NAFTA meeting produces disappointment

The three heads of government of the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) countries recently met in Guadalajara, Mexico. The net result of the meeting among Mexican President Felipe Calderon, U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is frustration and disappointment in all three countries.

The Guadalajara meeting took place under the auspices of the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) of North America, an entity cooked up by the George W. Bush administration with the purpose of adding a “security” dimension to the NAFTA economic pact. Under the terms of the SPP, the United States has being supplying Mexico with military aid to fight its war against the violent drug cartels that have kept many regions of the country in turmoil over the last couple of years. This aid package, called the Merida Initiative, is supposed to be monitored by US and Mexican legislators to make sure that it does not result in violations of human rights. In fact, Mexican and international human rights organizations have documented that since President Calderon unleashed 45,000 army troops into the midst of the drug war, human rights complaints, ranging from harassment of citizens to murder, have risen 600 percent. Just before the Guadalajara meeting, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, blocked the release of some Merida Initiative funds because he found that the State Department's report on the human rights situation not to be credible. This annoyed the Calderon government.

At the same time, the Canadian government has recently imposed visa requirements on Mexicans visiting Canada on the grounds that too many Mexicans were entering Canada without visas and then asking for political asylum. This action by Harper's government annoyed Mexicans across the political spectrum, and the Mexican government subsequently imposed its own visa requirements on Canadian diplomats as retaliation.

During the 2008 presidential election campaign, then Senator Obama had criticized NAFTA both because of its impact on U.S. industrial jobs and its displacement of Mexican farmers who can't compete with taxpayer subsidized grain imports from the US and end up becoming undocumented workers in the U.S. as a result. He had talked about renegotiating NAFTA, but both of his colleagues in Guadalajara are right-wing, free trade fanatics and will not budge on this even under pressure from their own workers and small farmers. Harper and other right-wing Canadian figures had threatened that if Obama as president tried to re-open NAFTA negotiations they would push for Canada to be paid much better for its oil, natural gas, water and timber exports to the United States.

So, in spite of smiles and diplomatic niceties, the three leaders met in an atmosphere of tension and disunity in NAFTA. Mexico attended with an agenda of keeping the Merida Initiative aid flowing, solving the problem of undocumented immigrants in the United States, and getting Canada to revoke the visa requirements. The Mexican government is also upset by the U.S. Congress' curtailment of a program that allowed Mexican truckers to operate within the United States. Another irritation is that two requests Mexico has made to the United States to help fight the cartels, namely to crack down on the free sale of high powered weapons in the United States and to work to reduce the number of drug users, have not been acted on, the former because of the power in the US of the National Rifle Association and its supporters. Canada and Mexico both came to the meeting adamantly opposed to re-opening NAFTA negotiations, in spite of massive protests by Mexican farmers and Canadian workers asking for this (the Mexican left organized protests in Guadalajara during the meeting, demanding the renegotiation of the agricultural component of NAFTA and other things). The Mexicans and Canadians were also annoyed by “buy American” provisions in U.S. stimulus legislation.

There were several other important items on the agenda: The need for a coordinated response to the continuing world financial crisis which originated in the United States but has hit Mexico particularly hard (with a possible 7% plus shrinkage of GDP in 2009), the issue of the H1N1 “swine” flu which began in Mexico but may be related to practices of US agribusiness, and the crisis in Honduras.

But virtually nothing new was accomplished. The meeting produced a bland and content-less joint statement by the three heads of government, full of airy generalities about opposing protectionism and helping Mexico in its fight against the drug trade. Perhaps the only positive thing was that all three leaders reaffirmed their opposition to the coup in Honduras and their support for the return of President Zelaya, although no strategy for achieving this was mentioned in the statement. The statement can be read at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Joint-statement-by-North-American-leaders/ In comments to the press, President Obama defended Calderon's government against accusations of human rights violations, saying that the drug cartels are a much bigger threat to human rights--objectively true, but hardly an excuse for the misbehavior of soldiers and police anywhere. He also announced that he thinks it may be possible to bring about an immigration reform in early 2010.

So how are all these problems, including the renegotiation of NAFTA, to be achieved? This has to be done from the grassroots up, for it is evident that there is not enough pressure in any of the NAFTA countries to open up renegotiation at this point.. Central to this is more unity among labor unions in all three countries around demands for fair trade, labor and human rights, and a solution to the world financial and economic crisis that is not built on the backs of workers, small farmers and ordinary people. Fortunately, irrespective of the lack of results in Guadalajara, such activities are underway.