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Quebec and the FTAA: Protesting "Free" Trade
I did go to Quebec City April 20-22. The quaint Old City was divided by an ugly three-meter fence, which we all had to deal with. For one thing, it meant we were outside and 34 presidents (every one in the Americas except Cuba) were locked inside. Businesses that paid $500,000 could address the presidents. We want them to hear what we are saying. There were about 50,000 of us, mostly nonviolent. We were the free ones, speaking the truth about human rights, labor justice, environmental concerns, and the urgent need for a democratic society.
This fence declared the whole world to be divided with thousands
of unwanted kept out, while the few were guarded inside... And
I found myself in support of tearing the fence.
This fence declared the whole world to be divided with thousands of unwanted kept out, while the few were guarded inside... And I found myself in support of tearing the fence.
For Christians, this issue can't be covered in a couple of paragraphs. For those who have looked at the details of "free" trade policies, at the methods corporations are using to write rules which put profit above everything else, it is impossible not to support demonstrations against "free" trade. And we ourselves are globalizing for another world in which human beings are a higher priority, where life forms cannot be patented to protect profit, where water is not privatized and marketed at unaffordable pr ices, where governments are not forced to end laws protecting the water, the safety of the people, the health of the environment.
These things are all proposed in the developing Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) trade agreement. It's been in the works for several years and is intended to carry NAFTA policies from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.
There are several topics: What is "free" trade? What are these protests? Does it matter to religious people? These comments focus on the second part - the protests.
Protesters are perceived as young, counter-culture, often students and/or anarchist types of people. But protesters include workers, professors, indigenous people, peacemakers, farmers, unions, environmentalists, and religious people. My Seattle "Stop the WTO" t-shirt is here with my clothes. I am a grandmother, a Christian, graduate school educated, a homeowner. At the end of Seattle's last march in December, 1999, I was shopping for a gift (we do such things), and I heard someone behind me discussing the event and then, "Oh, there's one of them over there." I just didn't bother to turn around. Maybe I felt condescending toward them because of attitude - theirs or mine?
It is a fact that there can be no significant meeting of trade ministers or anyone else on matters economic between countries without a demonstration, without incredible advance police planning, without a serious stand-off... Seattle, Washington DC, the presidential conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, Prague, Cancun, and more. It did not start with Seattle, when the U.S. woke up, but actually with protests over the decades and at Group of 7 (G7) meetings, such as Cologne, Germany, which drew 40,000 in June, 1999, while 100 other cities around the world also had demonstrations.
It needs to be asked why 50,000 people went to Quebec City and carried out this spectacular, festive march. We are intensely concerned that capital and property issues are addressed as more important than people. The young people and all of us are exercising the right of free speech to object to multi-national secret dialogues which are changing the face of society and damaging entire cultures.
Does this raise questions for the religious community? First, if people are not aware of these global struggles, it is time to find out what's happening, to avoid any stereotypes, and to re-consider things perhaps taken for granted for many years. Or at least since the Depression. Or at least since World War II. Many demonstrators remember neither of those upheavals, but their parents do, and our society has been shaped in the process of recovering from the Wall Street crash and the horrors of the war. People are deeply concerned about where the social and economic order is headed. We have information - for me, some of it is stuff I really have had a hard time believing - but it is there, the raw greed for profit, whether displayed by these many years of rationalizing sweatshops, covering up information, firing reporters who won't whitewash a story on Monsanto, suing a Canada for millions because of a law to protect people's health, Shell hiring armed forces to attack Nigerians who were protecting where they live, Mexico locking up two farmers for trying to protect the forests. I will not accept it.
The religious community is concerned with the wellness and spiritual strength of human beings. The religious community has almost always taken public affirmative positions on clear human rights issues. The religious community - or some parts of it - have spoken out against racial and other forms of discrimination. The religious community has spent millions of dollars on programs and actions to work against poverty and injustice.
Yet, how widespread is awareness of the terrible discrimination and injustice that corporate-designed "free" trade agreements are promoting and carrying out? Is there a conversation in the religious community about debt relief, a centerpiece of the problems, and one our denominations could do something about?
There are serious questions to address about the trajectory of global economic development. It was once considered a process of helping countries in recovery; it was once considered a method to promote democracy and self-sufficiency in the poorest of countries. How has it become a thing where corporations plot and their executives spend vast sums of money in schemes designed to gain or maintain control over markets everywhere?
At first glance, maybe there seems no relation between Christian teachings and what megacorporations are doing - unless one turns to pages in the Bible which promise rewards for wise investment. Somehow, for most of us, this just doesn't do it anymore. People who are able, are investors. People who are able expect to have jobs to support themselves. But what instructions do our teachings provide when more than half the world is living in poverty and when the world is becoming smaller and more connected?
We know these aren't distant brothers and sisters any more. One example is the 74-year-old Colombian man who stood looking at his entire vegetable crop destroyed by a US-made plane flying US-made pesticides (both provided for huge profits paid with our tax dollars). He now has nothing to eat and no way to make money, so he can't even pay the rent on his land, and he says, "I don't grow coca. Why did they do this to me?"
Or consider the young man who earns some money as an artist but gets most food from selected dumpsters. He is a very articulate protester, sensitive about issues of discrimination, wise about the capitalist nature of global trade negotiations, and opposed to the terms which benefit so few and damage so many.
If one looks at the real effects of NAFTA on people and communities in all three countries, the story has terrible flaws and cannot be called successful. Among the reasons are such things as "dispute tribunals" in which a corporation can sue a country for profits they might have gained if it were not for that country's policy to protect the health of its citizens.
The FTAA will exacerbate the problems we have seen emerge from "free" trade. As religious people, we need to pay close attention to events like Quebec and to what protesters are saying - and then to act in solidarity to resist these policy decisions.
Grace Braley has years of experience living and organizing in a poor community, resisting racism, and writing on issues of economic justice. She has worked for the Presbyterian Synod of the Northeast and the Hispanic Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. She travels regularly to Mexico, most recently on the Zapatista march for indigenous dignity.