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Protests peaceful, U.S. protectionist policies criticized

©Associated Press
February 3, 2002

NEW YORK -- Inside the World Economic Forum, foreign economic leaders criticized the United States on Saturday for protectionist policies they say hurt developing countries. Outside, thousands of protesters demonstrated loudly but peacefully against global capitalism.

Dozens of mounted police guarded the art deco entrance of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel late Saturday afternoon, and hundreds more officers wearing riot gear stood guard as thousands of protesters chanted, banged drums and waved signs near the hotel.

Protest leaders have insisted they will demonstrate peacefully, but about 4,000 officers -- outnumbering the 2,700 forum participants -- were on duty to maintain calm.

Attendees at the five-day forum are discussing U.S. foreign policy, its possible role in breeding terrorism and the down side of globalization -- all key issues for the protest groups.

At a morning session on the world's economy, Horst Kohler, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, bluntly criticized the United States for protecting its agricultural and textile industries from cheap foreign competition through tariffs and government subsidies.

Such policies keep poor countries from fully participating in the global economy, he said.

"We need to focus on giving developing countries better access, and this includes the phasing out of these subsidies, which are absolutely distorting and devastating sectors in the poor world," Kohler said to loud applause from the gallery.

U.S. textile manufacturers have argued against lowering tariffs, saying it would jeopardize American jobs. Government subsidies of U.S. crops such as soybeans help American farmers compete with foreign producers like Brazil -- which can sell crops for a fraction of U.S. prices.

The European Union has also resisted dramatic cuts in its farm subsidies, and Kohler said those policies must also be changed.

"If we are really serious about globalization to work for all, the advanced countries have to recognize they can't do business as usual," Kohler said.

Yashwant Sinha, India's finance minister, said U.S. and European Union restrictions on steel imports hurt his nation's steel industry.

The meeting of business and political leaders and celebrities from around the world is being held in New York partly to show solidarity with the city following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Although there has been no shortage of expensive parties and gourmet meals, sessions have been dominated by serious talk of terrorism, poverty and anti-Western anger.

Protesters say the forum's discussions are just lip service. They contend that wealthy countries exploit poorer ones by pressuring them to remove protective trade barriers and by allowing multinational corporations to dominate their fragile economies.

Police scuffled several times with protesters, and had made five arrests by late Saturday afternoon, including one man near the Waldorf who refused to move from a protester-free "frozen zone." Four others were taken into custody at Columbus Circle early Saturday afternoon at the starting point for a 11/2-mile march to the hotel.

Hundreds shouted "Capitalism? Shut it down!" and "Racism? Shut it down!" as police helicopters flew slowly overhead. About a dozen counter-protesters set up a sound system that blared The Star-Spangled Banner and waved a sign saying "Seek therapy."

At the conference Saturday morning, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and Bono, the lead singer of the rock group U2, called on governments and corporations to substantially increase their contributions for global health programs, especially for AIDS victims.

"We can't afford to let them die," Bono said of AIDS victims in poor countries. "We actually may not be able to afford to look after all the orphans. Even in cold, clinical terms it may be more expensive to the developed world to let them die."

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