Argentina: Governments Advance on FTAA - Without Citizen Input

Publisher Name: 
Inter Press Service

BUENOS AIRES -- The meeting of Western Hemisphere
trade officials to make progress towards the creation of the Free
Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) took place in the Argentine
capital, which was practically under siege by heavily armed police
backed by armoured cars and police dogs on blockaded streets.

The security operations underscored Argentine officials'
anxiety about the potential for violence as members of civil
society groups and various political sectors came out in massive
numbers to protest the lack of transparency in the negotiating
process of the FTAA, a free trade area that would extend from
Canada to Chile.

The ministers entrusted with foreign trade from the 34 member-
nations of the Organisation of American States (OAS) wrapped up
two days of sessions Saturday at Argentina's Foreign Ministry,
surrounded by barricades and police decked in riot gear.

Beyond the security perimeter, meanwhile, the criticisms
launched by unionists, students, members of non-governmental
organisations (NGOs) and some of the region's politicians and
lawmakers against the bi-continental integration process grew
louder and more vehement.

''There was widespread consensus among the negotiators,'' said
an Argentine foreign ministry official Saturday, about the need to
expand participation in the regional negotiations to include
representatives of civil society, and to provide greater
information to the public in general.

Nevertheless, the source admitted that the mechanisms to
facilitate such participation cannot be developed by the trade
ministers because it is up to the special FTAA civil society
committee, which would be responsible for organising information
campaigns and seeking its own financing.

The demands for social input in the process were expressed in
three massive street demonstrations in Buenos Aires, organised by
the major union centrals of Argentina with the heavy participation
of Brazilian, Paraguayan and Uruguayan activists.

Joining in the protests were union representatives from Canada,
Mexico and the United States (the member countries of the North
American Free Trade Association - NAFTA), who also took part in
discussion panels and seminars organised by economic sector.

Despite their strong presence, the protesters proved unable to
influence the trade negotiating process. And none of the region's
major political party leaders, legislators or business chiefs
participated in the various anti-FTAA events.

But civil society organisations are not the only ones lacking a
voice in the hemispheric integration process.

Last year parliamentarians from throughout the Americas
demanded in vain that their governments allow them to take part in
the trade talks in order to ensure their transparency.

But the governments' negative response still holds. The
negotiating authorities have already rejected a request presented
by a commission of lawmakers from the region to participate as
observers at the Summit of the Americas, to take place in the
Canadian city of Quebec, Apr 20-22.

At the Quebec City meeting, the Western Hemisphere heads of
state, with the notable exception of Cuba, are expected to approve
the foundations for the FTAA contained in the document negotiated
during the last week in Buenos Aires.

The bi-continental integration process came under scrutiny at
the World Social Forum, which met in January in the Brazilian city
of Porto Alegre. There, civil society leaders proposed that the
Latin American governments convene a popular referendum prior to
the parliamentary votes on the ratification of the FTAA

''I don't think they'll accept the proposal because they know
that if they consult the public on the FTAA, the answer will be a
resounding 'No','' commented Vctor De Gennaro, president of the
Congress of Argentine Workers, one of that country's three leading
union centrals.

The labour leaders who organised this week's protests in Buenos
Aires made it clear that they are not protesting the capitalist
system, but are only asking to take part in the FTAA negotiating
process, and since they have been refused, they reject the process
entirely.

But the demonstrators taking part in the protests articulated
more radical opinions in their slogans and signs, especially in
criticising the hegemony of the United States over Latin America.

That line of thinking was conveyed most strongly by the
'Alianza Social Continental,' a regional network of NGOs, which
for the last year and a half has been demanding to see the content
of the FTAA negotiating documents in order to be able to monitor
and respond to the process and ensure that it is a socially and
environmentally viable project.

The only exception to the exclusion of civil society from the
years of trade talks is the Business Forum of the Americas, which
meets annually prior to the meeting of trade ministers.

The conclusions and recommendations arising from the Business
Forum are then studied during the initial sessions of the
ministerial meeting so that the FTAA negotiators are aware of the
private sector's priorities, and its areas of consensus and
dispute.

This year, when the approval of the document to launch free
trade in the Americas is at stake, the business leaders'
recommendations could not override the need for other
organisations - whether of workers, students, women, etc. - to
voice their demands.

The secrecy of the FTAA negotiation documentation is a serious
problem, warned the Argentine-born president of the Business
Forum, Antonio Estrany y Gendre, Friday.

''All of the demonstrations against the integration process
would disappear if these documents were not being hidden,'' he
said.

Estrany y Gendre's statements won applause from the business
executives and trade ministers filling the auditorium, while
outside the Sheraton Hotel, where the conference took place, a
group of protesters threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the
barricades and the police.

Argentina's President Fernando de la Ra himself backed the
demands coming from civil society groups.

''It is essential to disseminate (the FTAA discussions) so that
dissidence and opposition does not arise, because the strength of
this agreement lies in the conception of the region's peoples
supporting their democratically elected governments,'' he stated.

The president of the Inter-American Development Bank, Enrique
Iglesias, and OAS secretary general Csar Gaviria had expressed
similar sentiments earlier, exhorting the ministers and business
leaders to seek support from society for the integration process
by providing more information about and greater transparency in
the negotiations.

''Otherwise the FTAA will not have social legitimacy,'' warned
Iglesias.

But the ministers insist on holding the talks behind closed
doors, thus fuelling the distrust felt by those who believe the bi-
continental treaty will bring nothing but misery to the region,
especially in the areas of social development, employment and
environmental protection.

The ministers voted down a proposal from the Canadian
delegation to make the FTAA negotiating document public.

Outside on the street, Jorge Silva, a leader of the Argentine
Federation of Truckers, told IPS he wondered if the ministers
truly think the FTAA will make it viable for Haiti to compete with
Canada, or Ecuador with the United States. So far, none of the
trade officials or business executives meeting in Buenos Aires has
addressed his concern.

Meanwhile, the organisers preparing for the Summit of the
Americas in Quebec City are rushing to set up cement blockades
around the meeting site and providing security passes for the
residents of the area.

AMP Section Name:Trade Justice
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