Corporate Consolidation, from Argentina to Alaska

Despite what you may have heard in the major media, NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) has worsened conditions for Mexican workers. These children outside Tijuana are in a church daycare program much of the day and night because their parents work long hours at foreign-owned factories. Many other children are home alone for long stretches of time.

If you missed media coverage of the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City last April, you’re not alone. The massive protests outside the meeting of 34 heads of state–every country in the Western hemisphere except Cuba–flashed across the headlines for a few days, then vanished. But the issues the demonstrators were protesting have not gone away.

The Summit’s official Web site billed it as a chance for leaders to ‘address common hemispheric issues and challenges,’ including ‘improved access to education, poverty alleviation, strengthening human rights and democracy, and economic integration.’ In reality, it was an elaborate kickoff party for a new round of negotiations aimed at creating a Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a deal that would extend the dubious ‘benefits’ of NAFTA–the North American Free Trade Agreement–from Alaska to Argentina.

In the seven years since the United States, Canada, and Mexico signed NAFTA, investors and financiers in all three countries have enjoyed huge success as trade and investment ballooned. Yet NAFTA’s promise of ‘a rising tide that lifts all boats’ has left workers and the environment high and dry.

An Economic Policy Institute survey of NAFTA’s impact on labor ‘finds a continent-wide pattern of stagnant worker incomes, lost job opportunities, increased insecurity, and rising inequality.’ Meanwhile, pollution in all three countries has continued to rise, particularly in the maquiladora factories along the U.S.- Mexico border. And numerous environmental, food safety, occupational health, and consumer standards–which were supposedly protected under NAFTA’s labor and environmental side accords–have been struck down as unfair barriers to free trade by panels of trade judges operating behind closed doors. For example, in 1997 Canada banned the use of MMT, an octane-boosting gasoline additive that was found to be a human neurotoxin. Virginia-based Ethyl Corporation, the world’s sole manufacturer of MMT, sued the Canadian government for $250 million under NAFTA’s ‘investor protection’ provisions. In 1998 the case was settled for $13 million and the ban was reversed.

The FTAA takes things from bad to worse. In a report for the International Forum on Globalization, Canadian activist Maude Barlow argues that the FTAA ‘goes far beyond NAFTA in its scope and power . . . to create a trade powerhouse with sweeping new authority over every aspect of life in Canada, the Americas, and the Caribbean.’

According to the public interest group Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch (http://www.tradewatch.org), the FTAA rolls the worst aspects of NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, and several other international trade bureaucracies into one neat package that will ‘[handcuff] governments’ public interest policymaking capacity and [enhance] corporate control at the expense of citizens.’ This would be accomplished by the following means:

• by installing new ‘investor protections’ that create closed-door trade tribunals where corporations can sue governments over domestic policies that may undermine future profits;

• by limiting governments’ abilities to stabilize their economies through regulation of foreign investment and speculative capital;

• by allowing foreign governments and corporations to bypass a nation’s legal system thanks to secret international trade tribunals;

• by providing corporations with new legal rights and political tools to attack government standards for food security, public health and safety, worker safeguards, and the environment; and

• by expanding the scope of trade to include the service sector, which will increase economic pressure on governments to privatize and/or deregulate already vulnerable public services.

Under current plans, the FTAA negotiations are scheduled to conclude in 2005, though several member countries, including the United States and Chile, are pressing for a 2003 deadline.

George W. Bush remarked at the close of the Quebec summit that ‘trade helps spread freedom.’ Delegates even voted to include a ‘democracy clause’ stipulating that any country admitted to the FTAA must have a democratically elected government. Critics dismissed the clause as a cynical attempt to deflect criticism that the treaty is anti-democratic while in reality further cementing the exclusion of Cuba from the hemispheric economy.

The irony of Bush’s statement was palpable in the streets of Quebec, where police went to unprecedented lengths to shut the public out of the proceedings, constructing a 12-foot-high, 2.5-mile-long cement and chain-link wall around the already-walled old town. But protesters outside the ‘wall of shame,’ as it was dubbed by the Canadian media, soared to new heights of creativity to get their message across. After a group from the anarchist Black Bloc tore down a section of the wall, ‘a medieval-themed faction rolled up its catapult and flung pink stuffed animals at the police,’ reported David Moberg on Salon.com (April 23, 2001).

Not all of the activists took to the barricades, however. The Second People’s Summit of the Americas (http:// www.peoplessummit.org)–the first was in Santiago, Chile, in 1998–drew labor, indigenous, environmental, women’s, human rights, and other citizens groups from throughout the hemisphere. At a parallel set of meetings during the days leading up to the trade talks, activists discussed ways to promote an alternative vision of global cooperation. The product of these discussions is a soon-to-be-published update of the document ‘Alternatives for the Americas: Building a People’s Hemispheric Agreement.’ First drafted during the 1998 summit, the document is a comprehensive plan offering ‘concrete and viable alternatives, based on the interests of the peoples of our hemisphere, to the FTAA.’

As Maude Barlow is careful to point out, critics of corporate globalization do not believe that all international economic cooperation is bad. ‘As long as [agreements] are based on a different set of fundamental assumptions, such as the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights and strong environmental rules,’ writes Barlow, ‘citizens would be prepared to enter into a process to develop closer ties with one another and around the world. However, it cannot start with the assumptions and goals of the current FTAA.’

Discuss FTAA in the Globe forum at Cafe Utne: cafe.utne.com

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