15 - 21 June 2000
Issue No. 486
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Trade and trepidationBy Marc Munro
The barricades are down. The riot police have left the streets and the diplomats have all flown home. The sleepy town of Windsor can return to its normal pulse of life, far off the beaten track of international politics. At first glance, this small industrial town tucked away near the southernmost tip of Canada is an unlikely venue for the 30th Organisation of American States (OAS) General Assembly. Overshadowed by Detroit, across the river, Windsor is a town few outside of Canada know. But between the 4 and 6 of June, this Canadian hamlet of about 262,000 was front and centre on the international stage.
Decision-makers in Ottawa have developed a curious habit of directing world attention to its lesser-known locations. In 1995, the G7-plus-Yeltsin were welcomed in Halifax and, in 1999, Chirac and company of the Francophonie were entertained in Moncton. Perhaps it is politically astute to keep such high-profile gatherings in relatively low-profile locales, given the high controversy they seem to generate. Vancouver, with its spectacular mountain coastal setting and multitude of hotels, became a battleground during the 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. The similarly stunning city of Seattle saw its urban heart torn apart last year when the World Trade Organisation (WTO) gathered there to talk shop and 50,000 angry demonstrators were talking revolution. In April, a host of 10,000 protesters invaded Washington to disrupt the deliberations of the World Bank. However, clogging the streets of a Canadian backwater doesn't have the same cachet as taking over the Mall in Washington.
Nevertheless, Windsor city officials and OAS organisers were filled with trepidation regarding a possible repeat performance of the so-called Battle in Seattle. Expecting a siege, a three-metre high barrier of concrete and chain-link was constructed to protect the nervous delegates. A phalanx of riot police equipped with gas masks, pepper spray and batons set up skirmish lines at key points along the fortifications. Even a division of snowploughs was made ready, in case the situation truly got out of hand. Downtown businesses fixed plywood to storefront windows and brick streets in the city's core were tarred over to rob the expected mob of potential projectiles.
Conference officials were taking no chances with a group that calls itself the OAS Shutdown Coalition. The coalition's manifesto, posted on the Internet, explains the group's opposition to instituting the OAS-sponsored Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). Organisations like the OAS, "make the Americas safe for capitalism, but increasingly miserable for the non-elites of these nations," the manifesto states. The coalition contends that agreements like the FTAA, overseen by the Mandarins of the WTO, are a means to subvert "democracy, labour rights, and environmental protection in the name of corporate profits." In short, the protesters fear the OAS is a tool of American corporate "manifest destiny."
Historically, the protesters have a point. Created in 1948, the Washington-based organisation was a tool of American interests. Cuba's membership was suspended in 1962 and in 1965 the OAS served as diplomatic cover for a US invasion of the Dominican Republic. Yet, for the most part, the OAS has been an irrelevant moribund institution. Even Canada, America's friendly neighbour, did not take the organisation seriously; it did not become a member until 1990.
The addition of the Canadians, however, infused some life into this listless body. In 1991, the OAS established procedures for reacting to threats to democracy. It has since intervened in Haiti (1991), Peru (1992), Guatemala (1993) and Paraguay (1996). In Windsor, the promotion of human rights and democracy was the official topic of discussion, not trade.
However, this apparently benevolent agenda did not forestall an angry confrontation. On the first day of the summit, the 3,000 demonstrators who did manage to make it to Windsor took to the barricades and were dispersed with pepper spray and batons. In the midst of the fray, Californian David Solnit, the famed veteran of the Seattle protests, gave civil disobedience training. Ultimately, Windsor protesters were overwhelmed by the sheer number of police. By late Sunday, authorities said, 41 people had been arrested and fortunately no serious injuries reported. The following day, all but a few demonstrators had gone home.
Peter Boeghm, Canada's ambassador to the OAS, complained, "I do find it somewhat ironic that there are groups out there that say 'Let's shut down this organisation,' when in fact, this organisation is discussing exactly the things that many of the protesters are concerned about." Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy echoed this sentiment, saying that he found the pickets around his conference on the Ottawa land-mine elimination process "perverse."
Above the fray, the most pressing issue was the report of the OAS mission monitoring the Peru election. It concluded the process was "far from what could be considered free or fair." Thomas Pickering, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, stated, "The focus of our attention today must be on resolving this crisis of credibility in Peru." The OAS passed a resolution to send OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and Lloyd Axworthy to Peru to investigate. "The vote in Peru is a matter of deep concern to all," Axworthy said "Left unexamined, it will certainly diminish the credibility of the organisation."
This opinion, however, was not universally accepted. Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico argued that the OAS should stay out of internal electoral issues. Yet in Lima, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori said he would welcome and work with the OAS mission, but warned that he would not accept any questioning of his re-election victory.
At the moment, turning the southern half of the Americas into a haven for democracy appears to be a Sisyphean quest. In Haiti, the Lavalas Family Party of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is accused of trying to silence complaints about its sweeping 21 May election. Police have arrested at least eight opposition candidates and 29 party activists. Venezuela saw its national elections last month postponed, for "technical" reasons. Ecuador suffered a military coup in January, and Paraguay only narrowly avoided the same fate last month.
In his opening address to the OAS, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien argued that trade strengthens democracy. "Hungry stomachs and despair make fertile ground for the forces of reaction," he said. Looking ahead to an OAS trade summit in Québec City next April, Chretien said, "A growing economy, good jobs and the promise of new opportunity are the pillars of a secure society and a secure hemisphere." Québec will be the test of how much momentum the anti-free trade forces actually contain. From its spectacular success in Seattle, numbers dwindled in Washington and in Windsor protesters seemed to evaporate as abruptly as they came. There is one certainty, however. The cobble-stone streets of this 400-year-old UNESCO world heritage site will not be tarred over.