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Revelry in Quebec

by Sarah Anderson Thursday, Jun. 28, 2001 at 2:02 PM

The thirty-four leaders spent their balmy days in harmonious discussions, unperturbed by protesters. Their evenings were filled with lavish receptions and dinners, including a ride aboard a 200-foot yacht owned by billionaire John Kluge. Corporate sponsors--led by AT&T, IBM, American Airlines, Bell South, and Archer Daniels Midland--chipped in more than 0,000 apiece to cover the tabs.

Revelry in Quebec

by Sarah Anderson

I reek of tear gas and haven't slept much, but my spirits are high from the dose of vindication I got on the streets of Quebec City. As I write this, I'm heading home from the protests at the Third Summit of the Americas, where George Bush and other leaders endorsed a timetable to negotiate a hemisphere-wide trade and investment deal called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

I remember the first Summit of the Americas, held in Miami back in December 1994, when President Clinton and thirty-three other leaders of countries in the western hemisphere (everyone but Castro) first got together to hatch plans for the FTAA. By some crazy fluke, I wound up on a list of token free trade critics who were invited to all the official summit soirees. Since we were outnumbered by business leaders by at least 400 to 1, I suppose they felt we couldn't do much harm. And they were right.

Those were heady days for free traders. Still cocky from their victory in the epic battle over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), they were further puffed up by Congress's approval, only days before the summit, of the deal that created the World Trade Organization. So the Miami Summit became a free trade lovefest for big corporations and their friends in government.

The thirty-four leaders spent their balmy days in harmonious discussions, unperturbed by protesters. Their evenings were filled with lavish receptions and dinners, including a ride aboard a 200-foot yacht owned by billionaire John Kluge. Corporate sponsors--led by AT&T, IBM, American Airlines, Bell South, and Archer Daniels Midland--chipped in more than 0,000 apiece to cover the tabs.

The most extravagant event was a Quincy Jones-produced spectacle featuring superstars from the hemisphere, including Liza Minelli, Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Patti LaBelle, Morgan Freeman, Maya Angelou, Paul Anka, Kenny G, and Rita Marley. Gloria Estefan sent a videotaped greeting to the heads of state and their wives from her maternity bed.

Clad in a dress I'd purchased for at a yard sale, I found myself seated about three rows behind the Clinton cabinet. I watched as a parade of corporate leaders, including financier David Rockefeller and other men who clearly owned their own tuxedoes, swarmed around the cabinet members. The exuberant backslapping was the kind of celebration you would expect to find in the men's locker room after a championship victory.

When the Quincy concert was over, we were bused to a dinner of stone crab claws and beef tenderloin, followed by fireworks over Biscayne Bay.

The next day, I flew back to Washington, D.C., carrying a complimentary briefcase filled with pens and calculators from the summit's corporate sponsors and an utterly crushed spirit. The fight over free trade was over. We'd lost. I had just seen it with my own eyes.

As I return home from Quebec City, I'm lugging a suitcase packed with well-developed critiques of free trade, many in multiple languages, from fellow activists throughout the hemisphere. This time, my spirit is rejuvenated by a growing resistance movement that has made phenomenal strides.

The contrast between the two summits is reflected in the balance sheets: The Miami event cost a total of about million, mostly for sprucing up the city, while the Canadian government reportedly forked out as much as million on security alone. While the presidents gallivanted about Miami in their motorcades, the leaders in Quebec City were bunkered behind a ten-foot-high, 2.5-mile-long fence nicknamed the "Wall of Shame," as 6,000 riot police battled to keep protesters at bay. While the Miami summiteers dined under tents on the oceanfront, George Bush couldn't even dash from his hotel to his limousine fast enough to avoid a whiff of tear gas.

All this reflected the Canadian government's overblown response to a massive but primarily peaceful convergence of demonstrators. Although nothing will top the shock value of the Seattle protests of 1999, the crowds in Quebec City were nevertheless breathtaking. Demonstrators estimated at somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 stretched as far as the eye could see from the front of the main march. As in Seattle, trade unionists made up the majority on the streets. Instead of the memorable Teamster/Steelworker/Machinist/UAW rain ponchos of Seattle, the mostly Quebec and Ontario trade unionists distinguished themselves with colorful flags and the chant, "So, so, so--Solidarit "

Labor won the turnout award, but others deserve big points for creativity. During the buildup to the weekend protests, crowds of mostly young activists congregated around the Wall of Shame, transforming the space into a spectacle of resistance. Muralists took full advantage of the plywood that had been hastily applied to protect nearby businesses. One painting paid homage to heroes of social justice movements, adding José Bové, the French farmer who became an anti-globalization icon after he dismantled a McDonald's, to the more traditional images of Mandela, Gandhi, and King.

Others festooned the much-hated fence with hundreds of brassieres, balloons, flowers, and crayon drawings with messages for the leaders. "I elected you, and you're afraid of me," read one sign in French. "But are you afraid of my balloon?" Another group, no doubt inspired by the Billionaires for Bush that splashed onto the U.S. protest scene last year, sported elegant attire and signs in French that said, "The market or death," "Shut up and Shop," and "An unemployed person is just an entrepreneur who doesn't know it."

The wall was a potent symbol of the anti-democratic nature of the FTAA negotiation process. At the same time, protesters appreciated the fact that it was the leaders who were trapped inside. One sign labeled it a "provincial penitentiary for corrupt politicians and heads of state" and declared: "They keep us out. Let's keep them in." As crowds milled about, a group calling themselves the Free Radical Skavengers serenaded them with "Songs for the Quebec Revolution" they'd composed during a two-day bus trip from their university in Winnipeg.

Not all the protesters were blameless, however. One clubbed a police officer. And when nonviolent activist Philippe Duhamel, of the Montreal-based civil disobedience group SalAMI, met with the more combative group to plead for peaceful tactics, he was hit with a pie in the face.

After a small group of protesters, mostly "Black Bloc" anarchists, began hurling rocks at police and attempting to break through the fence, police responded with indiscriminate assaults of tear gas and water cannons. In perhaps the most bizarre display of excessive force, police dropped tear gas out of a helicopter to disperse a crowd of young people who were dancing in a park late Saturday night.

That the protesters managed to make this round of trade talks a less enjoyable experience for the leaders was satisfying in itself. But the real successes can be measured in the progress made in countering some of the most prevalent criticisms of the anti-globalization movement.

Free traders often attempt to characterize the anti-globalization movement as "anti-Third World." After the WTO protests, for example, The Economist ran a memorable cover photo of a pathetic Indian child with the caption: "The Real Losers in Seattle." In Quebec City, although the media predictably fixated on the telegenic Black Bloc, it was the Latin Americans and Caribbeans who stole the show at the Peoples' Summit of the Americas, a week-long series of forums and strategy sessions translated into four languages for 3,000 delegates.

Mexican environmentalists ex-pressed their outrage over NAFTA's investment rules, which recently resulted in the Mexican government being forced to pay a U.S. firm million because it had been denied a waste treatment permit on public health grounds. The Bush Administration is pushing for inclusion in the FTAA of these same rules, even though the U.S. government is the target of the biggest NAFTA lawsuit to date. This one involves a Canadian company that is demanding billion in compensation for a California ban on a toxic chemical that the firm produces.

Mexican trade unionists at the Peoples' Summit also blasted the false promises of NAFTA. Since the trade pact went into effect in 1994, real wages for Mexican manufacturing workers have dropped 20 percent, while those people who attempt to form independent unions face severe repression. Nevertheless, the U.S. trade team is pushing for an FTAA that would be even weaker than NAFTA on labor as well as environmental issues, suggesting only that countries not relax protections to attract investment.

Chilean delegates warned about the deterioration of their schools that has resulted from privatization--a trend that would likely be expanded under the FTAA. The U.S. government has refused to keep basic services, including education and health care, off limits to the privatizers.

Brazilians denounced the efforts of the U.S. government to use trade agreements to protect multinational pharmaceutical companies--to the detriment of patients, including those with HIV/AIDS.

Similarly, indigenous people from Bolivia denounced efforts to elevate the rights of corporate patent-seekers over communal rights to plant knowledge.

The Peoples' Summit was organized by the Hemispheric Social Alliance, a network of labor organizations and citizens' networks representing forty-five million people across the Americas. Core members include ORIT (Organización Regional Interamericana de Trabajadores), which represents the major labor federations of the hemisphere (including the AFL-CIO) and nongovernmental groups from many countries (including the U.S.-based Alliance for Responsible Trade). There is no comparable network on globalization in any other region in the world. Only three years old and strapped for resources, the Hemispheric Social Alliance holds the potential to become the strongest force for confronting the FTAA and for undercutting attempts to delegitimize the movement by labeling it U.S.-centric.

Another common criticism of anti-free traders is that they are good at opposing but not at proposing. At the Peoples' Summit, the Hemispheric Social Alliance released an eighty-page document entitled "Alternatives for the Americas," which lays out detailed recommendations developed collaboratively by scholars and activists throughout the hemisphere. The overall thrust of the proposal is that there should be rules to guide relations among countries, but that those being pursued in the FTAA are the wrong rules. Instead, basic human, labor, environmental, and indigenous rights--as defined by international protocols--should take precedence over corporate rights. It also demands debt cancellation for the hemisphere's poorest countries and arbitration to assess and relieve other debts accumulated under dictators.

Free traders have also attempted to erode the legitimacy of opponents by ridiculing so-called professional protesters who flit from one international meeting to another, as more interested in accumulating the best demo gear than in the substance of the issues. This stereotype was effectively undermined by the local actions held in many cities across the United States and other countries in solidarity with the Quebec City protesters. Jobs With Justice posted a grid of U.S. events in fifty-four cities in thirty-three states. In many cases, these actions connected the broader globalization agenda to community impacts, such as layoffs or privatization.

Judy Ancel of the Cross Border Network for Justice and Solidarity in Kansas City, Missouri, had considered going to Quebec City but decided instead to participate in a local teach-in/rally that was the city's first such event planned jointly by labor unions and youth groups. "I think it's important to send the message that even here in the hinterland, people are concerned about free trade," she explained.

And who says progressive activists can't think past the next legislative session? The FTAA doesn't even exist yet, and despite the Bush Administration's efforts to speed up the timeline, the deadline is still not until 2005.

With this much lead time, the odds of defeating the FTAA are that much greater.

But there are many high hurdles ahead as activists attempt to defeat the FTAA and promote an alternative approach to globalization.

In his concluding remarks in Quebec City, President Bush paid lip service to labor and environment issues in hopes of winning over a sufficient number of Democrats. Earlier in the week, Bush had vowed to obtain fast track (now euphemistically called "trade promotion authority") by the end of the year. This would authorize the Administration to negotiate new trade deals, including the FTAA, and bring them back to Congress for an up or down vote without amendments. Although a bipartisan alliance in the House of Representatives prevented the Clinton Administration from obtaining fast track in 1997 and 1998, this may be difficult to repeat with a Republican in the White House.

The corporations are as intent as ever to push fast track through. And while they were a less obtrusive presence in Quebec City, they were there, nonetheless. The official summit organizers didn't flaunt their corporate support as they did in Miami, but the Canadian government did offer firms access to "networking events" and priority seating at dinners in exchange for donations. This was just one reminder that, while they may be a bit more discreet about it these days, the big companies are still at the center of this game.

Despite the challenges ahead, I am still relishing the progress that has been made in the seven years since Miami. I remember how in Clinton's closing address there, he congratulated the organizers on an event that went off without a hitch. His exact words were, "In future years, when the difficulties mount up, when it is difficult to sustain hope, may future leaders remember the spirit of Miami."

Seven years later, this cornball line actually sounds prophetic. No doubt while President Bush was ducking gas fumes in Quebec City, he was pining for a bit of that Miami spirit.


Sarah Anderson is Director of the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is also the co-author (with John Cavanagh and Thea Lee) of "Field Guide to the Global Economy" (New Press, 2000).

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