QUEBEC — Police in riot gear clashed with protesters in a haze of tear gas Friday as leaders of the Western Hemisphere’s 34 democracies sought to advance plans to create the world’s largest free-trade zone.
President Bush, attending his first international summit, held out the promise of a region of 800 million people “that is both prosperous and free.” Yet Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez complained that many of the lofty goals set at a similar summit in 1994 have not been met.
Quebec City was tense and largely sealed off under tight security as the third Summit of the Americas got under way with arrival ceremonies, opening festivities and clashes between police and protesters.
Demonstrators tore down some sections of the concrete and chain-link security barricade near the summit site and pelted police officers in riot gear with cans, bottles, hockey pucks, rocks and stuffed animals. Police officers, who lobbed canisters of tear gas at the protesters, formed a line and marched on the demonstrators to force them back.
The summit drew an alliance of labor, environmental and human rights organizations and student activists in protest of the free-trade plan, capitalism and globalization.
“If they are protesting because of free trade, I’d say I disagree,” Bush said. “I think trade is very important to this hemisphere. Trade not only helps spread prosperity but trade helps spread freedom.”
The disruptions caused a delay of at least an hour in the summit’s opening ceremony. They also fouled up Bush’s plans to meet his counterparts in small groups.
Bush met with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien as scheduled, but waited to begin his first huddle with Andean leaders for some 20 minutes because the presidents of Brazil and Bolivia could not make it through the security lockdown. Both joined the meeting later. Bush’s meeting with seven Central American heads of state also was thrown off schedule.
And a meeting with leaders from Caribbean nations had to be canceled when they were unable to get to his hotel through the protests and tear gas, Bush aides said. Bush watched some of the street demonstrations on television in his hotel room.
Chavez, after meeting with Bush, said the goals of the 1994 summit in Miami had not been realized. “We have advanced very little – almost not at all – in the social objectives,” Chavez said. “From Miami, they said we had to fight without rest for the education of children. But now there are more children without schools than before in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
Seeking to prevent a repeat of violent demonstrations that shut down a 1999 international trade conference in Seattle, thousands of police and troops stood guard and merchants boarded up their shops.
While all 34 summit countries have endorsed the goal of a free-trade zone stretching from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn, differences remain as to the pace and terms of this economic integration.
Still, “This is a remarkable achievement, one that would have been unthinkable just 15 years ago,” Bush said on the White House lawn as he left Washington.
He noted that every nation in the hemisphere except Cuba is now a democracy. Cuban leader Fidel Castro was not invited to the gathering.
Bush received a red-carpet welcome at Quebec’s airport, with red-jacketed Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers standing at attention in a brisk wind. Then, he was whisked by military helicopter into the secured area of the city.
“We are seeking new markets, to increase our business and generate new jobs,” Colombian President Andres Pastrana told reporters. He said free-trade could help ease drug trafficking in his country.
It was Bush’s second international trip. His first was in February to Mexico.
Bush campaigned on elevating the importance of Latin America and has made a hemispheric free-trade zone a top foreign policy goal. “Our goal in Quebec is to build a hemisphere of liberty,” Bush said before departing the White House. “We must make real progress.”
For the United States, the hemispheric pact would expand an existing free trade pact with Mexico and Canada to include Central and South America.
A Free Trade Area of the Americas by 2005 was endorsed at the first hemispheric summit in 1994 in Miami and reaffirmed in 1998 in Santiago, Chile. However, progress has been slow, partly because Bush lacks full negotiating authority from Congress to move ahead.
“There’s been a lot of wasted time,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who was attending the summit sessions. “I think we’re finally getting the ball off the ground.”
The leaders at the summit also were expected to address issues ranging from toughening the war against drugs to improving education, health care and Internet access in rural communities.
On the Net:
Main site: http://www.americascanada.com
AFL-CIO page: http://www.aflcio.org/globaleconomy/index.htm
Anti-free trade activists site: http://www.stopftaa.org/