Tear Down the Walls

The movement is becoming more global.

David Moberg

The fall of Quebec’s 2.5‑mile, chain-link wall of shame” during the Summit of the Americas will not rank in historical annals with the storming of the Bastille, but it was still a milestone in the movement against corporate globalization. It not only made millions of people more aware of both the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and substantial popular opposition, which gathered in Canada during the weekend of April 20 to 22. But the protests – both the direct action and the peaceful march by tens of thousands of critics from varied countries, occupations and ages – also marked a continuing evolution of a movement that is itself becoming more global. 

The long-standing issues posed by capital’s easy mobility – such as job loss, environmental damage, economic insecurity and inequality, sweatshops, structural adjustment” squeezes, and threats to farmers and food consumers from corporate agribusiness – have not disappeared, but they are increasingly being consolidated within a broader framework of debate. Despite the misleading trade” label, the issue with the FTAA is not whether trade should grow in the hemisphere, but rather how to regulate the global economy. Will the rules favor those who are already rich and powerful, increasing inequality within and among countries? Or will the rules favor raising living standards for workers and peasants while protecting the environment? 

The issues are as much political as economic for FTAA opponents – the human rights of individuals against the unfettered freedom of capital, democracy against corporate power and privilege, values of solidarity and justice against a totally marketized society. As business and political elites promote their model of a deregulated global economy where giant corporations rule, the option of reforming or modifying the proposed trade agreements to protect labor or the environment or to help the poor seems less and less realistic. The core of these agreements is deeply flawed, and the development of a comprehensive alternative model of global economic integration has become more necessary. 

High on the hill of old walled Quebec, fortified behind the new wall and 6,000 police, 34 heads of state from the Americas (all except for Fidel Castro) declared their commitment to democracy, pledging to exclude from the Summit of the Americas process” any country that undergoes any unconstitutional alteration or interruption of the democratic order.” But this democracy clause may be as hollow as their other pledges to strive to limit military expenditures” or to promote compliance with internationally recognized core labor standards,” neither of which Bush, for starters, intends to do. 

The new clause offers a narrow and vague definition of democracy, presumably centered on holding elections, but ignoring other crucial aspects of a strong democracy, such as an equitable distribution of wealth. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, in an inadvertent leak of a radio feed from a closed session, made a similar point to fellow presidents: If the democracy doesn’t provide land, if it’s concentrated in the hands of 2 percent of the population, we can’t speak of democracy.” 

While U.S. representatives at the summit spoke only of the promise of growth from free trade, the Canadians alluded to the need for national governments to redistribute income from growth. Yet capital mobility in the new global trade regime severely limits the ability of governments to redistribute. And with no clear standards for enforcement, the democracy requirement will also be open to manipulation by the United States to favor right-leaning authoritarians like Peru’s former president Alberto Fujimori, while attacking left-leaning populists like Chavez whose democratic credentials are called into question. 

Those on both sides of the fence claimed to represent democracy, which indicates that the social critics of market-focused globalization have helped to shift the framework of debate. But the heart of the summit process is really the negotiation of the Free Trade Area by 2005, which the heads of state endorsed at the meeting. Although they promised to release the draft negotiating text, the only part leaked so far – the investment chapter – confirms that the FTAA is likely to be even worse than NAFTA,” according to Maude Barlow, chairwoman of the Council of Canadians, a leading citizens organization. 

With a broad, vague definition of investment, the draft document will follow NAFTA in giving corporations – which would not be signatories to the agreement and would have no obligations under it – the power to overturn laws and collect damages from governments whenever they believe a government policy threatens future profits. It also is likely to give corporations new powers to attack public services, forcing deregulation, privatization and marketization of the public sphere. In other words, while promising democracy, the summit leaders have given the green light to negotiate an agreement that could give foreign investors the right to nullify and cripple the democratic process through secretive trade tribunals, in addition to their bullying of governments with the carrot and stick of fickle foreign investment. 

At the time of NAFTA’s ratification, not even most critics imagined that the investor rights to sue states, embodied in Chapter 11 of the treaty, could have such ominous potential. Its scope is still unclear: There is no definitive public record of how many times corporations have invoked Chapter 11 (at least 17). Most cases have challenged environmental policy decisions in all three NAFTA countries, leading to reversals of laws or governmental decisions and major payments to corporations for potential lost profits (since any government decision to regulate that reduces such profits can be treated as tantamount to appropriation,” in the language of NAFTA). 

Canadians at the protest in Quebec were especially worried about a UPS claim for $160 million in damages filed against Canada last year. UPS argues that the Canadian government violates NAFTA rules because it does not provide UPS the same access to the offices and delivery system of Canada Post as it does to the government postal system’s overnight delivery service. 

Since the FTAA apparently will broaden coverage of services (much as negotiators are trying to do now under the World Trade Organization), critics believe that corporations could use the FTAA to undermine public services. A study by the Council of Canadians argues that the FTAA would include sweeping new measures and clauses that would allow foreign corporations market access’ to all public services and force governments to deregulate those services.” For example, they could demand equal treatment with public health or education systems, if there is any commerce-like aspect, such as payment of fees. In this way, they potentially could force the privatization of Canada’s national health system, public education, electric or water utilities. Although services in the United States are already more privatized than in Canada, FTAA rules could not only force more privatization (of education, for example), but also lock in a privatized, deregulated regime in many countries that would be impossible to reverse while remaining within the FTAA. 

It is no surprise that big corporations – especially U.S. service firms – and the free-market right are pushing such privatization agendas, but the trade agreements offer a back-door way for a foreign company to force a government to adopt policies under the guise of enforcing trade rules. Investor rights to challenge states are part of NAFTA and many bilateral trade agreements – and also were a key component of the temporarily disbanded Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). Ironically, the United States argued in the one case brought against this country so far that such claims would mean that no country could carry out its most fundamental government functions unless it was prepared to pay for each and every economic impact.” Yet it is using the FTAA as a vehicle to expand such investor challenges to the rest of the hemisphere and to use as leverage in other global agreements. Even if corporations do not win every case, simply the threat of such challenges will have a chilling effect on public policy. 

On Friday, April 20, when police drove a water cannon into the crowd of direct action supporters (before it was forced to retreat), a demonstrator stood in front of it with a sign saying simply, Democracy,” briefly echoing the famous image of the lone man against the tank in Tiananmen Square. The wall itself – 10-feet high, anchored in concrete, cutting an ugly path through a beautiful old community – became a symbol of undemocratic trade negotiations: secretive, corporate and unresponsive to popular demands. Nous ne sommes pas de marchandise,” (“We are not merchandise”) protesters chanted as they marched through the streets, while another demonstrator carried a plaintive placard reading, Where is democracy?” 

The turnout was huge, mainly from Canada, but also including contingents from the United States (from direct action militants who were not deterred by vigilant Canadian customs officials to 15 busloads of mainly union members from Jobs With Justice). Organizers of the Saturday march claimed 68,000 took part; police said 25,000; and it’s reasonable to say that at least 45,000 participated, chanting So So So Solidarité.” But a survey commissioned by the unions revealed that one-fifth of Canadians would have liked to march in Quebec. (In addition, there were about 80 coordinated protests in the United States, some joined by roughly 300 protesters who were prohibited from entering Canada.) 

There were probably close to 7,500 people at the protests on Friday, primarily younger students and workers, who left Laval University to march toward the fence, dividing between people going to a green” zone with a low risk of arrest and a yellow” zone of higher risk. Marching under the banner of the convergence of anti-capitalist struggles,” a group that had advocated what was euphemistically called diversity of tactics,” several thousand marchers arrived at a gate just east of the conference center. 

At first they simply stood looking: There appeared to be nothing organized for anyone to do. Then a few people began throwing things – ranging from rolls of toilet paper to golf balls (and eventually large rocks and other more potent objects) – at the line of police in riot helmets and shields. Many front-line marchers were dressed in black, wearing helmets and face or gas masks, body padding and other gear for physical confrontation. As the police stood their ground 30 yards behind the fence, a few people climbed the gate, then with the help of others pulled it down. The crowd cheered, but only a few dozen people walked through the breach, most of them throwing objects at the police. Then the medieval faction – later identified as the Deconstructionist Institute for Surreal Topology–pulled up its home-made catapult and launched a pink stuffed animal at the police. Even ordinary citizens from the neighborhoods as well as nonviolent protesters celebrated the fall of the fence. 

Although chanting pagans, street theater groups, drummers and individual anachronisms (like a young man dressed as an Easter bunny handing out chocolate candies) gave the promised air of a carnival against capitalism,” a monotony, rather than a diversity, of tactics was soon set for the next two days. Police began firing tear gas both at the rock throwers and into the surrounding crowd. While most people fled the stinging gas, a few militants picked up canisters and threw them back at the police. For the rest of the day on Friday, then for most of Saturday afternoon and evening, there was a give and take of protesters advancing on police, usually with a few people throwing things, then the police firing tear gas – as well as water cannons and rubber and plastic bullets – and then moving out to disperse the crowd. 

Unlike the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, there was no disciplined strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience. At the same time, the relatively few attacks on private property consisted mainly of spraying graffiti rather than smashing store windows, although one lone policeman along the march route was beaten badly. Clearly the relatively small number of people who fought with the police defined the action, leaving most others as observers waiting to flee the tear gas. Although at least 250 people eventually were arrested (many snatched from peaceful side streets Latin American-style by plainclothes police) and about 60 protesters were injured seriously, the police did not attempt mass arrests or resort to indiscriminate clubbing of bystanders. This was not a Chicago 1968 police riot, though the police did become more aggressive on Saturday. 

The organizers of the mass protest, mainly the Canadian labor movement, citizen groups and the Hemispheric Social Alliance–a group of 2,300 delegates from every Latin American country (including Cuba) who held an alternative Peoples’ Summit – did not repudiate the militants. Their leaders even blamed the summit presidents for initiating the first vandalism, by building the wall and unleashing the violence of the free market.” But there was a sharp division on tactics. At a crucial point in the big march, militants chanting to the left, not to the right” – both a logistical and political exhortation – tried to divert the crowd to the fence, but the vast majority followed the planned route leading away from the fence to a doleful parking lot near an arena. 

The unions and citizen groups undoubtedly could not have produced the numbers and the variety of people if there had been a significant chance of violence or arrest, and it would have been irresponsible for them to lead the group to the fence under the circumstances. But the fence would have been the logical, dramatic culmination if there had been assurances that the actions would have included nothing beyond civil disobedience, such as organized mass arrests for entering the forbidden zone. 

Protests like the ones in Quebec have energized the movement against corporate globalization, and summits and meetings of international institutions like the WTO and World Bank provide one of the few opportunities to catch the eye of the mass media. But the movement in opposition to the FTAA needs to go beyond such protests to build a broad political base rooted in communities throughout the Americas and engaged in the domestic politics of each country – such as the upcoming fight against fast track” authority (now called trade promotion”) in the U.S. Congress. 

Also, although it’s easier to generate popular resistance against bad trade deals, there’s value in showing other ways to expand trade that deliver results for working people. The Hemispheric Social Alliance began developing its ideas on alternatives for the Americas” at a gathering in Santiago, Chile, during the previous Summit of the Americas. At that time, there was more talk of fighting for reforms than outright opposition, says executive secretary Hector de la Cueva, a Mexican economist. But the experience with NAFTA, capped by the unexpectedly aggressive corporate use of investor challenges to governments, has persuaded more groups that the globalization model is fundamentally flawed. 

Shortly before the Summit in Quebec, for example, the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive Washington think tank, released a study arguing that NAFTA has failed workers in all three countries. In the EPI analysis, NAFTA eliminated 766,000 actual and potential U.S. jobs, while increasing inequality, suppressing wages and weakening unions. Foreign direct investment grew in Mexico (though not total investment), but most of the job growth was either in the informal sector or the maquiladoras that use imported components to manufacture products almost entirely for export to the United States; meanwhile, real wages declined by roughly one-fifth for most employees. In Canada, growth slowed, inequality rose, wages stagnated, and there was a net job loss despite export growth. 

The Hemispheric Social Alliance’s alternative, which will be revised again following the summit, insists that integration of the Americas requires special efforts to encourage development of the poorer countries, since treating all countries as equal in an unregulated market simply exacerbates inequalities and favors the rich and powerful, no matter where they live. Previously the question was what country will benefit and who will lose,” de la Cueva says. The question now is who in each country will win, and who will lose?” 

The Alliance supports trade and foreign investment, not as ends in themselves, but rather [as] the instruments for achieving just and sustainable development.” For instance, it argues that governments should be able to regulate speculative capital flows and set requirements for foreign direct investment to encourage local development, and that citizen groups as well as governments should be able to sue corporations that violate rules, but investors should not be able to sue governments. 

The Alliance is pushing for national referendums on the FTAA and its alternative. Meanwhile the Citizens Trade Campaign, a coalition based in the United States, is urging organizations to unite around a 10-point opposition to the FTAA, which includes: prohibiting investor-state lawsuits, protecting basic social rights and public services from trade rules, restricting corporate patents on life forms and medicine, safeguarding small farmers, preserving natural resources, prohibiting erosion of public interest laws, promoting sustainable development, limiting financial speculation and protecting women, minorities and indigenous people. 

Despite the solidarity of the world leaders, there are tensions among even elites that could scuttle the FTAA: trade disputes (between Canada and the United States, the United States and Brazil, Brazil and Canada), competing strategies (such as Latin American regional alliances), revived discomfort with U.S. dominance (which would be worsened by the war against drugs and guerrillas financed under Plan Colombia), popular political pressures (as some leaders acknowledged, citing the protesters or doubters back home), misgivings of small, poor countries (some of whose leaders indicated in the closed session that aid and special treatment to spur development were their priorities), and political wild cards (like Chavez of Venezuela, who withheld his commitment to complete a deal by 2005). 

When the FTAA was first proposed, the free market fundamentalists felt that they were in a position to secure a radically deregulated new global playing field for multinational corporations. In recent years, with the opposition movement growing in breadth and depth across the world, crises proliferating and popular misgivings growing, the climate for new free trade” agreements has chilled. The winds of protest from Quebec make it even icier.

Before you go

Reader donations, many as small as just $5, are what fund the work of writers like this—and keep our content free and accessible to everyone. But when donations slow down, it puts our future reporting at risk. To get back on track, we're aiming to add 400 contributions from readers by the end of the month.

It only takes a minute to donate. Will you chip in before the deadline?

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue