Quebec City Questions
by James Hall
In Quebec City last week, behind chain link fences, ranks of armored police, and clouds of tear gas, the hemisphere's leaders got together to plan our economic future--in secret, behind closed doors. Demonstrators managed to breach some of the barriers around the convention center hosting this Summit of the Americas, canceling a few meetings, but no one has breached the secrecy behind the deals made here. If this kind of free trade is the panacea that economic neo-liberals say it is, why must the details be worked out behind closed doors between bureaucrats and corporate lobbyists?
The vision of for a hemispheric free trade zone became clear shortly after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was approved in 1993. Clinton Administration officials met with the hemisphere's trade ministers in Miami in 1994, but momentum for a Free Trade Agreement for the Americas (FTAA) really began with talks in Santiago, Chile in 1998. Quiet negotiations have been ongoing since, all of them in secrecy and without feedback from most of us whose future would be directly affected by FTAA.
The Summit of the Americas in Quebec City is about finalizing the first working draft of FTAA for a 2005 inauguration date. While neither Congress nor the American people have been involved in these discussions, corporate lobbyists have been omnipresent all along in the process. Expect the results, when they're made public, to reflect the heavy corporate bias of NAFTA, an agreement without any significant rules governing fair labor, health and safety, family farms and environmental concerns. It's an agreement made by and for Big Business.
Proponents of FTAA are advancing the usual arguments for a free trade zone that would stretch from the Alaska's North Slope to Tierra del Fuego. Free trade will create more American jobs. Free trade will raise living standards in poor nations. Free trade will encourage democracy.
But these arguments are harder to make after eight years of NAFTA. NAFTA cost the US almost 400,000 good jobs, replacing them with work paying on average 77% of the lost wages. Some 400 US plants closed and moved south in a five year period. In Mexico, which was supposed to prosper under NAFTA, 8 million families have slipped from the middle to lower class, and 1 million Mexicans work for wages below Mexico's own minimum wage.
Going south also are labor, health, and environmental standards. Corporations setting up in the maquiladoras zone along the US-Mexico border routinely violate toothless Mexican labor laws. Wages in the maquiladoras have actually declined since NAFTA was created; workers live in packing crates amid inadequately treated pollution has increased hepatitis and birth defects there. DDT and dioxins have been found in Mexican strawberries and tomatoes going north to American markets. These are the 'successes' of NAFTA that some want to extend to Central and South America.
The opportunity to liberalize noncompetitive trade barriers in the Western Hemisphere is significant and ought to be pursued. But signing another NAFTA-style treaty would be a mistake, both for advanced economies like those in the US and Canada, and for struggling economies like Mexico's or Peru's. NAFTA could be considerably improved by placing stringent, enforceable standards that give workers the right to organize and strike, and by insisting that health and safety and environmental standards be observed, not sacrificed to a lower price for a tomato or an automobile fender.
Congress must decline to give a pro-corporate President Bush carte blanche to create FTAA and should itself set stringent standards for new trade deals. It can start by insisting that the process to create future trade agreements be transparent, and include input from labor, farmers, environmentalists, and average Americans as well as corporate lobbyists. We can best start by repairing NAFTA's glaring deficiencies and then moving towards FTAA when things are working as they were promised.
For a brief time on Friday, the fences of Quebec City were down and the bureaucrats and lobbyists were scrambling in the open. Let's keep them scrambling by saying "no" to this product of smoke-filled rooms. FTAA? No, thank you.
© 2001 James Hall