The dope on the Americas

Global ruckus blows into Windsor

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There were the rain-soaked Pacific winds of Seattle and the cherry blossoms of spring in Washington, DC. Chapter three of this year of corporate-bashing takes place closer to home — down at the end of the 401 in gritty Windsor.

In three weeks, demonstrators from across the continent and points beyond gather again to take on the princes of neo-liberalism and free trade, this time as embodied in the 35-member Organization of American States.

It will be a high-pressure three days in the Motor City, and not only for the Windsor cops, who are more used to quelling bar fights than the canny actions of activists primed by those demos in Seattle and Washington that you saw on CNN.

Whether or not the activists can shut down Windsor, as they promise, is only one of the many dramas that will be playing out the first week of June.

Best moment

A flurry of actions, teach-ins and sessions on human rights and international solidarity are also taking place, one of which has our boy-scout foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy sharing a stage with hardcore ideologue Noam Chomsky.

“I think it’s the best possible moment for NGOs to try and gain space in the inter-American political processes,” says Nancy Thede of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development in Montreal, which is organizing the parallel symposium where Chomsky and Axworthy will appear.

Perhaps it’s the image of that unlikely twosome that best sums up the potential and the contradictions of this meeting of the little-known OAS. Human rights and solidarity types in non-governmental organizations hope to have their role in helping build democracy recognized, thanks to Axworthy’s efforts. But outside the air-conditioned conference hall, the rabble of demonstrators will be trying to throw the whole affair into chaos. Many of the NGO types will be not amused.

Meanwhile, the central human rights crisis in the western hemisphere — scene of kidnappings, politically motivated murder and out-of-control right-wing paramilitaries — will be remarked on only obliquely. That’s strange indeed, considering that many observers fear that the looming confrontation between U.S.-backed Colombian authorities and left-wing guerrillas may plunge the whole Andean region of South America into turmoil.

The Americans, it seems, don’t want their Plan Colombia showing up on the agenda. The development scheme, supported by Canada and Europe, has a nasty made-in-the-U.S. component: it will sink nearly $2 billion into the repressive Colombian army to bolster its fight against leftist guerrillas and the coca farmers they protect.

Yankee ire

No one wants to risk the ire of the Yanks by making them talk about something they want to avoid. As it was in the beginning, so it is now — the U.S. casts the biggest shadow in the OAS, an outfit founded by Washington at the beginning of the Cold War as one means to stop the spread of the virus of Communism.

Certainly, the U.S. got the OAS to do its bidding on Cuba, which has been frozen out of the body. But the Yanks have just as often had a problem getting their paper tiger to jump. The OAS has refused, for example, to endorse the rabidly anti-Communist Helms-Burton law, which threw up a blockade against Cuba.

Successive Liberal governments stayed away from the OAS because they saw it as a pointless ideological sinkhole. But then along came Brian Mulroney, who didn’t mind hopping into bed with the Yanks. Sign us up, he said, and 10 years ago they did.

As they have with so many policies of the Mulroney era — can you say free trade? — the Liberals have maintained our relationship in the OAS. After all, it is these countries of the Americas that many in Ottawa circles see as the linchpin of our trading future. What else is there? The Asian economy is still in the toilet, Africa is in danger of falling off the map, and Europe has been cool to our commercial advances.

So, among the items on the OAS agenda are integration, free trade and investment. It’s all part of the process leading toward a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), which is supposed to become a reality in 2005. Canada has been its most enthusiastic supporter, even more so than the United States, and the heads of state of all the OAS countries — that means Bill Clinton’s successor and Jean Chretien, if he’s still PM — will meet in Quebec City a year from now to move ahead on the deal.

Of course, in the highly charged post-Seattle and Washington air, such talk gets the street-savvy activist core all revved up. Brian Sharpe of the OAS Shutdown Coalition and other demonstrators have been busy getting ready and want to see the same scene in Windsor that stunned Seattle — high-powered politicians all dressed up with no meeting to go to.

Sharpe and the other globalization foes who acted up did what left-wing political parties and academic talking heads have not been able to do — politicize trade and convince a broad swath of public opinion that there’s more in it for corporations than for people. “The FTAA agreement is not going to change by people getting in there and trying to reform it,” Sharpe says. “They also need pressure from the outside demanding that it not continue the way it is.”

From his prep spot in Windsor, Sharpe has had word from activists as far away as Utah that they’ll be making the trek.

But unionists from Central and South America are also en route, and they await the FTAA with eager anticipation. That puts Canadian unionists in an unusual spot. Back in the day, they fought side by side with Canadian nationalists against the Mulroney trade deal with the U.S. But just as business has become globalized, so has labour, and that has shaped the message Canadian labour is bringing to Windsor.

Hassan Yussuff, a member of the militantly nationalist Canadian Auto Workers currently serving as a vice-president in the Canadian Labour Congress, has no appetite for a shutdown of the Windsor meeting. That’s not what his brothers and sisters are coming to Windsor to see, he says over the phone as he gets ready to fly to Venezuela for another meeting of the hemispheric labour group plotting OAS strategy.

“I’m stuck with this incredible responsibility to work in the regional labour organization,” Yussuff says. “Some of my colleagues in the other part of the region have some very different visions of the FTAA. Some of them actually believe that an FTAA would help alleviate the situation of poverty in their countries.”

Civil society

Yussuff is not that interested in a complete shutdown of the OAS general assembly, despite the fact that the CLC is planning a demonstration on the streets of Windsor, fittingly called Democracy, Social Justice And Fair Trade.

And NGO activists aren’t spoiling to bring the Windsor meetings to a halt either. They’re anxious to take the place that’s been prepared for them by Lloyd Axworthy. Finally, they see an opportunity to have a real say in the development of “civil society.” That’s shorthand for the niceties of life Canadians take for granted, among them a functioning legal system and the freedom to criticize government and participate as citizens in public life without fear of devastating repercussions — such as torture and murder.

Involving the NGOs is part of Axworthy’s putting-people-first “human security” agenda — decommissioning landmines and limiting the use of child soldiers, for example. That agenda also calls for labour, human rights and other NGOs with observer status at the meetings to come face to face with the politicians who ultimately make decisions, as happened last fall when trade ministers from the OAS countries met in Toronto.

It doesn’t sound revolutionary until you realize that such encounters have almost never happened, especially in those countries where more is known about military juntas than civil society.

Says Jim Rochlin, chair of international relations at Okanagan University College in BC, “I think you’re going to do a lot more (by) strengthening NGOs and civil society than you necessarily would at institutional levels” (reforming individual governments one by one, for example).

Among those taking part are Amnesty International, the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America, Oxfam and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation.

Not surprisingly, these NGOs feel they have a stake in the Windsor meeting and that shutting it down would not be their first choice.

“What we fear is that people who were in Washington or Seattle will think this is the same kind of meeting,” says Martin Roy of the Canadian Foundation for the Americas in Ottawa. “In fact, at the OAS they’ll be talking about how to promote democracy and human rights. Of course, it will be tainted by hypocrisy in many respects (because many Latin American countries have a poor record). But the social content of the agenda is very high.”

Who’s right — those who want the Windsor meeting to go ahead or those who want to shut it down? Both, as usual, I suppose. No doubt some good could come of the Windsor meeting, as NGOs claim hard-earned space and a say in the affairs of a region where tinpot democracies often take shortcuts around consultation and citizen inclusion.

And, after all, what are the demonstrators offering as an alternative strategy for those countries of the south that so badly want a taste of the good life — not just human rights but big-screen TVs as well?

But there is something about how the OAS is shaping up that illustrates the shortcomings of the outfit and makes you glad there’s a little mayhem in the offing.

As is usual at these meetings, the foreign ministers will indulge in long-winded debate about “modernization of the OAS” and “full and equal participation of women.”

But despite the policy papers and effusive speeches about civil society, no one will oppose scary U.S. military adventures in the region.

A U.S. State Department official seethes over the phone when I opine that the American plan might further destabilize an unstable country and that a less confrontational approach to cutting coca production might be desirable.

“Do they (critics of U.S. policy) cite examples of where voluntary eradication has worked? In Colombia, you have agribusiness-sized coca production as opposed to small farmers.”

Furthermore, he says, a law enforcement approach — which he insists Plan Colombia is — is the only way forward, because many coca areas are in guerrilla hands. “The government does not exercise any civilian control in large areas of southern Colombia.”

James Jones, who worked face to face with the FARC guerrillas under the auspices of the UN Drug Control Program, says American policy-makers don’t understand that the guerrillas are not only about drugs. The people in Washington, he says, fail to understand that the FARC is intertwined with local village life and the struggle to survive.

“The trouble with the U.S. position,” Jones says, “is that it does not recognize the political project (of the leftist guerrillas). They are just dealing with a drug war. And that is a very, very risky thing to be doing.”

Breathtaking inequality in Colombia is the real threat to U.S. security, Jones says, and if the Americans try to wipe out coca production in one country, it will move to another — bringing all its political turmoil with it.

Pressing matter

But the OAS, founded in the Colombian capital of Bogotá in 1948, has nothing much to say about this most pressing matter, even though the current secretary-general of the OAS was a former Colombian president. One of the projects of Cesar Gaviria’s term in office was to try to bomb the bejeesus out of the FARC leadership. But they got away.

Now, neither Gaviria nor the U.S. wants Plan Colombia on the agenda in Windsor. That would be an opportunity for critics take potshots. And Lloyd Axworthy, whose kinder, gentler foreign policy is all about preventing innocent civilians from being drawn into military strife (at the same time, of course, fostering investment in horrendous mining projects in the region), will talk about human security only in general terms. Axworthy the host won’t say that Plan Colombia is an affront to human security and the on again, off again peace talks between the Colombian government and the guerrillas.

Asked if Axworthy will raise any misgivings about the U.S. military adventure in Colombia, foreign affairs department spokesperson Michael O’Shaughnessy only recites facts about how Canada is spending its piddly $13 million in bilateral aid. They’ll send the Mounties down to Colombia to teach the Colombians investigative techniques, help the country improve its regulatory system in mining and telecommunications, and make its judicial system more efficient. “We are looking at the democratic development side and we’re looking at human security values,” O’Shaughnessy says.

Alas, in neither money nor rhetoric can the Canucks match the Yanks. The drug war continues.

Madness. Makes you want to go to Windsor and demonstrate.


The dope on the Americas

Protest the OAS in Windsor (Selected events)THURSDAY, JUNE 1

* Civil disobedience training

* Teach-in (People’s Global Action) 7-9 pm


* Shutdown actions

* Teach-in (People’s Global Action) 9 am-5 pm

* Teach-in (Council of Canadians, with Maude Barlow) 7:30 pm SATURDAY, JUNE 3

* Shutdown actions

* Teach-in (Canadian Labour Congress, with Naomi Klein) 10 am-8 pm

* Teach-in (International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, ICHRDD) 9:30 am-6 pm


* Days of Direct Action

* Teach-in (ICHRDD, with Noam Chomsky and Lloyd Axworthy) 10 am to 1 pm

* Rally and march (Canadian Labour Congress) noon

* Rally and march (Council of Canadians) 1 pm

For further info: OAS Shutdown Coalition, 643-0837, Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America, 921-0801

Compiled by Tabassum Siddiqui

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