Food, Trade, and US Power Politics in Latin America


The difference between what Bush officials say to Congress and the pap they feed foreign audiences makes interesting reading for anyone trying to figure out US government rhetoric on Latin America. The account rendered by US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick to Congress is very different from the one offered in speeches by US Representative to the Organization of American States John Maisto. Beyond these texts and pretexts, the US acts to dominate events in Latin America combining diplomacy and foreign aid with trade and economic pressure, all ultimately backed up by the threat of ruthless covert or overt military force.


How it’s done


Dumped food and attendant “aid” measures soften up recipient countries by distorting a country’s domestic agricultural economy. Military and economic aid props up compliant regimes. Central America’s history is replete with examples of this use of “aid”. Witholding aid – or threatening to – tightens the screws on governments the US deems recalcitrant. That pressure is usually complemented by economic sanctions and incentives applied both bilaterally and through US proxies like the World Bank, the IMF and the Inter-American Development Bank.


In that context, trade negotiations like the Central America Free Trade Agreement are put like a pistol to the heads of governments. Trade negotiators find their minds concentrated under the threat of their government losing US aid or concessionary World Bank or Inter American Development Bank loans and IMF balance of payments support. To help things along where necessary, an election can be swayed or rigged or a crisis engineered with funding from the National Endowment for Democracy or other State Department or CIA catspaws assisted by timely interventions from the local US ambassador. When all else fails vicious military action is readily mounted, either covertly staged as in Nicaragua and this year in Haiti or else overtly imposed as in Grenada or Panama.


How it’s dressed up


The whole gamut of coercion is generally reported by compliant news media as if they were speech writers for George Bush or John Maisto, It is often hard to tell the difference. These quotes happen to be from Maisto, but the language they use could come from editorals in newspapers either side of the Atlantic. “The President’s policies in the Western Hemisphere are grounded in basic American ideals and values. President Bush’s emphasis is on promoting democracy and human rights and strengthening democratic institutions to make them more credible and relevant for individual citizens; on advancing trade and investment as engines for economic growth and job creation……”1 Or, “We must continue to advocate policies that have a proven record of success : free-market reform, respect for the rule of law, the right to property, and sound macroeconomic principles.”2 Maisto’s assertion of such hypocritical nonsense is consistently given a free ride by mainstream journalists in the US and elsewhere.


Never mind FTAA-lite. Try Empire-heavy…..


Meanwhile, to Congress, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick tells it like it is, “Day-in and day-out, all around the world, the U.S. government is working aggressively to make sure barriers to U.S. goods and services are removed……Our new and pending FTA partners represent America’s third largest export market — these FTAs are stripping away trade barriers across-the-board, market-by-market, and expanding American opportunities……. Enforcement of existing trade agreements is a vital complement to producing new ones. Indeed, enforcement is inherently connected to the process of negotiating new agreements……Virtually everything USTR does is connected with enforcement in some way. Negotiations to open markets and enforcement are two sides of the same coin.” 3


Zoellick’s report to Congress lists what the the US Trade representative views as unfair trade barriers and practices to American exports of goods, services, and farm products around the world. It covers 58 countries. No one reading it can have any illusions that the primary purpose of all the US phony “free trade” deals is to break open markets for US and foreign (Zoellick’s links to the multinational Vivendi are relevant here) multinational corporations – permanently, especially as regards food and energy resources. It is impossible to make sense of events in Venezuela and Colombia or anywhere else in Latin America without realizing that the ultimate goal of current US policy in Latin America is to render national sovereignty completely obsolete – except for the United States.


Food sovereignty


Many writers from around the world see the issue of food sovereignty as equally if not more important than sovereignty over energy resources. Some have put the reality of US and European hypocrisy on food very succinctly “Both America and the EU have a protection built in, and it is called the Peace Clause. The Peace Clause was put into what is called the Blair House Accord at the time of the original WTO negotiations. It actually exempted the European Union and America from reducing their subsidies until December 31, 2003. For instance, India cannot take America to the dispute panel, saying that your cheaper food is destroying our agriculture. At the same time, having built this ring of protection around their own agriculture, they have made sure that the developing countries have phased out their tariff barriers and other protections. So we have no tariff barriers left, and we’ve become a dumping ground.”4




Now the Peace Clause is replaced by technical talk about the “Singapore issues”, “green” and “blue” boxes of trade areas the EU and the US want exempt from World Trade Organization anti-protectionist rules. In Latin America, opponents of the Free Trade Area of the Americas are not fooled. They are just as clear as Devinder Sharma.


Here is Colombian Senator Jorge Robledo Castillo: “A nation whose food supply was located somewhere else in the world stands to lose if for some reason it cannot be made available for domestic consumption. Ultimately this is the key reason — to which all others are subordinate no matter how important they may seem– that explains why the 29 richest countries in the world spend 370 billion dollars annually in agricultural subsidies. This figure has been continually increasing for decades and, in the nineties, grew by 50 billion dollars. ……That’s why the pleading of some people who, in the midst of the process of globalization, are asking the US and other powers to eliminate subsidies and other protective measures toward their farmers and stockbreeders and suggesting that Third World countries become the food suppliers are totally naïve.”5


People at all levels across Latin America see this very clearly. A spokesperson for the Movement of Landless Workers in Brazil, states, “The principal base for forging a free, sovereign people is that it has the conditions to produce its own food. If a country becomes dependent on another in order to feed its people it becomes a dependent nation politically, economically and ideologically.”6




Worrying about the GM Frankenstein Monster




Within the broader concern in Latin America about food sovereignty, anxiety about genetically manipulated foods is acute. Writers like Elizabeth Bravo of Ecuador’s Acción Ecológica have analysed what the FTAA would mean in terms of the ability of US multinationals like Monsanto and Dupont to penalise local agriculture by enforcing Intellectual Property Rights on plants and seeds through patents and related ownership rights. She argues this will introduce monopoly rights into the food production system, limit the free movement of seeds, increase erosion of genetic resources and force farmers to pay royalties on the seed they use, thus generally increasing food prices.




She goes on to point out that, even without broaching the ethical monstrosity of patenting life forms, these attempts to prioritise the agenda of the agribusiness multinationals will lead to monocultivation and eliminate small farmers. Latin American agriculture will become more insecure the more it comes to rely on foreign, especially United States, technology.7 Looking further afield, one has only to consider a country like Honduras to see where the “free trade” model leads: abject dependency, widespread poverty. massive unemployment.




The Case of Argentina




Argentina offers a vision of the possible nightmare future for agriculture and food production in Latin America. Gutted financially after embracing the great neo-liberal economic confidence trick through the 1990s, now Argentina faces the consequences of selling out its food sovereignty to foreign multinationals. These excerpts from an article by Alberto Lapolla are worth quoting at length.




“Our people suffers the greatest punishment in its history. 55 children, 35 adults and 15 older people die daily through hunger related causes. That is 450,000 people between 1990 and 2003, a true economic genocide. 2O million people out of a population of 38 million live below the poverty line. Six million are indigent, suffering extreme hunger, and nearly four and a half million are unemployed.




Nonetheless Argentina has the highest per capita food production in the world with more than 70 million tons of grain and 56 million head of cattle, a similar number of sheep and likewise of pigs – a food production of three tons per person each year. However, that mass of food products bears witness to the greatest hunger and social genocide in our history.




This brutal process of social vindictiveness serves as an example for the rest of the world’s peoples, who can see in situ the role played by transgenic crops, publicised by Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont and the rest of the multinational owners of biotechnology, as a panacea to alleviate human hunger.




The hunger of the Argentine people, its thousands of children dead of hunger, its old people dead from hunger, the millions of impoverished people sorting through rubbish seeking something to eat are the clearest and most categorical demonstration of the true effects of transgenic crops on people’s economies.




This year, Argentina will produce 34.5 millon tons of transgenic soya (50% ot the grain total) on 14 million hectares (54% of cultivated land). 99% of this soya is transgenic, destined to feed cattle in the European Union and China. They then export that beef to markets that no longer import Argentine beef because our open range cattle production has been affected by the uncontrolled expansion of transgenic soya production. So the government produces export commodities instead of food and industrial products so as to get foreign exchange in order to pay illegitimate foreign debt.”8




The Venezuelan case – a strong whiff of US imperial inconsistency?




Argentina’s case is salutary and ominous for the rest of Latin America and casts a different perspective on the case of Venezuela. Looking back again at the US Trade Representative’s report to Congress this year, Robert Zoellick’s indictment of Venezuela’s trade felonies goes on for six pages. Among the charges:






  • Venezuela’s use of tariffs under the Andean Community’s price-band system to protect prices of feed grains, oilseeds, oilseed products, sugar, rice, wheat, milk, pork, poultry and yellow corn.



  • its non-legislated system of guaranteed minimum prices and the discretioanry use of import licenses and permits to protect domestic white corn, sorghum, soybean meal, yellow grease, pork, poultry, oilseeds, and some dairy products.




  • the requirement that importers obtain sanitary and phytosanitary permits for agricultural and pharmaceutical (including veterinary) imports.



  • state controlled purchases of basic food products like sugar, rice, wheat flour, black beans, milk powder, edible oil, margarine, poultry, and eggs from a variety of countries.




  • support through tax credits for exporters of coffee, cocoa, some fruits and certain seafood products




It’s not just Venezuela’s energy resources the US has its eyes on. It wants Venezuela’s example to the rest of Latin America on food sovereignty destroyed as well. Negotiations with Colombia on a trade-in-your-sovereignty deal are scheduled to start on May 18th. Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia won`t be far behind. Plenty of people in those countries can see very clearly how “free trade” fraud will bring them misery and penury.




Whether their governments care very much is moot. Robert Zoellick and his team are likely to coerce a deal out of them regardless. Nor is it mere coincidence that the US is simultaneously consolidating and extending its network of military bases throughout the region. Unless the US finds a way to make Venezuela comply with the FTAA, other countries may ask why they have to sign up to free trade deals that damage the interests of the poor majority.




Under Bush or under Kerry, it will make no difference. Time and credit are running out for the United States. It has to consolidate its control of the Americas so as to defend its economic position against Asia and Europe. The US will do everything, including promoting covert internal terrorism and, externally, fomenting war between Colombia and Venezuela, to destroy Venezuela’s sovereignty by insisting on a “peace-keeping” intervention. The reason is simple. Along with Cuba, Venezuela is steadily working out an indigenous, viable alternative that the US cannot permit the rest of Latin America to copy.





1Remarks by Ambassador John F. Maisto upon being sworn in as U.S. Permanent Representative to the Organization of American States September 16, 2003 Benjamin Franklin Room, U.S. Department of State



2Address by Ambassador John F. Maisto, U.S. Permanent Representative to the OAS and National Coordinator for the Summit of the Americas Process ANDEAN DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION VII ANNUAL CONFERENCE ON TRADE AND INVESTMENT IN THE AMERICAS Washington, DC September 11, 2003



3April 1, 2004 USTR Releases 2004 Inventory of Foreign Trade Barriers Market by Market, U.S. Free Trade Pacts Complement Global Efforts to Reduce U.S. Export Barriers



4“Food as Political Weapon” by Devinder Sharma, Acres U.S.A, March 03, 2004



5GLOBALIZATION AND NATIONAL FOOD SECURITY, Jorge Enrique Robledo Castillo, Seminar on Rural Development and Food Security, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá, November 6-7, 2001



6“Un pueblo sin soberanía alimentaria es un pueblo esclavo, dependiente” João Pedro Stédile, of Movimiento de los Trabajadores Sin Tierra (MST) interviewed by Luis Hernández Navarro 27 de agosto de 2003 (Página Abierta, nº 141, October 2003)



7“Ecuador: el ALCA y la soberanía alimentaria” Elizabeth Bravo, Acción Ecológica, 25/11/2003



8“Argentina: del granero del mundo al hambre generalizado, de la mano del monocultivo de soja transgénica” Alberto Jorge Lapolla, Rebelión, 31 de marzo del 2004

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