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Protesters, Police Clash as Quebec Summit Opens

Trade: Demonstrators succeed in disrupting the initial meetings of leaders of the Americas. Bush says the nations are poised to create 'a hemisphere of liberty.'

April 21, 2001|JAMES GERSTENZANG and CHRIS KRAUL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

QUEBEC CITY — Police and protesters battled at the barricades Friday with tear gas, pepper spray and chunks of cement as 34 heads of state from the breadth of the Americas gathered to embark on what President Bush called the building of "a hemisphere of liberty."

On the streets of this 400-year-old city, the protesters railed against the potential human costs of political and commercial globalization. In a luxury hotel behind old stone walls and modern chain-link fencing, Bush pressed his agenda of hemispheric cooperation during brief private meetings with groups of colleagues from Central America and the Andean nations.

But the protests--and the response by the Quebec provincial police, dressed in military green, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in black--disrupted the summit schedule almost from the start.

Caribbean leaders were unable to reach a meeting with Bush at the Loews Concorde Hotel. The habitually punctual U.S. president was forced to wait 20 minutes for Andean leaders to show up, and not all made it. An opening reception was postponed for about an hour.

Throughout the afternoon, some motorcades--although not Bush's--came so close to the demonstrations that they encountered clouds of tear gas wafting near the hotels where the summit host, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, and the other leaders are quartered.

"Violence and provocation are unacceptable in a democracy," Chretien said at the initial reception. He denounced the "small group of extremists," calling their behavior "contrary to the principles of democracy we all hold dear."

At the center of the discussions in Quebec City is the effort to set in motion a Free Trade Area of the Americas by Jan. 1, 2005. It would expand the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was signed by the U.S., Mexico and Canada, to a market of about 800 million people stretching from the Arctic to Argentina.

Even if the rest of the weekend's events take place as scheduled, the demonstrations underscore the political controversy that surrounds an issue that former President Clinton championed in 1994 and Bush has taken on as his own: the removal of tariffs and other trade barriers.

Police arrested 25 people. Five officers were injured, authorities said.

Clutches of protesters had been milling about the 2 1/2-mile security perimeter--a one-story-high chain-link barrier rooted in concrete road dividers--when several dozen people pushed down a large section of fence about 3:15 p.m.

With that, teams of police advanced behind plastic shields, and the two sides began an exchange that lasted into the evening: The police fired canisters that spewed tear gas and pepper spray. The protesters returned fire with ice balls, baton-like sticks, chunks of cement, rocks--using a catapult at one point to gain firepower--and the occasional gas canister they could hurl back.

This being Canada, there was an occasional hockey puck in the demonstrators' arsenal. At least one American flag was set on fire, the flames fanned by a stiff breeze that also sent the tear gas drifting several blocks across the hilltop Old City neighborhood.

The exchanges broke out at several points along the fence, dubbed "The Wall of Shame" by protesters, who likened it to the Berlin Wall.

At the intersection of Rue d'Aiguillon and Autoroute Dufferin-Montmorency, with the St. Lawrence River visible in the distance, about 1,000 protesters had gathered. Only a few at the front tried to scale the fence, prompting police to set off perhaps half a dozen gas canisters. But at one spot, about 100 people appeared to be tugging at the fence.

Bush administration officials were reluctant to acknowledge the impact of the protests.

In the meeting with Central American leaders, Bush noted that, in one official's words, "there were some outside who were trying to isolate the process" and that "he disagrees with their view about trade."

As midnight approached, sporadic demonstrations continued.

The protesters--an amalgam of anarchists, labor activists, environmentalists and others--oppose, to varying degrees, efforts to lower barriers that restrict international commerce. They are concerned, among other things, that accords to open trade will lead to reduced protection of the environment and labor rights.

The demonstrations follow violent protests in December 1999 that derailed a summit sponsored by the World Trade Organization in Seattle and less violent protests a year ago at a meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington.

"The protests will be a challenge to the Bush spin machine," said Richard Feinberg, a UC San Diego professor and former Clinton advisor on inter-American affairs.

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