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The deal was forged behind closed doors in North America's only walled city.

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Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, left, Panamanian President Mireya Morosco, U.S. President Bush. Quebec City, Canada, Sat., April 21, 2001. Jacques Boissinot


Viva La Fast Track!

by Kelly Cogswell

April 24, 2001. The Americas free trade train left the station on Sunday in Quebec when Western Hemisphere leaders signed an agreement to open their markets by December 2005.

Only countries with democratic governments, however papery, can be a part of the 800 million-people common market known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). But if George W. Bush gets the fast-track negotiating power that Congress denied Bill Clinton, the train itself may steamroll fragile Latin American democracies into oblivion.

Setting the Tone
The deal was forged behind closed doors in North America's only walled city. Legislators, and environmental and human rights groups from the 34 American countries in attendance were shut out, though trade bureaucrats and un-elected corporations were well represented.

While the FTAA's organizing body has agreed to publicly release a 'blueprint' for the agreement, it is no substitute for the real thing, particularly when thirteen years after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was approved, the actual details of that deal are still unknown.

The whole FTAA deal will be even further removed from the realm of the lowly U.S. citizenry if Bush gets fast-track authority. Congress will only be able to approve or reject, not amend, any FTAA-related trade treaty Bush brings it. In other words, our duly elected officials will be circumvented, left only with veto power.

Trade: The New Gunboat Diplomacy
But the chief problem of an Americas open market is the current gargantuan economic gap between the U.S. and the 33 other participating American countries. The fast-tracked FTAA will likely be dominated by the United States, and, for the foreseeable future, the very corporate-friendly, and labor and environmentally-challenged George W. Bush. This sets the stage for stepped-up bullying of poorer countries by the United States.

Just last week the U.S. indulged in a good, old-fashioned display of arm-twisting and veiled threats to win a rebuke of Cuba at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Most Latin American governments think that both Cuba and the U.S. should be censored—the former for human rights violations, the latter for the punitive 41-year economic embargo it has inflicted on the island.

Uruguay's Foreign Affairs Minister reportedly got an eleventh hour phone call from Colin Powell himself, linking a bilateral trade agreement to Uruguay's vote. "The only thing that Uruguay can bring to the table are political concessions... What else can Uruguay offer [the U.S.]?" an unidentified diplomatic source told the Montevideo daily La República.

Uruguay caved, even when it had officially condemned the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Before the vote, thousands of people took to the streets in Montevideo denouncing the expected Uruguayan flip-flop and the U.S.'s "pathological inability to accept Cuba as an independent nation."

Also voting with the U.S. were Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Argentina, which is once more on the brink of financial meltdown—a condition probably requiring Washington's bailout largesse in the near future. Cuba and Venezuela voted against. Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru abstained. Not because of lack of concern over Cuba's human rights violations, but, as Mexico's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Liliana Ferrer put it, because the U.S.-backed motion was too "unilateral, selective, and politicized."

This kind of big stick politics in the FTAA will erode Latin America's struggling democracies, and destabilize the region if, as in the past, the regular humiliations of weaker nations by the voraciously self-interested U.S. fuels a new round of nationalist movements. In other words, a U.S.-controlled FTAA handing down unfair, non-negotiable regulations forged in secrecy could spur violence instead of development and democracy.

NAFTA-ize Me, Please!
Despite all the perils, demonizing globalization and the trade bloc frenzy it has spawned remains far more popular in the U.S. and Canada than South of the border, where small, economically struggling countries face astronomical unemployment rates. It's not that the prospect of globalization doesn't stir up a myriad of anxieties; it's that, with the socialist utopia dead, and state economic intervention discredited, there's no other game in town.

The only way to square the circle, improving trade without crushing democracies, is to follow the relatively successful lead of the European Union, which addressed many of the problems by establishing an elected governing body, commissions for the environment and human rights, and a judiciary. The EU, insofar as is possible in any union, also tries to respect each nation's sovereignty and culture.

The first step in the U.S. is to pressure Congress to deny Bush what it denied Clinton, the fast-track negotiating powers, and to demand for the FTAA what any real democracy requires: transparency, representation, accountability, equality, participation.

Related links:

For Naomi Klein's article on the FTAA and globalization Cut the blah blah blah, The Guardian (UK).

For a Brazilian view of U.S. agricultural protectionism: FTAA Seed Of Discord.

For the Toronto Star's Public should have a vote on trade deal.

For Complete Coverage Americas

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