A hemispheric shift to dictator-free trade zone

Summit: Leaders advocating democracy-laced trade pact were elected

the protesters were not.

April 24, 2001

THE STUNNING aspect of the summit of 34 American nations in Quebec City over the weekend was that all the heads of government were elected by their peoples. That has often not been the case in the Americas.

This legitimacy is what stands out most about their commitment to strengthen democracy in the hemisphere and to negotiate a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) by 2005.

Only Fidel Castro of Cuba was not there, excluded by the club as a dictator. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti endured a lecture from the host, fellow Francophone Prime Minister Jean Chretien of Canada, for the shortcomings in his election last May.

The notion of restricting the proposed free trade area to democracies, though vaguely stated, strengthens fair elections and discourages coups.

That said, this idea of expanding the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into an FTAA of 800 million people from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego won't come easily.

Brazil's President Fernando Henrique Cardoso is skeptical of U.S. and Canadian willingness to accept manufactured products from low-wage workers. Venezuela's flamboyant Hugo Chavez pronounced reservations on the timetable rather than the content.

George W. Bush, whose comfort in conversational Spanish is a first for a U.S. president, proved an effective spokesman for trade. Hemispheric relations looks like his strongest suit in foreign policy. But he has slim chance of quickly winning fast-track negotiating authority from Congress, which would be needed to meet the target date.

In contrast to these leaders, the demonstrators on the streets were an odd mixture of nihilists, principled opponents of capitalism and supporters of the environment -- speaking for themselves, elected by no one.

Those who choose violence to get attention do so because their numbers are not great and their arguments are not persuasive. But they have found their role and are not going away.

Criticism on behalf of U.S. workers and the environment are valid concerns. The International Labor Organization is the body best able to promote them.

The demonstrators' phoniest argument is that they speak for the world's poor. The best hope for those ground down in poverty is to participate in the world economy, not be shut out. The "economic miracles" and "tigers" of the past half-century have prospered on connection, not isolation.

The summit was an auspicious start to the Bush initiative in freer trade. But only a start. The follow-ups will be decisive.

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