Summit of the Americas concludes with commitment to democracy

by Gumisai Mutume

Quebec City, 22 Apr (IPS) - The Summit of the Americas ended here Sunday with a declaration by leaders of 34 countries of the western hemisphere to promote democracy and with an endorsement of a plan to have a free trade area up and running by December 2005.

However, the 20-22 April meeting was overshadowed by street clashes between police and a small section of the estimated 30,000 people demonstrating against the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Demonstrators charge that the FTAA seeks to grant excessive powers to multinational corporations, is not environmentally friendly and will not benefit the majority of the region’s poor.

But inside the conference chamber, governments were more concerned about the issue of democracy, so much so that the final document of the meeting, the Declaration of Quebec, contains a democracy clause that allows state parties to the FTAA to throw out any member which breaches that provision.

The 34 leaders agreed to convene a meeting of experts soon to examine, in each country, political party registration, access of political parties to funding and the media, campaign financing and the manner in which elections are conducted.

“The benefits of free trade will accrue only to those who abide by our democratic clause,” Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien told the summit.

Once created, the FTAA will be the world’s biggest free trade area, spanning the hemisphere from Canada to Chile and encompassing nearly 800 million people. With that in mind, leaders endorsed the declaration of the Sixth Ministerial of the FTAA held earlier this month in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In Buenos Aires, government ministers adopted a timetable that will see negotiations completed and signed by January 2005. The agreement is to be ratified and implemented by December 2005.

April 2002 has been set as the date for the beginning of official negotiations on agriculture, merchandise trade, services and government procurement.  Proposals on the environment and labour will only be dealt with at the start of negotiations.

Many Latin American countries have opposed US proposals to adopt a principle established in the NAFTA that prohibits the lowering of labour and environmental standards to attract investment.

Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso made it clear that his country will not go along with the FTAA if the US is not willing to lower agricultural subsidies and make changes to anti-dumping laws that make it difficult for regional economies to enter the US market.

Responding to the concerns of smaller countries, the conference endorsed recommendations that a committee be charged with formulating ways to deal with the different levels of development in the region by no later than November 2001. Economies vary in size from $350 million to $9 trillion.

Caribbean countries say they want a mechanism that provides development financing to ensure their countries can compete when the free trade area becomes operational.

Responding to such concerns, Canada announced it would set up an institute for connectivity in the Americas to bridge the digital divide. It pledged $20 million this year towards the centre, with additional financing expected to come from regional development banks.

Meanwhile, outside the conference hall, the Canadian police used teargas, water cannons and rubber bullets to stop demonstrators. By Sunday, more than 400 protestors had been arrested.

“Unfortunately the media tended to concentrate on the bricks being thrown by a few,” says Robin Rosenberg of the North-South Centre at the University of Miami.  He says some sections of civil society made a number of recommendations through a civil society roundtable which officials agreed to take up.

But some organisers of a People’s Summit which ended the day the regional leaders began their parley, charged that the consultation process was not genuine and was meant only to buy public support.

The Peoples Summit, a civil society meeting to discuss the free trade deal, rejected the FTAA, noting that it was yet another accord which would raise the fortunes of TNCs and do nothing for the ordinary or poor citizens of the Americas.

Hosting a People’s Summit was a last-minute decision by the Canadian government in the face of increasing agitation from civil society groups, but only a select few were invited to participate. There were no non-governmental groups from Andean countries or from the Caribbean.

The Quebec declaration pledges that FTAA negotiators will increase communication with civil society, “to ensure that it has a clear perception of the development of the FTAA negotiating process”. “We are determined to inform our countries of the contents of our discussions. We need to explain what we are attempting to achieve,” said Argentine President Fernando de la Rua, whose country will host the next Summit of the Americas on a date yet to be announced.

“The next summit we will hold in Argentina will not require walls for those coming to oppose, but it will have space for those coming to applaud” our actions, de la Rua said. –SUNS4881

[c] 2001, SUNS - All rights reserved. May not be reproduced, reprinted or posted to any system or service without specific permission from SUNS. This limitation includes incorporation into a database, distribution via Usenet News, bulletin board systems, mailing lists, print media or broadcast. For information about reproduction or multi-user subscriptions please contact: