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Chrétien condemns summit violence

Saturday, April 21, 2001

QUEBEC -- With the stinging smell of tear gas from afternoon riots still hanging in the air, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien officially opened the Summit of the Americas last night with a call for hemispheric free trade and the protection of democracy.

In a speech hastily rewritten to address the clashes between police and small groups of protesters, Mr. Chrétien condemned the violence and said the 34 leaders gathered for the summit represent the will of the citizens who elected them.

He made a clear distinction between the "small band of extremists" who provoked police and the thousands of demonstrators who marched peacefully against free trade.

"Violence and provocation is unacceptable in a democracy," Mr. Chrétien said. "The type of behaviour that we have seen outside this afternoon by small groups of extremists is contrary to the democratic principles we all hold dear.

"These people do not -- do not -- represent the majority of those who have come to Quebec City peacefully to express legitimate concerns." Before the demonstrations began, U.S. President George W. Bush had praised the extensive security arrangements for the summit.

Mr. Chrétien is host of the third Summit of the Americas, a meeting of virtually all the hemisphere's heads of government, with the exception of Cuban President Fidel Castro.

In meetings today and tomorrow morning, the leaders are expected to endorse a plan to negotiate a hemispheric free-trade agreement, although the success of such negotiations is far from assured.

Mr. Chrétien will meet tomorrow afternoon with Mr. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, both newcomers on the summit stage. Mr. Chrétien met privately with Mr. Bush yesterday afternoon, and said the U.S. President told him that his priority for the summit is hemispheric free trade.

Union, church groups, environmentalists and other activists have promised a massive grassroots campaign to derail the trade talks. And even some proponents of the deal say it may be impossible to satisfy the interests of countries as diverse as Brazil and the United States.

Last night, the leaders seemed oblivious to the mayhem on the nearby streets as they attended an evening of speeches and music in Quebec's convention centre.

In his welcoming address, Mr. Chrétien said that the proposed free-trade agreement would benefit both rich countries and poor.

"The creation of a free-trade area is not an end in itself," he said at the opening ceremony, which was attended by a host of dignitaries from across the hemisphere.

"It is a means; a tool for growth that will allow us to promote closer, more dynamic economic relations among the nations of the Americas. In time, it will assure a higher standard of living and a better quality of life for all peoples of the hemisphere."

The summit leaders are also expected to focus on ways to enshrine and promote democracy in the region. The heads of government are expected to include in their final communique a "democracy clause," which Canadian officials described as a major advance for a region that has a history of brutal military dictatorships.

The clause would bar countries that do not have elected governments from the summit process, and, according to Canadian officials, deprive them of the benefits of the proposed free-trade agreement.

Mr. Chrétien said last night the promotion of democracy cannot take a back seat to the advancement of free trade.

"Economic integration is only one pillar in our hemispheric edifice," he said. "After all, prosperity has no meaning if our citizens are not free, if they are not equal before the law or if they cannot make use of the opportunities open to them."

Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso told the opening that free trade alone will not produce prosperity in Latin American, but has to be accompanied by financial support from richer countries and enhanced social programs.

Mr. Cardoso, whose country has long been cool to an FTAA, said the hemispheric trade deal has to be a balanced agreement that allows poorer countries of Latin America access to northern markets, particularly in agriculture.

"If we have the wisdom to do it well, FTAA may mean progress in the promotion of development and social justice," he said.

Mr. Cardoso also said he hoped to see Cuba included in the Summit of the Americas "in the not-too-distant future," referring to Cubans as "our friends and brothers."

Activists who have been meeting in Quebec City all week to fashion a strategy to oppose the trade agreement were not impressed with the leaders' promises of prosperity.

Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians, said activists representing unions, church groups and other citizens' group flatly reject Mr. Chrétien's contention that free trade creates prosperity.

"It has increased poverty in Canada and in the United States and in Mexico, and it will do the same throughout the rest of the Americas," Ms. Barlow said.

The demonstrators also said Mr. Chrétien's commitment to democracy is hollow given his government's decision to build a fence around the summit site to keep out legitimate protesters and the use of force by police to break up the demonstration.

"It's a sham if you're talking about democracy when we had this display of violence against civil society," Ms. Barlow said. "They should take down that damn wall."



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