WASHINGTON — After three months of diplomatic warmups, President Bush takes on the hemisphere this weekend when he joins 33 other leaders of the Americas in Quebec City to work out details for the world's largest and most ambitious trade bloc.
"The sooner we get a free-trade agreement for the Americas in place, the better off the continent will be," Bush said Thursday as he prepared for his first international summit.
But the challenge for the United States and its neighbors at the Summit of the Americas is not only how to merge 34 widely diverse societies and economies into the Free Trade Area of the Americas--a community of 800 million people stretching from Canada to Chile--by a deadline of Jan. 1, 2005.
They also face tension surrounding the three-day summit because of the groundswell of opposition by increasingly organized and outspoken groups protesting what they view as the corporate-friendly terms of globalization. Thousands of demonstrators from the Americas and Europe have assembled in the quaint 17th century city, and more are expected to pour over the border before the summit formally begins tonight.
Canadian police Thursday finished sealing off the heart of Quebec City, where the summit will be held, to prevent the kind of disruptive protests that led to the breakdown of the 1999 World Trade Organization talks in Seattle.
More than 6,000 police in bulletproof vests have been deployed, many around a 2 1/2-mile-long barrier--nicknamed the "wall of shame" by protesters--erected for the event. Massive concrete blocks topped with wire mesh were positioned at intersections Thursday to prevent incursions. Shops around the security zone were boarded up with plywood or metal screens.
Animosity throughout the French-speaking provincial capital is running deep. Graffiti spray-painted around the city declare simply "Berlin," a reference to the formerly divided city, and "Bush Go Home."
The summit will have three major themes, according to U.S. officials. Each faces its own challenges. The top agenda issue is a pact on democracy, which will only exclude nations viewed as undemocratic--such as Cuba, the only country in the hemisphere not invited to Quebec. A draft this week suggested that straying from democracy will be "an insurmountable obstacle" to participation in the summit and its aftermath.
The issue is important because a tough precedent established in Quebec City could well create a new political standard for other trade blocs. The prominence given to the topic has already led summit officials to say the event will be remembered as the "Democracy Summit."
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien suggested Thursday that nations that backslide politically could face punitive measures, such as reimposition of tariffs, which would effectively isolate them.
Questions About Some Nations' Democracies
The issue was raised in part because of growing questions about the stability of democracy in some Latin American nations, such as Venezuela. Not all governments attending the summit are likely to welcome the draft language or suggestions of punitive measures.
The second theme is the free-trade area, which also faces problems. One of the most basic is that, going into the summit, Bush does not have the kind of "trade promotion authority"--once known as fast-track authority--that would help expedite passage of trade agreements. "I'm going to be very aggressive about pushing a free-trade agenda for the hemisphere," Bush said Thursday.
Every U.S. president since Nixon has had fast-track authority, but in 1994 President Clinton failed to convince Congress to extend it after the measure expired. As a result, repeated pledges to bring Chile into the North American Free Trade Agreement have been stalled for seven years. Without that authority, which would make such accords exempt from congressional amendments, winning approval of a 34-nation agreement will be virtually impossible by 2005, if at all, U.S. analysts said.
Getting trade promotion authority will be the Bush administration's first priority after the Quebec summit. "It won't be easy, but I definitely believe it's doable," U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick said Thursday.
Working out specifics of opening trade among the 34 nations also will not be easy, despite inroads at a pre-summit meeting in Buenos Aires. The difficulties are underscored by a new trade dispute between the U.S. and its northern neighbor over a warty Canadian potato. The recent U.S. decision to ban Prince Edward Island potatoes, despite a clean bill of health, could force bankruptcy among Canadian potato farmers, the government in Ottawa contends.
Canada is also complaining about a proposal from the U.S. lumber industry for a 78% tariff on Canadian lumber imports. And these are two countries that have long been allies and each other's largest trading partner.