Americas to push for democracy


Western Hemisphere leaders will issue a declaration on democracy at a summit in April that could threaten oppressive regimes with expulsion from the future Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), diplomats said on Thursday.

The “democratic clause” was proposed by Canada, host of the summit, and has the backing of the United States and Chile.

It has been opposed by Mexico, despite a change in leadership there last year which saw the ousting of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) after seven uninterrupted decades in power, diplomatic sources said.

The heads of 34 elected governments — all the hemisphere’s nations except Communist Cuba — will gather in Quebec City from April 20 to April 22 for the Third Summit of the Americas.

They will receive a first draft of a pact that is meant to erase trade barriers from Alaska to Patagonia as of 2005.

Leaders will restate their commitment to the free trade deal as the road to greater prosperity, and will launch social programs to improve health, education and gender equality and protect native cultures, organizers said.

“The summit will make a strong political statement on strengthening democracy,” Marc Lortie, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s representative in the preparations for the meeting, told a news conference.

Lortie said the “democratic clause” would be the subject of high-level consultations, including Chretien’s first meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush on Monday.

The Canadian proposal is modeled on a clause in South America’s Mercosur trade pact that helped Brazil and Argentina avert military coups in politically unstable Paraguay.

“We are looking at it in the context of the FTAA,” Lortie said, adding that it was too early to say if the democracy would be adopted in Quebec.

Diplomats said the definition of what constituted a democratic government was also under discussion. Resolutions of the Organization of American States (OAS), which prevented a coup in Ecuador and successfully pressed for democratic change in Peru last year, refer only to military uprisings.

Civil society groups want to broaden the definition of non-democratic governments to include those who trample on human rights, censor the press or tamper with elections, an OAS official said.

Organizers of the Quebec meeting expect Bush, attending his first summit, will inject new life into hemispheric free trade negotiations which have faltered due to lack of U.S. political commitment.

The Clinton Administration failed to obtain the fast track trade negotiating authority from Congress needed to conclude the talks by limiting congressional involvement to a final yes-or-no vote.

Bush has signaled that closer ties with Latin America will be a priority by deciding to make his first trip abroad to Mexico on Feb. 16 to meet President Vicente Fox at his ranch.

His nominee to be U.S. trade representative, Robert Zoellick, indicated on Tuesday that Bush will ask Congress for the negotiating authority before heading to Quebec.

Zoellick told a Senate confirmation hearing it was vital that Western Hemisphere leaders know that a “new trade promotion authority is on its way” when Bush meets with them.

U.S. ambassador to the OAS, Luis Lauredo, accompanying Lortie at the news conference, said he was “very optimistic” Bush would win the authority sooner or later.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said last week Congress might not vote on the matter until later this year.

The hemisphere’s trade ministers will decide when they meet in Buenos Aires April 4 through April 7, on a proposal by Chile’s Socialist President Ricardo Lagos to speed up the talks.

Chile began negotiating its own free trade deal with the United States in December in a bid to inject new momentum into the hemisphere-wide talks.

The Chilean proposal to conclude FTAA negotiation a year earlier, by the end of 2003, to allow time to implement enabling legislation by 2005, has been backed by the United States, Canada and Costa Rica, though opposed by Brazil.