Column: Free trade vs. democracy

As the war in Iraq monopolizes television screens and newspaper headlines in the U.S., other world news has been shoved to the sidelines. It is the concern of many citizens’ groups that other important issues that need to be addressed by all thoughtful and ethical people across this country are being ignored as the war takes center stage. A prime example is American policy in Latin America as our government pushes for the enactment of the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Few people in the United States are aware of it, but this free-trade agreement is being negotiated between all the governments of the Americas (except Cuba). It would expand a free market zone across the entire hemisphere, similar to the one that currently exists between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) would strengthen and extend the more modest North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to the entire Western Hemisphere and would even go beyond some policies of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Champions of the FTAA, such as U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, argue this free-trade zone would enhance the economic opportunities of smaller countries, stimulate economic growth for all and reduce poverty.

However, the very people who are supposed to benefit from the FTAA – people of all countries, cultures and classes across Latin America – are severely opposed to any such measure. They see it as another undemocratic imposition of unfair trade rules that will benefit foreign corporations and bring more hardship to poor communities. Citizens are concerned that the FTAA will reduce each country’s national sovereignty and make it harder to protect the health and safety of communities and the environment and hinder services such as education. This would undermine people’s power over their own communities and resources. Many also feel agreements such as the FTAA will promote one specific economic worldview upon an incredible variety of people, cultures and worldviews. They fear that this kind of policy would reduce the diverse cultural understandings of development and democracy that currently exist.

Their fears are not unfounded. The newest wave of trade liberalization has little to do with traditional economic issues such as tariffs and duties. The latest agreements come in an age when trade in the Americas is already significantly liberalized. What the new agreement tackles are non-traditional barriers to trade that limit investment and trade. What are these barriers? Often they are policies such as sanitation and product safety regulations, worker protection laws and environmental defense legislation. People across this hemisphere know the removal of such protection for the sake of increased commerce will spell disaster rather than prosperity for their communities. Evidence shows similar clauses in NAFTA have brought environmental destruction, lower labor standards and greater inequality even as corporate profits from increased trade grew for a tiny portion of the population. What is worse, the effects have been just as bad in the United States as they have been in Canada and Mexico in the decade that NAFTA has been in effect.

It seems undeniable that reckless trade liberalization as proposed in the FTAA will seriously harm the lives of many people. Hundreds of thousands of people from across the hemisphere are now actively organizing to defeat the FTAA and similar corporate-driven reckless measures for the sake of their communities and their human rights.

This weekend alone, 400 people from across the United States came together for the annual Latin America Solidarity Conference in a St. Aloysius Church near Union Station for a weekend of workshops, lectures and activities on this issue. The participants came away from the event with a renewed commitment to resist the harmful effects of unchecked free trade and more students should join this effort.

-The writer is a junior majoring in international affairs.

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