RIO DE JANEIRO -- Nearly 10 million voters in Brazil have expressed their rejection
of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in an unofficial referendum organized
by more than 60 organizations, the results of which were announced in the capital
Approximately 98 percent of the 10.1 million people who responded to a survey
conducted Sep 1-7 in 3,894 municipalities throughout Brazil gave a resounding
''no'' to the question: ''Should the Brazilian government sign the FTAA treaty?''
Furthermore, 95 percent of the voters indicated that Brazil should not even
''continue participating in the FTAA negotiations,'' in response to the second
question put forth in what the organizers dubbed a ''people's plebiscite''.
The question about a potential agreement that would allow the United States
to launch rockets and satellites from a base in northern Brazil also received
overwhelming rejection, with 98 percent voting against it.
However, the wording of that question was not necessarily unbiased: ''Should
the Brazilian government hand over part of our territory, the Alcántara base,
to U.S. military control?''
The question refers to a bilateral agreement with stipulations that have met
with resistance from military officials and even from lawmakers belonging to the
coalition headed by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
According to the accord, which is already before Congress for ratification,
the U.S. authorities could operate with autonomy, ostensibly to protect technological
secrets, and would be allowed to bring in equipment without authorization by Brazilian
Customs. Opposition lawmakers assert that Brazil would be renouncing part of its
sovereignty by signing the agreement.
Ministers Ronaldo Sardenberg, of Science and Technology, and Geraldo Quintao,
of Defense, said the treaty would provide revenues and experience that are indispensable
for developing the Alcántara Base and for the country's progress in the strategic
The announcement of the plebiscite results Tuesday in downtown Brasilia took
place amidst a demonstration by thousands of activists, with a strong showing
by the peasant farmers of the Movimento dos Sem Terra (MST, Landless Movement).
The figures are not yet complete, because ''some ballot boxes have not yet
arrived'' from the Brazilian interior, Catholic priest Alfredo Gonçalves
Nevertheless, the results so far surpassed all expectations, said Gonçalves,
head of the social division of Brazil's National Bishops Conference (CNOB) and
one of the plebiscite coordinators.
The CNOB, MST, Central Union of Workers and other groups hoped for ''slightly
more'' than six million voters to take part in the ''consultation'', the total
reached in a similar experience in 2000, when 95.6 percent responded that Brazil
should stop paying its foreign debt.
''This proves that the population understands that the FTAA could shut down
a debilitated economy'' like Brazil's, and leave this South American giant --
with its population of 170 million -- defenseless to a world power while bankruptcies
and unemployment could multiply, said the priest.
''And without Brazil, there is no FTAA,'' says Gonçalves, repeating the
argument he uses when others worry that the country would lose markets abroad
if it refuses to participate in the hemisphere-wide trade integration effort that
other Latin American countries are supporting.
Firm opposition from Brazil ''would change the direction'' of the negotiations
under way, he said.
This second ''people's plebiscite'' did not have the Party of Workers (PT)
behind it, though the leftist party was an important force in promoting the unofficial
vote on the foreign debt two years ago.
''We understand the electoral reasons of the PT leadership'' for not participating
in the referendum, said the priest, referring to the efforts of front-running
PT presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to moderate his tone and his
platform on the way to October's first round elections.
Lula has sought alliances and support from the political center to ensure
a victory after being defeated in his last three bids for the presidency. But
his statement that ''now is not the time to play with plebiscites'' won him condemnations
from the organizing NGOs and the CNOB in particular.
In any case, the grassroots activists of the PT were among the 150,000 activists
who mobilized to collect responses from voters throughout the country.
The referendum does not reflect a cross-section of Brazilian opinion because
it was mostly targeted at those who have formed an opinion against the ''Alaska-to-Tierra
del Fuego'' free trade area.
But even in the larger political arena there are few who enthusiastically
defend the efforts to create the FTAA, which was proposed by the United States
and is slated to be ready for ratification in 2004.
The governing coalition's presidential candidate, social- democrat José
Serra, says Brazil should not take part in the FTAA if it does not attend to the
country's interests or hurts trade capacity.
The government of Cardoso himself is currently attempting to neutralize maneuvers
by Canada and the United States hold a hemispheric summit in early 2003 in an
effort to speed up negotiations.
Brazil rejects any acceleration of the timeline, which calls for a summit
and the implementation of the agreed treaty by 2005.
Brazil's Agriculture Minister Marcus Pratini de Moraes says at every opportunity
that the country is not interested in hemisphere-wide trade integration if the
United States does not open its agricultural markets and end farm subsidies beforehand.
One of the few sectors in Brazil that is in favor of the FTAA is the textile
industry, as its business owners believe they are sufficiently competitive to
conquer a large portion of the U.S. market and the rest of Latin America once
the treaty takes effect.
© 2002 Inter Press Service