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Background: Summit of the Americas

April 20, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: President Bush arrived in Quebec today for his first international gathering, the Summit of the Americas. Mr. Bush joined the leaders of nearly three dozen nations from every country in the western hemisphere except Cuba to discuss strengthening democracy and human rights and creating a hemisphere-wide free trade zone. Tens of thousands of activists also have converged on the capital of Canada’s French-speaking province to demonstrate against the summit and economic globalization.

Canadian officials sealed off the historic downtown area, the site of the summit. In one of the country’s most massive peacetime security operations, authorities ringed the area with two-and-a-half miles of concrete blockades, topped with ten-foot high chain-link fencing. More than 6,000 police officers and 3,000 Canadian troops are on hand.

This afternoon, some were actively involved in preventing protesters from keeping their promise to disrupt the meeting. Shopkeepers boarded up storefronts, fearing anti- globalization demonstrations could lead to the kind of street violence that rocked Seattle during the 1999 meetings of the World Trade Organization. In recent days, Canadian border authorities turned away some suspected activists seeking to enter Canada.

This weekend’s gathering is the third Summit of the Americas. The first was in 1994 in Miami, where leaders agreed on the principle of eliminating trade barriers throughout the western hemisphere. Four years later, in Santiago, Chile, President Clinton and other leaders committed themselves to a 2005 target date for putting in place the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA. It would be modeled on the North American Free Trade Agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico.

If and when completed, the FTAA would create the world’s largest free trade zone, encompassing nearly 800 million people from Alaska to Patagonia. Earlier this week, President Bush addressed a meeting of the Organization of American States and stepped up his campaign for the free trade accord.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: There’s a vital link between freedom of people and freedom of commerce. Democratic freedoms cannot flourish unless our hemisphere also builds a prosperity whose benefits are widely shared. And open trade is an essential foundation for that prosperity and that possibility.

KWAME HOLMAN: He also met with the presidents of Argentina, Chile and Brazil, whose leaders are the most vocal about their concerns over the trade proposal.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Together we had a very good discussion about trade. The president and I have made a decision that we’ll work closely to iron out any differences that may exist. Obviously, each of us have got different issues that we have to deal with within our own borders. I’m mindful of that, so is the president.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Brazil is not alone among Central and South American governments worried about possible negative effects on local businesses and jobs from a hemisphere-wide free trade zone.