Argentina: The People’s Summit against the FTAA

The Argentine beach town of Mar del Plata became a symbolic site in the historical struggle between neo-liberalism and social movements in Latin America last week, when President Bush and the 34 other presidents participated in the IV Summit of the Americas. They were met by hordes of protestors against Bush and his free trade agenda. As Argentine President Nestor Kirchner hosted the official Summit of the Americas behind miles of fences, the People’s Summit brought together social movements, labor unionists, piqueteros, non-profits, and community groups from Argentina and the across the Americas to create a more just and humane form of Latin American political, economic and social integration.

The People’s Summit provided the space for dialogue on how to build an anti-imperialist hemispheric movement. Reproductive, indigenous, and human rights, alternative production models, challenging imperialism, youth movements, genetically modified (GMO) crops and building autonomy were some of the main themes of the event.

There was also a growing divide evident at the summit over what role the progressive and leftist governments in the region will have in building alternatives to the neo-liberal model. Many social movements, especially the autonomous-oriented piquetero groups from Argentina, do not believe that the progressive leaders of Latin America truly represent their interests. Other groups, mainly the political parties that are aligned with Kircher, see hope in an alliance with Lula, Chavez, Castro, Vazquez of Uruguay, and Evo Morales, if he wins the upcoming Bolivian elections.

The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) was the ghost that haunted the Summit and President Bush. Although the agreement was not passed by its January 2005 deadline and the 2003 FTAA ministerial meeting in Miami was a huge failure for those pushing this agreement, it is still on the US agenda. And it is still a highly contentious issue, even among leaders of Latin American nations. Mexican President Vicente Fox suggested that the FTAA was inevitable, thus provoking a response from Brazil claiming that the FTAA was not on the agenda. 

The strongest opposition to the proposed-agreement comes from Venezuela, the MERCOSUR countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) and social movements throughout South America. This IV Summit addressed the growing rejection of the neo-liberal model by progressive leaders in Latin America and the counter-proposal on the table. A few years ago President Chavez proposed ALBA (Alternativa Bolivariana para las Americas), an alternative hemispheric trade agreement. The economic terms of this counter-proposal for Latin American integration are still unclear, although some suggest it would be a model that is based on solidarity, not competition.

The proposed agreement was initially disregarded, but is now beginning to gain genuine political clout. Cuba and Venezuela have signed onto this model of Latin American integration by Venezuela exchanging oil at below-market level prices for a variety of services, mostly medical, which Cuba provides.

The People’s Summit hosted three separate workshops on ALBA and one workshop on Telesur, a Latin American satellite television station which is seen as an integral part of hemispheric integration. Chavez also addressed the People’s Summit after a concert where Cuban musician Sylvio Rodriguez, among many others, played to a stadium packed full of people.

Chavez has become a hero to many labor groups and political parties who waved the Venezuelan flags with fervor. For others, ALBA is an empty proposal that will be discussed among "progressive" political leaders and will not truly empower poor people or change the dominant economic model. In Venezuela, there are community health projects, employment plans, education programs and national restructuring and redistribution processes being initiated by the Chavez government and grassroots community groups.

However, many of the other "progressive" governements of Latin America have not made large structural economic or political changes which empower the poor. Representatives of social movements in attendance at the event are skeptical of any integration model in which politicians exclude poor communities from the debate. Within social movements and communities in Argentina there is a large distrust of the government and an understanding of the compromises many progressive leaders make to stay in power.

Argentina, the second largest producer of GMO soy in Latin America, is currently selling Venezuela industrial farm equipment in exchange for cheap oil. Much of this farm equipment will be used by newly formed cooperatives but, it will also be used for the farming of GMO soy, which Venezuela buys from Paraguay. Grupo de Reflecion Rural, which works for food sovereignty and against GMO soy in Argentina, and its relationship to corporate power, environmental degradation, militarization and human rights violations is challenging ALBA. Although like many groups, they support a Latin American integration built in solidarity, they oppose the inclusion of GMO soy in this agreement. As Chavez spoke to the masses, the groups brought a large banner that stated, CON SOJA NO HAY ALBA…With Soy, there is no ALBA.

In Mar del Plata, the People┬┤s Summit culminated in street actions to protest Bush, the FTAA and neoliberalism. As the official Summit began, the actions were kicked-off with a 7am march of 40,000 people, heading from the fence to the stadium, where Chavez spoke. After the concert, and the enthusiastic speech where Chavez claimed that Mar del Plata is the grave-site of the FTAA, another march departed from the stadium. Autonomists, anti-imperialists, Trostkyists, and piqueteros gathered in the streets to march towards the fence, which encapsulated the meetings and about eighty blocks of the city. Marching past closed down businesses and tons of graffiti reading Fuera Bush!, (Bush, Get Out!) this group of over 10,000 people, with colorful signs, and huge banners headed towards the Summit.

As the march approached the fence the police fired tear-gas canisters, and some rubber bullets. Although over 5,000 police were in town for this mobilization, the majority were behind the fence. The streets were filled with people expressing their discontent for Bush and all that he stands for.

Rocks were thrown through windows of multinational corporate businesses. Cellular phone companies, fast food chains, and banks were targeted as clear symbols of corporate neo-liberal globalization. Banco Galicia, located three blocks from the police line was set on fire with a Molotov cocktail. Elsewhere, other small scale explosives were used to start fires.

The message was clear, "Bush is not welcome here!" nor is an economic model that has led this country into crisis. Neo-liberalism has failed to reduce poverty, create jobs, improve education, or foster democracy. Let us hope that the FTAA will rest in Mar del Plata, and that its tomb will read Defeated by the People.

Cory Fischer-Hoffman is a writer based in Latin America.