Democracy and the Quebec Summit

There was a lot of talk about democracy at the Quebec Summit and a lot more hypocrisy. The official spin lauded the "restraint" of the police. I guess that includes gassing peaceful demonstrators gathered half a kilometre away from the Wall of Shame, and shooting people in the back with rubber bullets. And the Summit's "democracy clause" commits the United States to abandoning its strategic right to intervene in the hemisphere. Right.

But let's talk about democracy. More importantly, let's look at some substantive way of judging it. In deference to the free-marketeers who think they deserve to set the rules, we'll use "performance indicators" - the method they prefer for quantifying every public service in the country.

How do we judge democracy's performance: by what ordinary people have accomplished by using it. Democracy is ultimately judged by its outcomes.

If you doubt this, look at the democratic crisis we are now facing. The last federal election saw a turnout below 60 per cent of those eligible to vote. In the United States, 50-million citizens can't even be bothered to register. If the tool doesn't work, people quit using it. Canadians were especially keen on democracy when hundreds of thousands fought (and many died) for it - and came back and demanded that it deliver. And it did: public education, labour rights, Unemployment Insurance, social assistance, medicare, a measure of equality and security - nation-building.

But the past fifteen years has seen a relentless downsizing of social democracy to the point where soon all that will be left is market democracy. That's the brand promoted by the United States and Canada through their trade liberalization agenda. But does it perform?

Between 1960 and 1980 most of the countries in Latin America and Africa were either welfare statist or socialist and they pursued policies of import substitution - not trade and "open" economies. The United States didn't like these policies much, and dozens of popular governments were overthrown by the CIA or otherwise disposed of. Add on huge debts and the machinations of the IMF and World Bank (the Market Enforcers) and you have the new market democracies. Now let's compare. Between 1960 and 1980 per capita income in Latin America grew 73 per cent, and in Africa, 34 per cent. During the period of economic liberalization, 1980 to 2000, that growth plummeted to 7 per cent in Latin America and in Africa it went into reverse - minus 23 per cent.

This isn't democracy. Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez told the Quebec Summit: "If democracy doesn't provide land, if it's concentrated in the hands of 2 per cent of the population, we can't speak of democracy." Prime Minister Kenny Anthony of St. Lucia said globalization has "brought prosperity to some, but ... has destroyed the lives of others ... Until all the peoples of the Americas are free from hunger and fear of unemployment, we cannot celebrate the benefits of trade liberalization." For the millions living in extreme poverty, democracy is a cruel hoax.

And if hemispheric leaders think it's bad now, the proposed FTAA would lock in IMF and World Bank policies and then make things worse. According to "NAFTA at Seven," a study by the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, since Mexico signed NAFTA in 1994 the growing imbalance between imports and exports has resulted in a balance of payments crisis. NAFTA-created jobs in the maquiladoras more than tripled, but wages there are kept deliberately low - half of domestic manufacturing wages. As a result, average manufacturing wages have fallen 21 per cent and income 20-25 per cent for all but the wealthiest 5 per cent. Secure waged jobs declined by 18 per cent; self-employed income declined by 40 per cent.

One last comparison, simply because the irony is irresistible: The one country that was not invited to Quebec City was Cuba - because it is judged "undemocratic." The performance indicators, however, put the judges' qualifications in doubt. According to UNICEF (1999) infant mortality in Cuba is 7 per 1000 live births, tied for the best in the hemisphere except for Canada. In Brazil it's 37, Mexico, 29 and Bolivia, 69. Cuba boasts a primary schooling rate of 100 per cent, a secondary school graduation rate of 98.8 per cent and a literacy rate of 96 per cent, second only to Canada and Uruguay. Ninety-five per cent of the population have access to electricity, and 95.3 per cent to clean drinking water. Life expectancy at birth is seventy-six years. In the United States it has declined to seventy-two.

Cuba embarrasses everyone in its international solidarity: 15,600 third-world students have graduated from Cuban universities, and 11,000 students are currently enrolled. Cuba's renowned Latin American Medical School is training people from twenty-four countries and sixty-three indigenous ethnic groups, and 2,000 new students enrol every year. All of this is done at no charge and in spite of the vicious U.S. boycott.

But all of this is irrelevant to George W. Bush and Jean Chrétien. Cuba is "undemocratic." Not because Cubans can't vote, but because they can't vote for Republicans or Liberals.

Originally published by the Financial Post. Murray Dobbin's column appears on the first Monday of every month.

For more rabble news coverage of the Quebec Summit and its aftermath, please click here.

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