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The FTAA. The Conquest Continues

On the morning of January 1, 1994, the Mexican government woke to find that an indigenous people's army called the Zapatistas had taken over several states in southern Mexico, in defiance of Neo-liberalism and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). January 1 marked the day that NAFTA would be formally implemented. The Zapatistas' uprising was to say "ya basta," enough, to the devastating effects of neo-liberalism on indigenous people, peasants, the environment, and workers. NAFTA, to the Zapatistas, was a death warrant. Now, eight years later, all 34 nations in the Western Hemisphere, except Cuba, are engaged in negotiations to expand NAFTA to the entire Western Hemisphere. This trade agreement is being called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and is expected to be implemented by 2005. Talks for this trade agreement began in Miami in December 1994, only one year after NAFTA was implemented and the Zapatistas' uprising.

This massive 34-country NAFTA expansion is being negotiated right now in secret by trade ministers from North, Central and South America and the Caribbean. The goal of the FTAA is to impose the NAFTA model of new corporate investment and patent protections, trade liberalization, deregulation, and privatisation hemisphere-wide. The FTAA draft texts are secret, but information that has leaked out reveals that many of the FTAA s chapters are literally extensions of NAFTA rules. These rules would significantly increase the power corporations would have to constrain governments from setting standards for public health and safety, to safeguard their workers, and to ensure that corporations do not pollute the communities in which they operate. Effectively, these rules would handcuff governments public interest policymaking and enhance corporate control at the expense of citizens throughout the Americas.

Nine negotiating groups have been created to produce an outline of each chapter of the agreement — for example, investment or intellectual property rights. These negotiations have been operating in almost complete secrecy, only receiving input from corporate interest groups such as the Americas Business Forum (ABF).

A Committee of Government Representatives on Civil Society was established to represent the views of civil society, but this committee is little more than a mail in-box and has no mechanism to incorporate civil society's concerns into the actual negotiations. Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown made it very clear about who is actually writing this agreement when he addressed an ABF meeting, saying that they were the leaders of the FTAA process and that the government's role was to take whatever policy steps were needed to best suit the business interests in the Hemisphere.

While these negotiations remain secret, the FTAA is expected to look very similar to NAFTA. The FTAA is expected to include a provision almost identical to NAFTA's Chapter 11, which allows corporations to sue governments directly, outside of any domestic court and before a NAFTA tribunal. These tribunals are made up of a three-person panel composed of judges picked by the opposing sides. They operate in almost complete institutional secrecy. Their actions cannot be appealed except under special circumstances, documents are restricted to the nations involved in the dispute, due process requirements are absent, citizen participation is denied, and their decisions may not be publicized unless the parties involved choose to make them public.

There have already been many cases brought to suit over non-tariff trade barriers that corporations claim are "expropriating" future profits and "violate NAFTA's Chapter 11." One case was brought to the NAFTA tribunal by the U.S.-based Ethyl Corporation. They sued Canada for $250 million after Canada banned the gasoline additive MMT because the additive posed health risks and clogged vehicles' catalytic converters. Ethyl claimed the ban violated NAFTA because it "expropriated" future profits and damaged Ethyl's reputation. After learning that the NAFTA tribunal was likely to rule against its position, the Canadian government revoked the ban, paid Ethyl $13 million, and issued a public statement declaring there was no evidence that MMT posed health or environmental risks. While there are many other cases that threaten democratic sovereignty, the environment, workers, and public safety, this case clearly shows the inherently undemocratic, unjust, and harmful policies that could be included in the FTAA.

It is also expected that the FTAA will include a "global free logging agreement" (GFLA), similar to the one proposed, but defeated, at the WTO meetings in Seattle. A global free logging agreement would be a push to increase production and sale of forest products by eliminating tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers (NTB) to all forest products. With a GFLA, U.S. laws designed to protect forests, the environment, and small locally owned mills could be challenged under the FTAA as Non-Tariff Trade Barriers (NTB). If challenged and defeated, these laws would have to be eliminated. It would increase consumption and production of forest products, increase unsustainable logging, threaten eco-labelling laws and laws requiring recycled content, tie the hands of people reforming current unsustainable practices, and would be the silver bullet that would allow corporations to decimate the last of the world's endangered native forests.

The Zapatistas were right when they said that NAFTA was a death warrant for indigenous peoples, the environment, and workers. In the last five years "...conditions not only have not improved, they have deteriorated in many areas. As a result, on each of the issues examined, the only fair grade for NAFTA is a failing one..." according to a Public Citizen five-year report card on NAFTA.

Public Citizen's investigation found that NAFTA has transformed the U.S. $1.7 billion trade surplus with Mexico in 1993 into a projected $14.7 billion deficit for 1998. According to the U.S. Department of Labour, approximately 214,902 American workers have been certified under one narrow program as having been laid off due to NAFTA. NAFTA has created an environment which allows corporations to fight union organising here in America by threatening to relocate to Mexico, while corporations operating in Mexico's maquiladora (sweatshop) zones won't even allow unions and often fire anyone who complains. The lure of weaker labour and environmental laws has induced U.S. corporations to relocate to Mexico, taking away jobs from the U.S. and exploiting Mexican workers.

NAFTA leverages Mexican workers against each other for who will accept the least pay and worst working conditions. With the FTAA, workers in Mexico will be leveraged against even more desperate workers in Haiti, Guatemala, Brazil, or any of the other 34 nations involved in the FTAA.

According to Public Citizen, by 1997, an estimated 28,000 small businesses in Mexico had been destroyed by competition with foreign multinationals and their Mexican partners. Eight million Mexicans have been pushed out of the middle class and into poverty. Maquiladoras have increased by 37% since 1993. Every day, 44 tons of hazardous waste is disposed of improperly. NAFTA has weakened food safety inspections. Strawberries, head lettuce, and carrots from Mexico have violation rates of 18.4%, 15.6% and 12.3%, respectively, for illegal pesticide residues.

While the WTO, NAFTA, IMF, and World Bank are already planted firmly in the global economy, the FTAA is still being negotiated and is, therefore, much more vulnerable. This can be illustrated by the defeat of the Multi-Lateral Agreement on Investment, which collapsed due to citizen and congressional opposition. A massive resistance of environmental, labour, healthcare, human rights, farm, and consumer groups can and will stop the FTAA, but only if the resistance is diverse enough and united firmly in its common interests. Our strength lies in the alliances we form between these groups and across borders. The alternatives we build along the way will not only fight the FTAA more effectively, but will give us strength on the long road ahead as we confront every form of oppression that controls our lives. | alca | Plan Puebla-Panamá |