That is the best way to describe the decision reached last weekend by 34 Pan-American leaders. Gathering in Quebec City, they defied thousands of violent protesters and agreed to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas. The removal of trade barriers from the Arctic to the southern tip of Argentina, scheduled for the end of 2005, will create the world’s largest trade bloc, encompassing 34 countries with more than 800 million people and a combined economic output of $11 trillion, or nearly one-third of the world’s total.
The goal is ambitious. It is achievable. Absent strong political will, especially in the United States, however, the plan will come to nothing.
The idea for a hemispheric trade bloc was endorsed as early as 1994. The logic behind the concept was simple: Trade and economic integration were the best means of creating and sharing prosperity throughout the Americas.
Unfortunately, efforts to push the FTAA suffered for lack of initiative. The chief culprits were economic uncertainty — Mexico’s peso crisis of the mid-1990s and the Asian financial crisis that followed in 1997 — and domestic politics in the U.S. After the bruising fight over the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, then U.S. President Bill Clinton had little stomach for another battle to renew “fast-track” trade authority. Without that legislation, other nations were reluctant to negotiate a trade deal with Washington. And without the U.S., FTAA made no sense. Last weekend, U.S. President George W. Bush pledged to win back fast-track authority and resume the march toward an FTAA.
The seeming agreement about the desirability of a trade bloc among the hemisphere’s political leaders — only Cuban President Fidel Castro was absent — has been matched by equally united opposition to FTAA on the streets. Protesters complain that it will encourage exploitation of the poor, exacerbate wealth disparities, erode political and human rights and destroy the environment along with indigenous cultures. In the latest round of antiglobalization protests, some 30,000 demonstrators went toe-to-toe with police to stop the Quebec meeting.
To their credit, the politicians were undeterred by the violence. Even more to their credit, they did not ignore the concerns of the protesters either. For example, Mr. Bush, who has recently displayed an ambivalence toward, if not hostility to, environmental protection, declared that “our commitment to open trade must be matched by a strong commitment to protecting our environment and improving labor standards.”
If that helped assuage some of the fears of the people in the streets, it raised some concern in the meeting halls. The image of affluent protesters staring down their own governments in selfless efforts to protect the citizens and environments of developing countries too poor to defend themselves is romantic — and wrong. The governments of those same developing countries want trade. They are the chief opponents of labor and environmental standards because they know that such measures can quickly become protectionist measures that can be used to deny them prosperity. Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso put it plainly enough during his speech to the summit: “It would be an obvious mistake — a very serious mistake, indeed — to set given standards of social development as a prior condition for free trade.”
The best check against exploitation is democracy. If every voice can be heard, then governments will not be able to ignore the interests of the majority of people. Political freedom can guard against the accumulation of excessive wealth and power. That is why the summit declaration also included a “democracy clause” that would strip a country of membership in the FTAA and disqualify it from participating in summits if it ceased to be a democracy — when, for example, there was a military coup. Haiti’s president, Mr. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, poses the most immediate challenge to the democracy pledge: He was re-elected last year in a vote that was widely denounced as unfair. Mr. Aristide promised to cooperate, but the FTAA governments must ensure that his words are more than just rhetoric.
American leaders should be applauded for having the courage to pursue the vision of a single hemisphere, united in trade. They must be prodded to fill in its details. The 458-page accord that was signed in Quebec City is only the outline of an agreement. All the governments are going to have to compromise, not only among themselves, but with those groups that do not have a place at the negotiating table. If the negotiators remain committed to the principles of openness, transparency, equality and prosperity, the December 2005 deadline can be met.
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