Taking the Summit by Storm
Published on Friday, April 20, 2001 in the Toronto Star
Taking the Summit by Storm
by Gordon Barthos
 
WHY STORM the ramparts of capitalism in Quebec city this weekend? With 6,000 police and a chain fence to get past, it would be a lot of bother for no good reason.

Jean Chrétien, George W. Bush and the other jittery free traders at the Summit of the Americas have already hauled up the white flag, so to speak, even before tonight's opening speeches, much less tomorrow's mass march.

They just don't want to admit it.

They continue to proclaim that the summit is about "strengthening democracy, creating prosperity and realizing human potential," as David Kilgour, the secretary of state for Latin America, put it.

Yet they serve up bafflegab, rebuff, police barricades and secrecy, instead of dealing honestly with demands that they put people before profits and open up the process.

Consider the leaders' much-ballyhooed "breakthroughs" in dealing with concerns about national sovereignty, democracy, openness and accountability:

The leaders have put globalization's dark side on the agenda.

Well, yes and no. In a sop to public concern, Chrétien and the others will indeed spend tomorrow weighing globalization's impact on national sovereignty and policy-making. For good and bad. But they'll be doing this behind closed doors, insulated from knowledgeable critics and pesky reporters.

On Sunday they'll tackle two other controversial issues: the Free Trade Area of the Americas deal and the hemisphere's rich/poor gap. Again behind closed doors.

This is progress?

They'll promote democracy.

The summit political declaration is expected to contain a "democracy clause" stating that unrepresentative regimes are no longer welcome at the summit table and in the trade zone and will be lobbied to change. That's a step forward.

But democracy is about more than holding elections.

Will the leaders commit themselves in a credible way to respect press freedoms, due process, the right of assembly and labour rights, and to care for globalization's have-nots, native communities and the environment?

Will there be effective monitoring and enforcement mechanisms? That these are touchy issues can't be good news.

They support the alternative People's Summit.

Canada did pony up $300,000 to help the People's Summit and touted the virtues of consulting civil society.

But Chrétien and his guests yesterday flatly refused to meet the activists' spokespersons. Why bring together citizen groups, trade unions, church groups, students, green groups, human rights and anti-poverty activists, only to rebuff them? It makes you wonder.

They've agreed to publish the free trade draft text.

Credit Ottawa with helping to haul the secretive negotiating process out into the open.

But despite the promise, the text wasn't made available in time for the summit. The bureaucrats cited translation delays.

By the time the American leaders gather again, the trade debate may be yesterday's news.

In short, the politicians continue to preach the virtues of democratic governance and unfettered trade. They claim to take seriously their responsibility to craft public policy for the common good and not surrender it to an unelected corporate elite.

But their actions don't support the claims.

By now it hardly matters whether 2,000 or 20,000 march tomorrow. They've made their case. The politicians stand exposed.

Canada has a fair bit at stake here. Certainly more than the prospect of expanding our minute trade with neighbours other than the United States and Mexico.

Our challenge is to manage globalization more intelligently, for the greater number.

There's still time to put forward an agenda in Quebec for a healthier, more democratic and more socially-conscious hemispheric integration.

It's hardly a novel idea.

It has been 24 centuries since Aristotle defined "the most pure democracy" as that in which "the poor shall be in no greater subjection than the rich," but shall share equally in deciding public policy. We've had a while to absorb that heady notion.

Yet free trade skeptics those who fear that speedier growth is being delivered to the detriment of working people, social programs and the planet doubt the politicians will ever get the point.

Polls suggest that most Canadians still have confidence in the benefits of closer hemispheric political and economic co-operation, despite nagging concerns about national sovereignty, job security, social safety nets and the environment.

But the polls show, too, that people want to be kept informed and brought in on the process.

That is not what the Summit of the Americas is about. Not yet, at any rate.

That is what the protests are about.

Gordon Barthos writes The Star's editorials on foreign affairs.

Copyright 1996-2001. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

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