Bush must not ignore Seattle-style protesters

April 20, 2001|By Sarah Anderson and John Cavanagh

WASHINGTON -- President Bush will join leaders of 33 countries behind the stone walls of Quebec City to try to make progress on a hemispheric trade deal called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Outside the fortress, demonstrators are expected to turn Quebec City into Canada's Seattle while protests are planned in hundreds of cities across the hemisphere. Mr. Bush will ignore the noise at his own peril.

In this fight, the protesters benefit from an arsenal of evidence accumulated under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the model for the proposed hemispheric pact. When NAFTA went into effect in 1994, promoters promised a huge U.S. trade surplus with Canada and Mexico, more good jobs in all three countries and a cleaner environment.

Today, however, skyrocketing trade deficits with Canada and Mexico have turned jobs predictions on their head.

There is also strong evidence that NAFTA contributed to the negligible growth in U.S. wages during the last half of the 1990s, despite record low unemployment and high corporate profits.

As a Cornell University study reveals, employers more frequently use threats to move factories abroad in order to hold down U.S. wages. In Mexico, workers have suffered a more than 20 percent drop in real wages, and those who fight for change still face severe repression.

The promises about environmental cleanup have become a cruel joke as uncontrolled industrial development has only worsened the environmental nightmare along the U.S.-Mexico border. A recent study by Tufts University indicates that air pollution rates in Mexican manufacturing have nearly doubled since NAFTA's passage.

Unfortunately, top U.S. trade negotiators appear to have learned nothing from the NAFTA experience. The current U.S. negotiating positions have no protections for labor or the environment.

Washington also intends to push other countries to accept a NAFTA provision that grants corporations (but not citizens) the right to sue governments directly. As a result of one such suit, a Canadian company is suing the United States for nearly $1 billion over a California measure to prevent water contamination.

The unwillingness of the U.S. government to re-examine the wisdom of NAFTA-style trade deals has helped galvanize an international movement in opposition to the FTAA.

One of the main forces in Quebec City will be the Hemispheric Social Alliance, a network of labor organizations and citizens coalitions representing more than 45 million people that is demanding an alternative to free trade that puts the pursuit of just and sustainable economics first.

Inside the fortress, protected by the largest security operation ever mounted in Canada's history, Mr. Bush is also likely to face a hostile crowd. Several Latin American nations, led by Brazil, are expected to demand that the United States open its markets in sensitive products such as steel and sugar.

As in Seattle, the chemistry of intergovernmental tensions mixed with street heat could be deadly to the U.S. trade agenda. Perhaps this is the jolt the Bush administration needs to realize that it is time to come out of the fortress and listen to its critics.

Sarah Anderson is a fellow and John Cavanagh is the director of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. They are co-authors of "Field Guide to the Global Economy" (New Press, 2000).

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