Free trade not what it seems

If you are a Kmart shopper or a rancher in Montana; a mom and dad wondering about what the kids will do once they finish school; or a retiree, worried about pension and health care, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is not for you.

Trade is not one of those issues folks talk about during the commercial breaks of Monday Night Football, but it affects everything from clothes to prescription drugs to the frustrating phone menus encountered when tracking down a manufacturer’s warranty.

“Negotiated behind closed doors with little citizen input but plenty of suggestions from corporations, FTAA is yet another example of the kind of free market fundamentalism that has created a global race to the bottom that erodes environmental protection, workers’ livelihoods and human rights,” according to San Francisco-based Global Exchange, founded in 1988 to monitor and organize around international trade and environmental issues.

Since 1988, fair trade coalitions have popped up across the country. Most are union-based and bring together environmentalists, small businesses, farmers and elected officials. In 1999, the streets of Seattle, then hosting the World Trade Organization meetings, saw thousands of “turtles and Teamsters” demanding fair trade, not free trade.

Last February, the AFL-CIO called on workers to oppose FTAA and urged their participation in demonstrations against the FTAA meeting in Miami on Nov. 20-21. “The ministerial in Miami (the FTAA meeting of representatives from all Western Hemisphere countries, except Cuba), and the elections in 2004 provide important opportunities to defeat the flawed FTAA,” the 13-million-member organization said.

The Northern American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) lifted many trade restrictions between the U.S., Canada and Mexico and has been in effect since 1993, so critics of FTAA are not just studying the fine print of a complicated trade agreement. FTAA is based on NAFTA and it expands the treaty across the entire Western Hemisphere.

FTAA is just another way to spell layoff and plant closing for working families. NAFTA cost the jobs of 765,000 working US families. When workers found new jobs, they earned 2 percent less than their previous jobs. In Mexico, workers’ wages fell by 21 percent and, according to a study at Cornell University, the jobs of 280,000 Mexican workers vanished. The treaty not only left unemployment and wage cuts in its wake, it left toxic waste and pollution along the US/ Mexico border where hepatitis and birth defects have skyrocketed.

Bethany Weidner is part of a caravan that left Washington State in September. In her online journal, she reports an interview with a rancher in Meadows, S.D. In a video, planned for showing in Miami, the rancher says as a result of NAFTA, the price of beef dropped from 87 cents a pound to 38 cents, far below the cost of production. FTAA, he says, will only benefit corporations, drive ranchers off their land, and destroy small farming communities. Steelworkers are on the bus making its way to Florida, as are human rights activists and environmentalists. There are rallies, meetings and potluck suppers all along the 3,000-mile trip.

In its current form, FTAA contains language that would “liberalize” services, including public schools, energy, health care, postal delivery and water utilities. “Liberalize” in this context means privatization. Whereas NAFTA only applied to three countries, FTAA would allow private corporations to raid public services in 34 countries.

The Rainforest Action Network, Global Exchange and the Student Environmental Coalition left George Washington University in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 25 in a “Stop FTAA/On to Miami” roadshow. Their 10 scheduled stops, from New England to Pennsylvania, are aimed at building understanding of a complicated issue and mobilizing students and professors to come to Miami.

Rev. Lucy Hitchcock Seek, 62, of the Unitarian Church in Miami is one of hundreds organizing to greet activists as they roll into Miami. “We don’t have economic democracy in this world,” she told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, “because corporations have taken more and more of the power to the point where, in some cases, they have more power than nations. Join the march in Miami. It’s our chance to say: ‘This needs to change. It’s affecting our lives, our children, our land and our souls.’”