There's some graffiti in Kensington Market that reads: "If voting worked, they'd make it illegal."
Those words came to mind last weekend, when I was watching the coverage of the Summit of the Americas protests in Quebec city, especially a Sunday edition of CBC's counterSpin with Liberal MP and summit delegate Bill Graham as one of the guests. The audience was packed, almost entirely, with anti-free trade protesters.
Graham, a pro-trade kind of guy and a pretty smooth politician, kept telling the audience that he appreciated their concerns, but wished they would use more traditional vehicles to get their point across. Like voting. Or sending letters to their political representatives.
Talk about falling on deaf ears. Graham and the audience might as well have been on different planets. Graham's faith in electoral politics and free trade as the great liberalizer didn't at all reflect the reality of the folks in the studio, for whom traditional vehicles had failed to inspire and to enact change. It was putting themselves on the street that had worked.
Weeks in advance of the summit, activists pressured leaders to release draft texts of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) - a first.
Protests stirred up interest and debate among people whose eyes would normally glaze over at the first mention of international trade negotiations. The fence, the tear gas, the rubber bullets, the arrests for the viewers at home, whatever their opinions about free trade, those unforgettable images sure didn't look like democracy.
But Graham just kept hammering away, telling the audience that the Canadian delegates had all been democratically elected and therefore represented the will of the Canadian people. Big mistake. It was like comparing public input to the Olympics, a big, flashy event to be held only once every four years.
One young woman just threw up her hands and said, "There were 50,000 people protesting on the streets. How many more of us will it take before you'll listen?"
In South Africa, the drug companies did listen to public opinion or were forced to by an inspiring three-year international campaign by AIDS activists and humanitarian organizations.
Pulling itself out of a growing public relations nightmare last week, a group of 39 pharmaceutical companies dropped its lawsuit against the South African government's 1997 Medicines Act, which allows for the use and import of affordable, generic AIDS drugs.
Like the North American corporations using the North American Free Trade Agreement's (NAFTA) Chapter 11 provision to sue governments for enacting legitimate measures to protect public health and the environment, the drug companies, which included giants like Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Glaxo Wellcome, didn't like the South African government passing any laws that might interfere with their profits.
Never mind the devastating statistics: 25 million of the 36 million people infected with HIV/AIDS worldwide live in sub-Saharan Africa, 4.7 million of them in South Africa. Or that the pharmaceutical industry is one of the most profitable in the world. Or that the markup on average, patented AIDS drugs can mean a cost up to $15,000 (U.S.) per patient per year, while generic drugs run about $200 (U.S.).
The withdrawal of the lawsuit is a huge victory, but there are more battles to come. Médecins sans frontières, one of the humanitarian groups involved in the battle for access to AIDS drugs in poor and developing nations, is now raising the alarm about what the proposed FTAA means for drug access.
For instance, through the use of generic drugs, Brazil has had tremendous success with a program that provides free anti-retroviral treatment to people with HIV/AIDS.
In response, the American government, on behalf of its pharmaceutical companies, has brought a complaint against Brazil to the World Trade Organization, even though the WTO does permit countries to license the manufacturing of generic drugs under some conditions.
But while Brazil's program has saved untold lives and an estimated $472 million (U.S.) in hospital costs, it's just not good for business in the U.S.
So, seeing how eager the U.S. government is to act as an enforcer for its corporations, Médecins san frontières and other groups want to ensure that no further provisions be introduced to the FTAA that will limit access to life-saving medications and treatments.
It's a gross over-simplification of the diversity of concerns of the protesters in Quebec city, but all those people took to the streets, in large part, because in a world where corporations wield more power than governments, there can be no democracy. If the free traders get their way, there will be no need to make voting illegal, it will just be made irrelevant.
Rachel Giese's column appears in The Star every other Thursday.
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