He hangs over the top, as those below begin to shake and rock the fence. It takes a mere five minutes to pull a 150-foot section down, and as demonstrators stomp upon the fence and begin to push into the security zone, the first of countless canisters of tear gas are tossed into the crowds. But the wind blows the gas back at the police, toward the Congress Center. Protesters lob snowballs, hockey pucks, and a stuffed Barney doll at the police.
Inside the Congress Center and nearby hotels, staffers shut the ventilation systems to keep the gas out. The buildings are “locked down”—no one can go in or out, but because an underground mall connects the buildings, delegates roam freely from one to the next. Police sit glued to TVs in an underground bistro, watching the battle. The activists have succeeded in delaying many leaders: President Bush has made it, but his meeting with Caribbean heads of state is canceled; other meetings are impeded as well. The opening ceremonies begin one hour late.
Venzuela’s president Hugo Chávez, a leader who arose from the ranks of the poor, stops to talk to reporters outside the Hilton. In Venezuela, he says, “We will give the people a referendum to say whether Venezuela should be part of FTAA.” Asked about the protests, he comments, “If we don’t listen to the people, then democracy is a farce. I’m very sorry about all the tear gas, it is too much, but I understand why they feel they must use it.”
The word “democracy” is on everyone’s lips, presidents and demonstrators alike. But the meaning seems to change depending upon which side of the fence one stands. Chávez’s words, for instance, can be interpreted two ways. He speaks as an elected populist, but has worried some Venezuelans by suspending the courts and rewriting the constitution. George W. Bush, for his part, uses “democracy” as a synonym for free trade and freedom. But who benefits most from this freedom—the peasant who finds low-wage work at a U.S.-owned factory, or the multinational corporation unshackled from pesky domestic laws?
President Francisco Flores Pérez of El Salvador warns that the longer developing countries must wait for this trade agreement, the more vulnerable they become to losing democracy to dictatorship. “But maybe the leaders are to blame for these protests,” he adds, “because distribution has been so unequal.”
On Saturday, the second day of demonstrations, an estimated 30,000 people gather at the port for a peaceful march. Approximately 5000 head toward the fence. The police toss tear gas as the first person begins to climb it. This day, each time a canister lands amid the protesters, someone snatches it and lobs it back at police. When the water cannons arrive, the crowds cheer as one man is whooshed off the fence in a flooding stream. The sound of a bagpipe drifts through while gas and water flow. The air throughout the city is thick and noxious.
Elsewhere along the fence, members of the Black Bloc, a self-described anarchist collective, have penetrated, but take only a few steps through the hole before a police officer cracks one with a baton. They retreat. When the fence beside the St. Matthew cemetery comes down, a man hops into the graveyard, finds himself alone, ducks behind tombstones, then flees, stomping merrily on the fence as he exits. Police, exhausted, sit in doorways eating Power Bars; all they have is water, one complains, when what they need is Gatorade.
Inside, the leaders gather atop the Citadel for their group photo. The acrid smell of tear gas hangs in the air as they smile. They have agree on one thing by now: They will include a “democracy clause.” It will say that nations failing to adhere to democratic principles will not be able to participate in the FTAA, and that nations may be thrown out if democracy is threatened.
Who will define democracy? That question is put off for another meeting. Cuba is clearly out. Haiti is considered dubious. President Chavez of Venezuela alone refused to agree to parts of the clause referring to “representative” democracy, saying he favors “participatory” democracy. Could Venezuela be booted for having the wrong kind of democracy? Or would Venezuela’s oil supply be too tasty of a commodity for the free traders to take that risk?
Late into Saturday night, demonstrators held their ground, dancing relentlessly in the geysers of gas and water, their yellow slickers shining beneath the lamplight. More than 400 had been arrested, some 150 injured. Police had been injured as well. At the closing ceremony, Argentine president Fernando de la Rua said that the next summit, which he will host, will not happen “behind walls.” In the interim, if the activists have their way, heads of state will be pressed to acknowledge that the real conflict is not between democracy and dictatorship, but between democracy and the dictates of corporations.
For background on the FTAA and the protests, see Lenora Todaro’s “McHemisphere.”
For a look at Bush’s stance toward the trade pact, see James Ridgeway’s “Hemisphere-A-Go-Go.”
Independent Media Center:
Centre for Media Alternatives of Quebec
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 24, 2001