FTAA: Good For Big Us Corporations; Bad For The People

As kids we swapped baseball cards, or sold them for money (10 cents). But today trade means something very different. Indeed, every child in the Americas should understand that those attending the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) meeting in Miami do not seek to improve your leverage in exchanging vintage Hank Aaron or Pele cards for Ted Williams or Diego Maradona; nor will it help small Florida manufacturers of zippers or paper boxes better sell their wares in Uruguay or Belize.

FTAA mavens envision a Hemispheric “free-trade zone,” excluding Cuba, of course. The CEOs and government officials who see the world through corporate lenses boast about the potential of “the world’s largest free market.” The combined gross domestic product of the countries involved (800 million consumers) equals $13 trillion, the FTAAers assert. FTAA would extend NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico) from Hudson Bay to the tip of Patagonia (minus Cuba, of course).

The very thought of such a giant Latin American and Caribbean market awaiting their entrance has led major US corporations to become the FTAA’s biggest promoters. The FTAA looms like a temptress for corporate acquisitiveness. A services chapter of the Agreement, for example, might well increase already existing pressure on hemispheric governments to sell public services to private foreign investors. US companies could then offer expensive health care to poor Latin Americans, rid them of public schools and offering the highest (in cost) level of private education.

Humongous corporations would also find new opportunities to take over public transport, telephone, gas, electricity, water and sewage treatment. FTAA would even encourage governments to privatize nursing homes and day care centers.The public would lose its historic property, and foreign investors would gain rights denied to local business. Indeed, after governments cede public property to private monoliths the Treaty then gives these foreign “investors” the right to sue governments that interfere with their “rights” to make profits.

For these reasons and more, tens of thousands of anti-free traders will appear in Miami to demonstrate for “fair trade.” “Free” means “free for takeover” by a handful of US banks and corporations; freedom to invest in nations with low-age labor and no “anti-business” barriers like taxes or environmental and workplace safety regulations to inhibit their profit-making proclivities.

Imperial motives have not changed over the centuries. But since they can no longer utilize the practices of past centuries (outright looting), the major “investors” now seek legal arrangements to obtain the same benefits. Instead of US marines enforcing their “rights” to profits from the third world (the Gunboat, Dollar and Good Neighbor Policies in the first part of the 20th Century), they now prefer to go to the courts. “Trade treaties” signify governments putting their “Good Housekeeping” seals of approval on business arrangements that screw the poor and the environment.

FTAA presumes non-existent levels of equality between the signing countries. During the 1993 NAFT debate, its proponents convinced Congress that Mexico merited free trade partnership with the United States and Canada because she had achieved a mature commitment to democracy and clean government. Some zealous NAFTA advocates offered fantasies in place of facts. In his July 20, 1993 Los Angeles Times column, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has Mexican President Carlos Salinas turning “Mexico on its head.” In addition to opening his country to foreign investment and free competition, Salinas “quelled corruption.”

Shortly after Kissinger wrote these words, Salinas became the focus of major scandals, including murder and a “$25 million a plate dinner.” Salinas invited those who had benefited most from his privatizing schemes to an elite dinner, where they could repay their debt to him by putting up $25 million each for the Salinas family investment fund, of course.

Kissinger, who made no comment on this affair, waxed eloquent on “a Western Hemisphere-wide free trade system — with NAFTA as the initial step.” Between 1970-3 Henry encouraged the Chilean military to unseat the freely elected Allende government. He supported the installation of the antithesis of freedom in Chile a military dictatorship. But for Kissinger NAFTA represented real freedom: “a system for global free trade based on incentives for those willing to abide by its principles and by penalties for those nations not playing by the rules.”

In 1993, Clinton came to the presidency agnostic on free trade. Most Americans at the time had not even heard of NAFTA. But Clinton quickly turned missionary on the subject and regularly preached neo-liberal doctrine at home and to Western Hemisphere leaders except for Castro, of course. Clinton tempted them with his vision of a Free Trade Area of the Americas. But between the 1994 onset of NAFTA and the planned next steps to expand “free trade,” millions of people began to understand the down side to these arrangements.

In Mexico, maquilas (foreign owned export factories) did generate growth. But in 2000, recession hit. Some maquilas closed or reduced shifts. These engines of development responded directly to US recession by cutting investment in Mexico. The 9/11/01 attacks reverberated into another hit on “free trade.” “Security” temporarily interrupted the smooth border crossings needed for successful maquila business. Meanwhile, some of the very investors who had sung Mexico’s praises for its cheap labor and lax enforcement policies on environment and worker health and safety began to move their holdings to even cheaper labor markets China.

Mexico took what the bankers call “a hit.” Tens of thousands who had left the countryside to seek work in the maquila dominated frontier cities found themselves jobless but now in a dangerous and polluted environment. In places like Ciudad Juarez, air quality has gone from very bad to absolutely terrible. Women live in a social climate dominated by the rapes and mutilations of several hundred maquila workers.

In the Southern Cone “free trade” failed even more dramatically. On December 20, 2001, the Argentine economy collapsed. Riots ensued. Banks closed. The standard of living dropped catastrophically. The government that had administered the neo-liberal model at its optimal level declared a state of siege.

In December 1998, Venezuelans, who held bloody riots in 1989 to protest IMF “free trade” schemes, ousted the traditional parties and elected anti-free trader Hugo Chavez to the presidency. Similarly, in Ecuador and Peru anti “free trade” sentiment had forced political changes.

Most importantly, Brazilians elected Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as president, a man skeptical about free trade’s benefits. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick called Lula’s representatives “won’t dos.” He referred to Brazil’s leadership role in a coalition of 22 countries against U.S. and European positions at the September 2003 World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun. From the Brazilian point of view, “systematic arrogance”–an understatement–described the US position. Until the Cancun meeting, “developed” country delegates have relied on their ability to bribe, intimidate and distract enough representatives of the poorer nations so as to break up any block such as the one formed in Cancun. The standard US position “do as I say, not as I do” don’t you dare subsidize your agriculture or steel industry as we subsidize ours — position has begun to draw fire.

In 2004, Bush sees it as an election year necessity to continue to subsidize US agribusiness and raise tariffs on selected third world imports to protect uncompetitive US industries. Brazilian exports have suffered. Bush hypocritically accused Brazil, the victim, of “dumping” goods on the subsidized US market. The US delegates, showing imperial chutzpah, also proposed that Brazil grant US investors even greater access to their national economy by allowing them into the exclusive club of government contracting. The Brazilian delegates tried to keep a veneer of calm as they made meaningless counterproposals.

US delegates now try to induce Latin American leaders to resuscitate Clinton’s tarnished utopian dream. This gang of neo-liberal fanatics has ignored the basic fact: the model doesn’t work. It has taken massive demonstrations in various cities against the very arrangements the free traders have celebrated to dramatize that fact.

In 1999, between 50 and 100 thousand anti-free traders, union members, environmentalists, small farmers, and just plain folk demonstrated at the Seattle World Trade Organization summit. Following the Seattle affair, the anti-globalization movement spread. Protests erupted at every major meeting of the unelected trade elite.Now, this unelected elite who decide on world economic arrangements, live in fear of demonstrators as well they should.

In October 2003, Bolivians rose up and at a cost of more than eighty dead kicked out their “free trade” president, Sanchez de Losada, who returned to Miami where he belonged. Under free market arrangements foreign companies like Bechtel owned Bolivian water, before the Bolivians said: “basta ya!” Perhaps, the demonstrators and the presence of the pathetic Sanchez de Losada in Miami will bring the message home to the FTAA negotiators. The movement for global justice will counter the push for corporate globalization. And all the Miami police force, making arrests as they will, cannot contain the just anger of those who represent the vast majority of the world’s population.

See Landau’s essays in Spanish on www.rprogreso.com Landau’s new book, THE PRE-EMPTIVE EMPIRE: A GUIDE TO BUSH’S KINGDOM, was just released by Pluto Press. He teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University and is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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