Next Friday, trade ministers from the 34 countries
negotiating the Free Trade Area of the Americas
will meet in Buenos Aires. Many in Latin America predict that the ministers will be greeted with
protests much larger than the ones that exploded in Seattle in 1999.
The FTAA's cheerleaders like to pretend that
their only critics are white college kids from Harvard
and McGill who just don't understand how much "the poor" are "clamouring" for the FTAA. Will this
public display of Latin American opposition to the trade deal change all that?
Don't be silly.
Mass protests in the developing world don't
register in our discussions about trade in the West. No
matter how many people take to the streets of Buenos Aires, Mexico City or Sao Paulo, defenders
of corporate-driven globalization just keep on insisting that every possible objection lobbed their
way was dreamed up in Seattle, by somebody with newly matted dreadlocks slurping a latte.
When we talk about trade, we often focus on
who is getting richer and who is getting poorer. But
there is another divide at play: which countries are presented as diverse, complicated political
landscapes where citizens have a range of divergent views, and which countries seem to speak on
the world stage in an ideological monotone.
In North America, we are finally hearing the
debates about whether or not more of the same model
of deregulation, privatization and liberalization will protect our heath and education and water
systems. In Western Europe, the foot-and-mouth inferno is putting the entire model of
export-oriented industrial agriculture on trial.
And yet such diversity of public opinion is
rarely attributed to citizens of Third Word countries.
Instead, they are lumped into one homogenous voice, channelled by dubiously elected politicians
or, better yet, ousted ones such as Mexico's Ernesto Zedillo, now calling for a global campaign
The truth is that no one can speak on behalf
of Latin America's 500 million inhabitants, least of all
Mr. Zedillo, whose defeat was in part a repudiation of NAFTA's record. All over the Americas,
market liberalization is a subject of extreme dispute. The debate is not over whether foreign
investment and trade are desirable -- Latin America and the Caribbean are already organized into
regional trading blocs such as Mercosur. The debate is about democracy: what terms and
conditions will poor countries be told they must meet in order to qualify for trade and investment?
For the past two decades, these terms and conditions
have been negotiated and enforced by the
IMF and the World Bank in exchange for loans. Social services have been privatized, user fees
introduced, agricultural subsidies cut (while richer countries kept theirs), hard-won
land-redistribution programs abandoned, and minimum wage controlled -- all in the name of
becoming "investment ready."
Argentina, the host of next week's FTAA meeting,
is currently in open revolt over massive cuts to
social spending -- almost $8-billion (U.S.) over three years -- that have been introduced in order to
qualify for an IMF loan package. Last week, three cabinet ministers resigned, unions staged a
general strike, and university instructors moved their classes to the streets.
Though anger at wrenching austerity measures has focused primarily on the IMF, it is rapidly
expanding to encompass trade deals such as the proposed FTAA. The Zapatistas began their
uprising on Jan. 1, 1994 -- the day the North American free-trade agreement came into force.
Seven years later, three-quarters of the population of Mexico live in poverty, real wages are lower
than they were in 1994, and unemployment is rising. No wonder the Zapatistas were able to draw
150,000 supporters to the streets of Mexico City earlier this month.
And despite the claims that the rest of Latin
America is clamouring for a NAFTA to call its own, the
central labour associations of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay -- representing 20 million
workers -- have come out against the plan. They are now calling for countrywide referendums on
membership in the FTAA.
Brazil, meanwhile, has threatened to boycott
the summit altogether, furious at Canada's dirty trade
war and wary that the FTAA will contain protections for drug companies that will threaten its
visionary public health policy of providing free generic AIDS drugs to anyone who needs them.
Defenders of free trade would have us believe
in a facile equation of trade = democracy. The
people who will greet our trade ministers on the streets of Buenos Aires next week are posing a
more complex, and challenging, calculation: how much democracy should they be asked to give up
in exchange for trade?