With the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City looming, the people of Latin America are looking north to Canada for help. The main issue on the agenda at the 34-nation meeting is the approval of the working draft of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a blueprint for a trade zone stretching from the Arctic to Chile. And when the summit gets under way on April 20, many Latin leaders want Canada to take a prominent role in the talks—by blunting the impact of powerful U.S. negotiators whom they deeply mistrust. They are also backing the Canadian-sponsored “democracy clause,” which would penalize undemocratic regimes. “When it comes to trade, Canada is truly a world
power,” said Ernesto Gomez, director of the Latin American Trade Council in Caracas. “Canadians are innovative and far-sighted negotiators.”
Throughout Central and South America there has been a burst of activity in preparation for Quebec City.
In Lima, at the headquarters of the Andean community—a customs union made up of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru—trade ministers recently met to hammer out a common position they plan to present at the summit. Despite strong economic growth, the jobless rate in Latin
America has still soared to an unofficial rate of almost 20 per cent—a 10-year high. And even as the ministers talked, outside the imposing aluminum-andglass office tower street urchins, beggars and people hawking products of every type were a sad reminder of the growing gap between Latin America’s rich and poor.
On a busy street corner nearby, 52year-old Rosa Delgado sold plastic containers. She had been on the street since 8 a.m.; by 11 a.m., she had earned less than a dollar. “I wonder when I’ll be able to take it easy for a bit and enjoy life without worrying about tomorrow,” said Delgado with an air of resignation. To help people like Delgado, Ecuadorean Trade Minister Roberto Peña Durini says, it is critical to move ahead with the FTAA, which he believes could create more jobs by ex-
panding trade. “The sooner we can get a free-trade agreement the better,” he said. “If it’s going to be a fair deal for everybody, we’re ready to go.”
But many Latin leaders deeply distrust American intentions at the summit. Their suspicions have only deepened since the election of President George W. Bush and his repeated statements that his foreign trade policy will be based purely on American self-interest. Bush’s America-first stance has already drawn criticism from many countries, including Mexico and Argentina, where officials believe the United States will demand unfettered access to southern markets while not fully reciprocating. “It’s not so important when, but how we are going to have this common market,” said Heinz Moeller, Ecuador’s foreign minister. “Are we really talking seriously about free trade? Is free trade a two-way road between north and south?”
The growing Latin American mistrust of Washington has allowed Canada to emerge as an honest broker. At the peak of the Cold War, the people of many Latin American countries suffered under anti-Communist military dictators supported by Washington. But to a large degree, Canada stood apart, not joining the Americans in their attempts to undermine revolutions waged by groups like Nicaragua’s Sandinista rebels in the early 1980s. “The relationship between the United States and some Latin American countries is quite different from Canada,” said Sebastien Thebere, a spokesman for International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew. “We were the first country to open up trade with Latin America, and when they sign a trade deal with us it gives them credibility.”
Many Latin American countries hope Canada will act as an intermediary in their disputes with the United States. But unlike the Cold War period, when Latin America was polarized between left and right, today a rising middle class is seeking answers to social and economic problems through the
deployment of new technology and expanded trade. “Our priority is not to be left behind in the new knowledge-based economy,” says Costa Rican President Miguel Angel Rodriguez.
So the main goal of the Latin American negotiators at the Quebec summit will be to secure jobs for their people. And in a region where corruption and violence continue to wreak havoc,
Canada’s proposal to include the democracy clause in an FTAA is gaining wide support. But a major dispute could yet emerge over Ottawa’s determination to include environmental and labour regulations, such as the unfettered right to form trade unions, in the FTAA agreement. While Canada may want such issues set out as trade law, many Latin American countries want them included only as guiding principles. “We can accept including these issues, but only in the preamble of an agreement,” says José Alfredo Graca Lima, one of the main Brazilian negotiators. “They cannot become trade rules and requisites.”
Some Latin Americans are also encouraged by the hundreds of Canadian citizens who are attempting to make
sure the Quebec City summit represents more than just corporate interests. “Never before at a Summit of the Americas have people been actively encouraged to take part in peaceful protests,” says José Espinosa, president of the Ecuador-based World Council of Indigenous Peoples. Espinosa cites a front-page story in a local newspaper describing how Montreal’s Concordia
University will allow its students to reschedule their final exams if they wish to take part in protests. “This,” says Espinosa, “is an example of democracy at work.”
Many southern leaders distrust U.S. intentions and Bush’s America-first policy
Labour leaders in the region are also encouraged by Ottawa’s decision to spend $300,000 to support dissenting groups, including the nationalist Council of Canadians, which will take part in what is being billed as the People’s Summit in Quebec City (Quebec is giving another $200,000). “The official Canadian assistance to dissenters gives credibility to Canada’s democracy clause,” says Enrique Jurado, a spokesman for the Latin American Federation of Trade Unions. It may also help Canada emerge as the honest broker in the summit it is hosting.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.