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A Lung Full of Tear Gas

Michael Borucke

What did we accomplish?

The protests in Quebec didn’t stop the Summit of Americas as planned. All the heads of state in the Western Hemisphere, save for Fidel Castro, met and discussed a secret document known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), much to the chagrin of at least 30,000 people who would have liked very much to have been included in the discussion. These outsiders tried to make their way to the meeting place, managing to down small sections of the chain-link fence surrounding the meetings, but as far as I know, no one ever got close to the buildings.

Instead, the majority of the weekend was spent playing with Canadian police: protesters threw rocks, sticks, and firecrackers, and caught the raw end of the water hoses and the rubber bullets. The favorite of the police was the hurling of tear gas canisters into the crowds. At first, protesters acted like stampeding cattle, after awhile protesters got used to the burning eyes/throats/noses. Luckily the police threw enough canisters so that protesters began to develop and refine their tactics: diffusing the canisters with buckets of water, simply staying upwind of the gas, or outright throwing the cans back at the cops (don’t worry, the police were wearing gas masks).

But as I was cheering and choking and watching the conflict between protester and police outside, I wondered how we were affecting what was going on inside. Take away the guns, the batons, the dogs, the armor, and the gas masks, and a cop is just a person following the orders of another person who is taking orders from the people who are running things (into the ground). It’s these people, not the cops that we wanted to confront. So was the protest a failure?

Early Saturday morning reports were coming in that the protests had canceled a number of smaller side meetings and had cut short the main meeting of the Summit. Bush did not obtain the authority to muscle the FTAA through Congress, though I can’t say how much responsibility the protesters can take for that. More importantly, however, the protesters put the FTAA in the public conscious in a way that officials and the media never could have done. Now people are talking about the protests either with zeal or disgust. Consequently, people now know that the FTAA exists, and that at least some people are pretty pissed about it. It doesn’t matter that the media distorted the complaints the protesters have with “free trade”. It doesn’t matter that the Thomas Friedmans of the world chastise the movement as a mass of ignorant people. If there were no protest, there would be no need to justify the FTAA or even to talk about it. And I wouldn’t have an opportunity to discuss some of the points that are overlooked when it comes to “free trade.”

But free trade, isn’t that good? Countries trading commodities with other countries so everyone has what they need; that’s free trade, right? That’s what they want you to think, but that’s not what the recent free trade agreements have been agreeing to. Let me back up.

No one knows what the Free Trade Area of the Americas actually says. Like other trade agreements, the contents of the document have been kept secret from the public. Only important corporations, heads of state and trade officials are privy to such information. We can only take previous agreements as an example of what to expect from the FTAA. This is a fairly safe assumption given the designation of the FTAA as the extension of NAFTA.

Given this progression, the FTAA will most likely grant more rights to corporations as the Western Hemisphere is turned into a single economy. NAFTA has given corporations the power to sue governments when their regulations don’t coincide with profit margins. FTAA will likely continue to strengthen corporate power over governments. Through the FTAA, corporations will be able to find the absolute dirt cheapest labor that the Americas have to offer. They will wear the cloak of benevolence as they set up shop in these countries and offer “real work to real people” with wages that keep workers in perpetual starvation, but not death. Really, what other alternative is there?

Ostensibly, the FTAA will seek to destroy barriers to trade (tariffs, laws, regulations), which is only natural if trade is to flow freely. Makes you wonder why the barriers were even there to begin with. But what happened in the 80s when the price of coffee on the global market crashed once a nasty barrier to trade was eliminated (in this case an agreement by coffee producing companies to keep prices artificially high)? With coffee no longer a profitable crop, Colombian farmers turned to growing what was their comparative advantage -- coca plants. Likewise, Mexico’s cheap labor force and proximity to the United States give it a comparative advantage in producing American electronics while southeast Asia gets to specialize in U.S. textiles.

Of course, free trade in the popular sense is relative like all things. For the powerful countries that make the trade agreements, you can pretty much keep your markets closed to foreign products by imposing barriers to trade. Britain did this a couple centuries back by blocking superior Indian textiles from entering British markets. For the smaller countries that can’t attempt to disagree with the larger countries, free trade, free market theory and comparative advantage are concepts that work well enough.

Sure, times may be tough for these people now, maybe their children will starve to death or die of some curable illness; but their economies will eventually benefit from trade and the corporate presence and the benefits will come a-trickling down. We are thus comforted by people in the know (except for the children part; it’s not too helpful an argument to mention dying children as part of your plan). These lovers of neo-liberalism offer no time-table for the first trickle to have started, however. And they have no historical proof that the trickle will ever raise the standard of living of a country. The fact is that no country has ever developed through free-market practices; rather it has been through closed markets that industries in the now-first world have been able to develop. America was certainly never a fan of free trade when its still nascent industries were producing goods that were inferior to foreign commodities. America has always protected its corporations; providing subsidies, tax breaks, publicly funded technologies, high tariffs on imports and other barriers to trade to make sure foreign goods couldn’t compete. Even now we see the U.S. Air Force selling Boeing cargo planes to other countries on behalf of Boeing, offering to purchase them back in case of war.

Now that you’ve read at least one version of what the FTAA promises for the future, you should read what other people have said about the FTAA. This deal is too big for the public to simply watch it happen. Besides messing with the environment and labor, FTAA will probably privatize education and health care (even more). You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t felt the effect of the FTAA within a few years. The good news is that the protest is not over yet. Contrary to what the media would have you believe, the agreement won’t be signed for at least another two years. This gives everyone plenty of time to study up on free trade theory, its history, as well as the best techniques for combating the effects of tear gas.