Bush Fails to Revive Free Trade Talks in Latin America Amid Mass Protests

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President Bush’s trip to Argentina ended without any agreement on reviving talks to create a regional free trade zone. On Friday, as many as 40,000 demonstrators filled the streets of Mar del Plata. We go to Argentina to speak with Beverly Keene, one of the organizers the alternative People’s Summit. [includes rush transcript]

President Bush failed to persuade other leaders attending the Summit of the Americas meeting in Argentina this past weekend to resume talks around achieving a hemisphere-wide free trade agreement. Bush was hoping to persuade his Latin American and Caribbean counterparts to endorse the Free Trade Area of the Americas or FTAA plan. The FTAA would be larger than the European Union but without the free flow of labor and political integration. The plan would get rid of tariffs and other barriers that limit entry of American goods and services allowing American exports to the region to bloom. Critics have spoken out against the FTAA saying that it would do little to alleviate poverty in Latin America while opening up huge markets for American companies.

Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez has called the agreement an “annexationist plan” which would destroy local industry, roll back social safety nets and labor protections and permanently extend American political domination of the region to the economic realm. On Friday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez led a rally of 25,000 people to protest Bush and the FTAA.

  • Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, November 4, 2005.

The alternative People’s Summit took place in Argentina last week as well. Thousands came from all over the continent to discuss issues such as opposition to imperialism, employment and wealth distribution, environmental degradation and debt forgiveness.

  • Beverly Keene, coordinator with Jubilee South/Americas and a member of the organizing committee for the People’s Summit.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is President Chavez.

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: The capitalist model, the developed model, the consumer model which comes from the North, which it has forced on the world, is falling apart on earth, and there is no planet nearby that we can emigrate to.

AMY GOODMAN: The alternative People’s Summit took place in Argentina last week, as well. Thousands came from all over the continent to discuss issues such as opposition to imperialism, employment, wealth distribution, environmental degradation and debt forgiveness. We’re joined on the phone now from Argentina by one of the organizers of the People’s Summit, Beverly Keene. Welcome to Democracy Now!

BEVERLY KEENE: Hello. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. You’re a coordinator with Jubilee South, one of those who organized the People’s Summit. Looking now at this weekend, what do you think you accomplished?

BEVERLY KEENE: I think we have an enormously positive balance at the first sight. One of the reasons is because it’s a massive turnout; participation in the People’s Summit, during the three days of debates and more than 160 workshops and seminars and forums focusing on different aspects of a popular agenda was enormous, very enthusiastic, more than 12,000 people. And a lot of those people were from the very city of Mar del Plata, and that was very encouraging because the city of Mar del Plata has been, for the past six months, essentially under police alert, and the security net has been tightening and tightening and tightening, and the campaign, in a sense, of fright and of fear, telling people that they ought to stay home, that they ought to leave, that they ought to close their businesses, etc., was really tremendous. So it was very, very positive that so many people from Mar del Plata, in fact, turned out, participated very actively in events, including the march, which was a tremendously large march for the city of Mar del Plata. And that’s a very good sign.

I think the other good, very positive evaluation that we’ve made is that in the course of the three days, on an agenda that was very much focused on building alternatives, there was tremendous discussion in each of the sectoral forums and each of the thematic groups, and a number of very specific initiatives were launched and that are becoming part of what is the continental agenda, not just to say, 'No to the F.T.A.A.! No to militarization!' but how can we advance in some very, very concrete programs. So that was good news.

I think also, obviously, part of our positive evaluation of what took place in Mar del Plata these days is the fact that despite the immense pressure from the U.S., from Canada and from other countries in the region, the — at least U.S.’s proposal to move forward and put a date to resuming the negotiations towards the building of the F.T.A.A., that was not able to be pushed through.

Undoubtedly, there is a continuing concern here in Argentina, in the continent and through all of those social movements and organizations that participated in the summit, the fact that the F.T.A.A. still appears in the document and the kinds of neoliberal policies that have been pursued against the interests and the rights of the people of the hemisphere over the past decade or 15 years are still very much present in the document itself, in the declaration of the presidents —

AMY GOODMAN: Beverly Keene —

BEVERLY KEENE: — so we have an agenda ahead of us.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what Chavez was putting forward as he announced they had gathered at the gravesite of the F.T.A.A., the Bolivarian alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean, known as A.L.B.A., the Spanish acronym meaning “dawn,” to replace the F.T.A.A., and where do the other Latin American leaders come down on this?

BEVERLY KEENE: Well, I think what Chavez said and what he was speaking to was, in fact, a hope and at least a partial reality, in the fact the U.S. wasn’t able and hasn’t been able thus far to impose its agenda, which we can all remember, as of the first Summit of the Americas which was held in Miami in 1994, from that time on, the U.S.'s agenda was to have the F.T.A.A. up and running by January 2005. Well, we are now in November 2005, and the F.T.A.A. is still on paper. So we're continuing in a sense to be able to hold it back. And Venezuela’s position, the position of Chavez’s government, in that sense, has been very, very clear. And I think when he announces here in Mar del Plata that we have come to the gravesite, it’s continuing to press in that respect.

What maybe is most important coming out of the declaration of the presidents in Mar del Plata is, in fact, a very formal and a very official recognition of divided opinions among the governments of Latin America. And that means that there will be continued pressure, certainly on the governments here in the southern cone, Argentina and Brazil, Venezuela, itself, of course, Uruguay and Paraguay, to bring about change in those positions and is a subject of concern.

Chavez and the Venezuelan government has a very clear alternative, a very clear position — “No to the F.T.A.A. under any circumstances” — and is moving alternatives forward, such as you mentioned, the question of really advancing with alternative forms of integration, both in the economic sphere, in science and technology, in education, in health, in a number of different areas. And that’s a real challenge for the other governments of the southern cone, in particular, who have at base taken a firm step forward in this point to say that under existing conditions they’re not willing to continue negotiating the F.T.A.A. Our fear and certainly part of our — the target of our action over the next coming months here in Argentina and other countries in the southern cone will be to continue to bolster that opposition on the part of our governments, because the fear is that if there are, in a sense, some concessions, however minor, then indeed the floodgates may still be opened.

AMY GOODMAN: Beverly Keene, what about the protests? Can you talk about the level, if there was violence, how people came together, how the state, how the police responded?

BEVERLY KEENE: Well, I think, first of all, it’s important to mention that there was an enormously large march and rally. You know, we’re talking — I’ve seen estimates of between 30,000 and 50,000 people. One of the things that many noted is that while we marched through the streets of Mar del Plata on the morning of November 4, there wasn’t a police officer in sight. Quite different to what had been the reality in the three previous days as we had gathered in Mar del Plata. But the march was extraordinarily peaceful. It was, I would say, very enthusiastic.

Certainly the target of the march was Bush and Bush’s policies, not only in Latin America, but around the world. But it was an enormously festive occasion, as people were really feeling a sense of coming together from different parts of the continent, from different parts and different political organizations, different social organizations, different positions, certainly here in Argentina with respect to what is the local political scene, but there was a real sense of unity in terms of that, 'No to Bush.'

The afternoon unfortunately saw a number of very, in a sense, minor incidents, in the sense that there were very few people actually engaged. There were large marches to the — I can’t think of how you say this — the walls that had been set up by the police to keep people out of the presidential summit. There were massive marches from the stadium after Chavez’s speech back to the area where the presidents, themselves, were meeting. But most of the people who engaged in those marches, in fact, were not able to get as far as they had hoped because of eventual police repression.

But at the time that there was acts of vandalism, certainly in Mar del Plata, what is very clear is that the police were nowhere to be seen, and they didn’t show up for a long time. Here in Argentina, there’s a very clear sense, and this is what you can get if you talk to neighbors in Mar del Plata, if you read what’s available in the media, that, in fact, a kind of liberated zone was set up. Police were nowhere in sight. They weren’t brought in until well after the incidents of vandalism itself were finished.

AMY GOODMAN: Beverly Keene —

BEVERLY KEENE: — so there’s a sense is that it was, in a sense, part of efforts to really pressure the government itself and particularly part of an effort to, in a sense, cast a doubt or cast a shadow over what had been enormously successful four days of debate, discussion among social movements and organizations from the hemisphere and an enormously successful march and rally that very morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Wasn’t the Argentine president also actually critical of President Bush? Now, also, Bush went on to Brazil and is in Panama, where the President Torrijos supports the F.T.A.A.

BEVERLY KEENE: President Kirchner was very critical in his opening address. I haven’t actually heard it, nor had a chance to read it yet, but according to many accounts, it was a very strong address, and he was very critical, certainly, of positions, not only in relation to the commercial negotiations, but certainly in relation to I.M.F.’s role and stance in relation to Latin America. What is a challenge for movements and organizations here in Argentina, however, is to sift through, in a sense, what often we say is a distance between rhetoric and reality.

It is certainly true that the policies of the government of Argentina are moving forward, are very different and a vast improvement over what we have known in prior decades, in the decades of the 1990s and certainly in the earlier part of this decade. But there is, I think, growing concern among many here in Argentina that while the government talks a stiff line, it’s often — it’s not always what is the reality of its policies. And this has certainly been true in relation to questions like the debt and its very relations with the I.M.F. So we’ll — these are areas that we’ll continue to be watching very carefully and working on very carefully and hoping to strengthen, indeed, what is both the rhetoric and also the reality of the government’s policies.

AMY GOODMAN: Beverly Keene, I want to thank you for being with us from Argentina, coordinator of Jubilee South and on the organizing committee for the People’s Summit.

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