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Argentina: Governments Advance on FTAA - Without Citizen Input

by Marcela ValenteInter Press Service
April 7th, 2001

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.

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