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Storm of protest greets trade accord

Special to National Catholic Reporter
Quebec City, Canada

Archbishop Maurice Couture of Quebec, primate of Canada, was among the many voices critiquing a free-trade accord during events surrounding the Summit of the Americas. This gathering of dignitaries, who convened April 20-22 to discuss establishing a hemispheric trading bloc, generated a storm of protest, both violent and peaceful, in this French Canadian city.

Couture, who addressed anti-trade activists and heads of state in two separate venues, told both audiences that he spoke on behalf of the 12 million Catholics “from Quebec and Canada,” and his episcopal colleagues from the Southern Hemisphere.

During the [1997] Synod of the Americas, Couture said, the Southern bishops begged their North American counterparts to “influence their governments to counterbalance the negative effects of globalization.”

President Bush, however, presented a more positive view of global economics. On the eve of the Quebec summit, he lauded The North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA -- the 1994 free-trade agreement between Mexico, Canada and the United States -- as an example that shows “free trade works” and described it as a model for a future, broader accord. Formally known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas -- FTAA -- the hemispheric agreement, which excludes Cuba, is currently under negotiation between 34 countries of the Americas.

If implemented, it would establish the world’s largest free trade zone -- one stretching from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego.

“NAFTA has created good jobs for our workers,” Bush said. “Now is the time to extend those benefits of free trade throughout the Western Hemisphere.”

According to Canadian newspaper the National Post, Mexican president Vicente Fox, in an April 18 meeting with NAFTA critics, also defended free trade, saying it was the key to Mexico’s prosperity.

While Fox acknowledged that 40 percent of his country still lives in poverty, he said free trade had led to record employment.

But increased employment in Mexico has not meant more attention to workers’ rights, says labor lawyer Robin Alexander. The Labor Site Agreement, a NAFTA attachment, is balanced in favor of corporations, Alexander said, making it “virtually impossible” to prosecute them for violations. “The process is designed so that there could never be penalties.”

Bush’s optimism was not shared by the thousands of anti-trade activists who poured into Quebec. The North American accord and an expanding global economy, they say, have not translated into economic gains for the average worker, not for the potato farmer in Prince Edward Island, the farmer in Chiapas or the steelworker in Peru. Instead, it has meant loss of local economic control, a decrease in government protection of public services and an increase in privatization of natural resources, even one as basic as water.

Ironically, judging from the protest in Quebec, eight years of NAFTA seems to have galvanized a more informed and international opposition to free trade.

Couture, the archbishop, seemed to side with those who rejected the free trader’s confidence in an unfettered market inevitably benefiting all. In his brief address to international activists, he summarized the Canadian Catholic Conference of Bishops’ recent statement on free trade, issued in early April and titled “That None Be Excluded.” The Catholic church, “concerned for the well-being of all people, particularly the poorest,” stresses that profit must not be the “primary goal” of economic order.

Other factors, which deserve greater consideration, Couture said, include protection of the environment and “absolute respect for human dignity and the inalienable rights of all people, particularly women, children and the indigenous.”

The archbishop concluded by saying, in four languages, “Let us globalize solidarity!” and then, in French, passionately added the oft-chanted slogan of unionists and other free-trade critics, heard throughout the weekend: “So! So! So! So-li-da-ri-té!”

The prelate, who received a standing ovation, articulated a common sentiment circulating among opponents gathered in Quebec. Given the imminence of a hemispheric free trade zone, they said, civil society throughout the Americas needed to organize.

A bit of that organizing occurred during the People’s Summit of the Americas, held in the four days before the Summit of the Americas and sponsored by the Hemispheric Social Alliance. The alliance is an international coalition of labor, human rights, environmental and religious organizations. The event included plenary sessions, forums and teach-ins where anti-free trade activists traded notes about the impact of the global economy on their daily lives.

On April 18, at a steelworker’s forum, Canadian employees of NORANDA, a Canadian-owned mining company that also operates in Peru, listened attentively to stories illustrating the discrepancy in working conditions for themselves and their Peruvian counterparts. Ottawa director of Political Action for the Canadian Labor Congress, Pat Kerwin, who attended the meeting, said the Canadian steelworkers want to help their Peruvian colleagues obtain a more equitable contract.

“Over the past 10 years,” Kerwin said, “international links between workers have become much more serious.”

On Saturday, April 21, thousands of unionists poured into the city to attend an anti-Free Trade Area of the Americas march, organized by a large coalition of Canadian labor unions. Among them was Sue Smock, a member of the United Electrical Workers from Erie, Pa.

Smock, who builds locomotives for GE, said her union first forged links with workers from the South while galvanizing opposition to NAFTA. Standing beside a cluster of Mexican unionists waiting to march, Smock referred to the members of a Mexican federation of unions/agricultural workers and cooperatives as her “brothers and sisters.”

Ten years ago, she knew nothing about Mexico, but changing working conditions at home forced her to take notice. Before putting five plants in Mexico, GE in Erie employed 14,000, Smock said. “Now the number is 5,000, 3,500 of which are union. You can see how it has dwindled. And they pay them pennies down there.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001 [corrected 05/18/2001]