Obstacles to Bush trade agenda

Protests at summit, a divided Congress, other nations' needs

April 21, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

QUEBEC - President Bush arrived at his first summit meeting yesterday declaring that he would make the expansion of economic and political ties with Latin America his first foreign policy priority.

But before Bush and 33 other heads of state could get down to work, the evening's opening ceremony of the Summit of the Americas was delayed as thousands of mostly young protesters clogged the narrow streets of this walled city seeking to block talks over a Free Trade Area of the Americas.

For Bush, the tear gas battles that broke out between police and several thousand protesters marked his first close-up view of the raw emotions that free trade pacts can routinely encounter.

He made no direct reference to the periodic skirmishes taking place just outside his hotel, but several of the leaders he was supposed to meet in the afternoon could not make it through the streets, and his aides watched as the Canadian police, dressed in riot gear, tried to restore order last night so that the summit sessions could begin.

"We already know from the North American Free Trade Agreement that free trade works," Bush had insisted just before leaving the White House yesterday morning, invoking the trade accord negotiated by his father and supported by President Clinton that would form the model for a broader accord.

"It has created good jobs for our workers. Now is the time to extend these benefits of free trade throughout the entire hemisphere."

But on television, Bush's message was drowned out by scenes that were reminiscent of Seattle in December 1999 but that in reality were far more tame.

All afternoon, protesters milled around Quebec's antique fortifications, modern concrete barricades and tall steel fences that the police had set up to keep demonstrators far from the 34 presidents and prime ministers here for the summit meeting.

Periodically, the crowds surged forward, knocking over one section of the fence, and periodically the police drove them back with tear gas. Few injuries were reported, and arrests seemed sporadic.

But the center of the old city was boarded up, and overnight the local McDonald's literally disappeared: workers took down all its signs and covered all its windows, so that it looked like a long-abandoned storefront.

Bush faces three separate challenges to his trade agenda: one on the street, one in Congress and one with the countries on the other side of this negotiation.

The challenge on the street is the most familiar and the least cohesive. Just as Seattle attracted everyone from anarchists to human rights advocates to environmental groups and labor unions, here in Quebec every kind of protester was on the streets yesterday.

Assortment of objections

Some complained that trade accords do not guarantee rights for gays and lesbians; others said that they put corporate profits ahead of creating democracy. Still others argued, bullhorns in hand, that the poorest workers in Mexico were no better off now than they were in 1995, when NAFTA went into effect.

So far, Bush has rarely addressed those complaints directly. But Canada's prime minister, Jean Chretien, who had to delay the opening of last night's ceremonies, said the protesters were ignoring new provisions of the proposed free trade agreement - without mentioning that the draft agreement has yet to be published.(Bush has promised to make it available soon.)

"If they looked at the texts on all these subjects that are on the table," Chretien said, "in fact we are making sure that there will be a better preoccupation in many of these countries about human rights and democratic rights."

He appeared to be referring to the "democracy clause" expected in the final communique of this meeting, which will stipulate that any country that retreats from democracy will be banished from the summit meeting process and thus from the next four years of negotiations over a free trade area in the hemisphere.

"There is, in fact, a very strong democracy clause in the summit's political declaration," Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, said Thursday in Washington. "It's quite remarkable."

Matter of enforcement

But it is unclear how, or whether, that clause would be enforced.

While all 34 nations here are celebrating hemispheric democracy - only Fidel Castro of Cuba has been excluded - several of those democracies are shaky. Ecuador had a military coup last year, though the military quickly stepped aside. Colombia is on shaky ground. Peru's future is still uncertain.

Bush is also facing economic uncertainties in Latin America that are bound to make a free trade agreement harder to negotiate.

Argentina has been in crisis for a year, and Brazil has argued against Bush's efforts to speed up negotiations, for fear that lowering its trade barriers would threaten a number of crucial, politically influential industries.

Slow action on fast track

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