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SUMMIT OF THE AMERICAS

Activists in Quebec Show Evolution of an Opposition

Protests: The myriad groups and individuals clashing with police are united not as foes of globalization but as objectors to its human cost.

April 21, 2001|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

QUEBEC CITY — One is a young cellist whose long blond hair cascades over preppy attire. Another is a professor of Native American studies. A third is a septuagenarian engineer who claims he can still do a 5K race in less than 20 minutes. A fourth is a college junior majoring in consumer affairs who drove up with friends from Vermont.

And about 150 others, all clad alike in black trousers, shirts, caps and kerchiefs over their mouths, refused to say who they are, where they're from, what they do or what they think. They're the anarchists.

These are among the melange of individuals and groups who have come from almost three dozen countries to this romantic 17th century city on the St. Lawrence River to protest the planned creation of the world's largest and most ambitious trade bloc.

Once again, as at the 1999 World Trade Organization summit in Seattle, their demonstrations Friday erupted into confrontations with police. Tear gas and smoke bombs filled Quebec City's streets for a few hours, threatening to overshadow this weekend's Summit of the Americas of 34 nations of North, Central and South America and the Caribbean.

The images were familiar, but the opposition has evolved over the past decade, even over the past two years. The vast majority of the groups today oppose violence and actually favor international trade and investment--even globalization.

"The movement has evolved a great deal since 1990, when we were labeled protectionists. We're more sophisticated now. We're no longer opposed to a free-trade agreement," said John Cavanagh, director of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and one of the opposition organizers in Quebec City.

"Now we have developed our own detailed alternative. And now we want a dialogue, not a confrontation."

What motivates the myriad opposition forces to travel across countries and continents isn't the way the new Free Trade Area of the Americas proposes to open commerce among all the nations of the hemisphere, save Cuba. What alienates them is that they think the implementation will be heartless.

"No country can nor should remain isolated from the global economy," declares the opposition's platform, called "Alternatives for the Americas." "The issue for us is not one of free trade versus protection or integration versus isolation, but whose rules will prevail and who will benefit from those rules. Any form of economic integration among our nations must serve first and foremost to promote equitable and sustainable development for all of our peoples."

The other noticeable difference is the movement's size. In the early 1990s, the opposition to a regional free-trade agreement brought together groups from three countries--the United States, Canada and Mexico. Today, the opposition represents about 45 million people in hundreds of groups from northern Canada to southern Chile. Even little Aruba has some dissidents in Quebec City.

"This is the launching of a hemispheric social alliance," said Cavanagh.

The diversity of the opposition assembled here was reflected in how the first incident of unrest erupted. It followed a march from Laval University by about 2,500 predominantly young people. It was peaceful, almost festive. Horns tooted. Banners showed pictures of the Earth with the words "Not for Sale" underneath.

Most of the marchers--dressed in overalls, boots, old fatigues--were reminiscent of earlier protest movements. A young couple pushed go-cart-size military tanks crafted from cardboard and painted pink with yellow flowers. "Ours are harmless," the young woman said. At several junctures, the youths shouted rounds of "So-so-so-solidarity."

They are in solidarity only in their opposition to the FTAA, however. The small group of anarchists with CLAC, the French initials for the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, carried big black banners calling for a "revolutionary offensive."

The march ended at the concrete and wire mesh barrier erected around the summit area to protect the 34 heads of state. The youths in black were able to breach it. Just as notable, however, was that at least two-thirds of the crowd had peeled off before the confrontation.

"There are different degrees of radicals and anarchists," explained the cellist, Rebecca, who supports a nonviolent, feminist group with the misleading name Blood Sisters.

"I don't like the idea of a world controlled by the values of corporations. And I don't feel the needs of the majority of people are given any serious consideration by the new trade agreement. But I'm not into violence, and I don't agree with all the people in this crowd," she said.

Another protest involved a wide array of trade unionists, environmentalists and social activists. They have spent most of their time here at what amounts to a teach-in. In a large white tent outside the summit barrier, they listened to lectures and discussed how to promote gender rights, international labor standards, health care and access to education.

Among them was Dick Troy, the septuagenarian with a gray ponytail and a top hat, who came from Toronto with a coalition called Mobilization for Global Justice--or "Mobs for Glob," its nickname and Web site. Its members filled 19 buses.

"I'm here to make a statement about protecting the environment . . . and preventing trade that has no conscience," he said.

Troy and several hundred other activists marched around the summit's so-called Wall of Shame. They shouted a lot and demanded inclusion in the summit process, but their confrontation lingered for hours as little more than a standoff.

*

Times staff writer Chris Kraul contributed to this report.

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