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 Global Perspective

May 21, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 8

global perspective
Michael Gillgannon, a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., is director of campus ministry for the Archdiocese of La Paz, Bolivia. He has been a missionary serving in Bolivia since 1974.



To learn more about the Free Trade Area of the Americas: The International Gender and Trade Network has a section on its Web site dedicated to following the FTAA. It offers some excellent resources.

Putting the brakes on free trade

Father Michael J. Gillgannon

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Latin America is learning that free trade is not as free as its snake-oil pitchmen would have us believe. And with governments here under pressure to move quickly forward with technical negotiations of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), many here are trying to put the brakes on a process that will directly affect the health care, education and cultural life of everyone in all the countries of the Americas.

The FTAA began formally during the summit of the Americas convened by President Bill Clinton in Miami in 1994. President George W. Bush endorsed it, and the U.S. Congress ratified it last year. Negotiations stalled late last year, but in mid-April, the Trade Negotiations Committee of the FTAA met in Puebla, Mexico to kick start talks.

The FTAA process is now in its third and final stage where countries are making market access requests and offers. Trade negotiators from each of the nine negotiating groups (agriculture, services, investment, intellectual property rights, government procurement, dispute settlement, subsidies, antidumping and countervailing duties, competition policy, market access) made their initial market access offers on Feb. 15 (some countries are lagging) and counteroffers are expected by June 15. It is all moving very fast.

But with the help of civil society groups -- and governments in Venezuela and Brazil -- the consequences of free trade on Latin American is becoming clearer. Mexico, after all, has begun questioning its participation in NAFTA. U.S. agricultural subsidies (Is that free trade?) are killing Mexican farmers with cheap imports while increasing the rural migration to the cities and to the United States.

For poor countries, free trade has come to mean economic colonization.

  • Pharmaceutical companies want to lock in patents on natural medicines and plants in the Amazon and Central American jungles.
  • Construction and engineering firms want to gain access to all American waterways and seas to control hydroelectric power sources and water rights for privatizing water supplies.
  • Transnational agricultural firms want to secure legal monopolies on food supplies, food production and genetic manipulation of animal and plant food sources.
  • North American communication media of all types, radio, press, TV, Internet, film, want to spread their tentacles to all the Americas.
  • Energy monopolies of oil and gas want to do the same. Manufacturers want access to maquiladora-type* assembly plants.
  • And all businesses want to eliminate labor unions and terminate national laws protecting workers' rights.

Free trade with a single powerful nation calling the shots, dotting the i's and crossing the t's of the negotiating details with its technical experts in control of the process, seems less than fair. Yes, all 34 nations have representatives on the central negotiation committee, but Latin American nations have few personnel with the knowledge and experience to study all the highly complicated technical negotiations of a treaty.

The metaphor used often in cartoons and editorials throughout Latin America about the FTAA is the red, white and blue sharks of Uncle Sam and transnational businesses and banks circling around the poor fish they would devour throughout the Americas. Harsh? Yes, but that is the popular perception south of the Rio Grande.

Veils of secrecy that shield negotiations from public scrutiny foster this perception. While paying lip service to transparency and suggestions from civil society, government and business, the structure of the negotiating process leaves the general public with little information to judge the merits of FTAA. Suspicions mount as word leaks out here and there that the FTAA will touch every aspect of life in the future of the Western Hemisphere. There are no official public information or education programs.

This public ignorance is even more prevalent in the United States, inundated by controlled "news" and media resources, than other countries of the Americas.

Thus national democratic debates among informed and concerned citizens have scarcely begun anywhere. One exception is Brazil which recently had a national referendum, co-sponsored by the Catholic Church, in which 12 million people voted against FTAA. Their new government has already asked for more input from its people and asked the United States to slow down the process as its wants to explore other opportunities of trade with Europe and Africa and its Latin American neighbors.

Bolivia will have its second national Congress on FTAA on June 6 and 7. Co-sponsored by civic, labor and campesino groups and Catholic institutions, 3,000 people are expected to attend.

There is no turning back on the commercial accords. They will go forward. But what would happen to the final agreement if one or more powerful nations say yes to it and 30 other hemispheric nations say no? Or maybe? Or not just yet? Or, yes, but let's go back to the drawing board because we feel we are being forced into an agreement that is neither free nor fair, especially for poor, weak and highly indebted nations.

The FTAA is the most important political, economic and social decision 800 million Americans will make in the 21st century. It is time democratic debate about the details got serious.

*A maquiladora is a special corporation in Mexico that can have 100% foreign investment in capital and foreign management as well as duty, customs and tax breaks.

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