Exploitation is hardly a new phenomenon in Latin America. From the earliest days of conquest and colonization, the southern regions of the western hemisphere were violated and transformed by Europeans for the sole purpose of reaping indigenous riches, both mineral and manual. While the forces of Imperialism changed hands from Europeans and their offspring to North Americans and their evasive transnational corporations, the facts remained the same. In the eyes of powerful foreign forces, Latin America exists as a resource deposit ripe for the plucking, its people to be used for labor when needed, but ignored when economic downfalls cause or intensify their poverty and strife.
With such a history, the Free Trade Area of the Americas should cause no shock. An agreement written in the heart of the current land of domination, penned not by governments but by the same corporate heads who seek its riches, approved by the financial institutions which have wreaked decades of havoc with forced economic experimentation, the FTAA proposes to further open the vaults to Latin American countries, allowing greater profits for the heirs of centuries of aggressive extraction.
This time, however, Latin America may not be able to withstand such an assault. While the continental plundering has persisted for centuries, the exacerbation of poverty resulting from neoliberal strategies is immense, and acceleration of current trends through the FTAA would be devastating.
A great degree of the misery in which Latin Americans currently find themselves stems from massive debts, borrow-to-pay structures which usually call for around 20% of a countryâ€™s GDP to be paid to the International Monetary Fund or private banks. The centuries-old debt cycle accelerated and further dominated Latin America through a cruel turn of events in the oil market between 1973 and 1979. Tens of billions of dollars were pumped into the region at low or even negative interest rates which soon skyrocketed, leaving countries with an unfathomable and impossible legacy of payments.
This crisis turned out to be a blessing in disguise for international financial institutions, as their new powerful status coincided with an economic paradigm shift towards liberalization and the rule of the free market. In order to continue providing the loans now necessary to keep up with existing payments, countries were forced to gut their national structures entirely, selling off virtually all industries, infrastructures, and institutions to private foreign buyers, and to dissolve what little social programs existed.
As loan conditions were acted on, poverty and unemployment rose at unprecedented rates. Across Latin America, poverty, inequality and unemployment are on the rise. The slums of urban areas continue to grow, and an average of 48% of rural Latin Americans live in extreme poverty; in Guatemala, Honduras and Bolivia, over 70% of the entire population is impoverished. Long preceding the North American large-scale public awakening and opposition to the policies of lending powers, Latin America experienced dozens of â€œIMF riotsâ€ beginning in the early 1980s, as hundreds of thousands of people opposed each new wave of austerity measures.
In Argentina, IMF-imposed conditions brought the country to financial standstill. Widespread poverty and disappeared savings led the middle- and lower-classes to topple three successive presidents in December of 2001. A crisis in the legitimacy of foreign financers and submissive governments threatens the social structure and economic future of the nation. In Colombia, around 20% of the population is unemployed, and loan conditionality since 1999 has only led to further job cuts in this country already terrorized by decades of war. The demands of oil corporations and large-scale agriculture come before the dying population or hopes of peace.
How can a Free Trade Area of the Americas benefit Latin America? It is imposed under threat of even worse economic punishment, a long-time favorite negotiating tool of the United States government; it has been composed by the same pirate institutions that bleed country after country; and the conditions for its implementation ensure a continuation of the same measures which have ravaged the continent for decades. If the FTAA is to be actualized, it will be at the cost of human suffering and to the detriment of regional political and economic stability.