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Latin American Leaders Gathering in Los Angeles Should Stand Up for People, Not Corporate Profits
A Mexican fair trade activist reflects on the past two decades of battles against neoliberalism and for a more just and equitable alternative in the Americas.
Research & Commentary
June 03, 2022
Each Summit of the Americas, like the one taking place in Los Angeles June 6-10, offers an opportunity for people from Latin America and the Caribbean to assess the state of unity or division in the face of U.S. imperialism and corporate power.
This will be the ninth gathering of leaders from across the hemisphere since 1994. At the fourth Summit of the Americas in Argentina in 2005, Latin America rebelled against the U.S. government by rejecting the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
For more than a decade, the United States, with the full backing of corporate lobby groups, had been driving negotiations for a deal that would’ve basically extended the North American Free Trade Agreement to the Western Hemisphere. NAFTA had given transnational corporations additional powers to drive down labor and environmental standards in the United States, Mexico, and Canada.
Originally proposed by President George H.W. Bush, in the end, it was President George W. Bush who had to abandon the FTAA negotiations in the face of resistance from Brazil and other Latin American governments. This was a major victory for social movements that had come together in a Hemispheric Social Alliance to fight this project of geostrategic domination in the service of economic elites.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has set himself up as a regional leader to give new impetus to the longed-for hemispheric integration and resist any resurgence of the Monroe Doctrine, through which the U.S. government asserted control of the region starting in the 1820s. However, the vitality of all new efforts to break free from the grip of the neoliberal model will ultimately depend on government responses to social movements’ demands.
In the words of Alberto Arroyo, retired professor of the UAM-I and a prominent catalyst of the Hemispheric Social Alliance, “neither the US nor Europe succeeded in signing FTAs with countries other than those with the most neoliberal governments in Central America, Chile, Peru, Colombia, (and Mexico, of course). But they haven’t been able to do the same with countries where movements were stronger and where governments were allied with social movements in the struggle against the FTAA, for example Venezuela and the South American countries in the MERCOSUR bloc. They were also unsuccessful in courting the new governments [back then] of Bolivia and Ecuador, which came to power as an outcome of social struggles.”
Social and civil organizations’ role in defeating the FTAA was key. The Hemispheric Social Alliance, created in 1997, brought together labor, rural and urban organizations, and national and sectorial networks, representing tens of millions of people. The Alliance facilitated ongoing exchanges of information and joint strategies and actions to collectively build an alternative and a more democratic trade model.
This impressive synergy led to a rigorous and participatory analysis of the FTAA draft texts, leaked by allied officials, that generated useful information and analysis for both civil society and government officials.
The document “The FTAA Exposed,” published in 2003, contains 120 pages of chapter-by-chapter analysis on agriculture, services, government procurement, and competition, among others. Karen Hansen-Kuhn, the U.S. Alliance for Responsible Trade spokesperson then, and today a program director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, wrote in the introduction that the analysis “points to an agreement that could, if implemented, have profoundly negative impacts on peoples and environments throughout the hemisphere. The members of the HSA do not oppose trade or economic relations among our respective countries. We do believe, however, that the rules that govern those relations must be designed to ensure that both trade and investment serve, first and foremost, to promote equitable and sustainable development.”
I participated in the analysis of the FTAA’s Investment Chapter when I worked at the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade (RMALC), in collaboration with Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies, Scott Sinclair of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and the late John Dillon from Kairos, among others.
We concluded that the draft text was essentially a copy and paste of NAFTA’s rules granting excessive powers to corporations. These included supranational dispute settlement mechanisms to allow corporations to sue governments over a long list of so-called “investor rights,” such as the right to protection against public interest regulations and other government actions that reduced the value of their investments.
The draft also aimed to give corporations the right to sue over restrictions on capital flows (even volatile speculative capital) and conditions on investment designed to boost economic development, such as requirements to use local suppliers.
The idea was to extend the neoliberal recipe to the entire hemisphere.
Each chapter of the FTAA draft was also contrasted with another important Hemispheric Social Alliance document called “Alternatives for the Americas.” This joint document set out guiding principles of democracy and participation, sovereignty and social welfare, equity, and sustainability.
Social movements today should develop an updated version of this alternative vision. AMLO has spoken of some kind of European Union (EU) for the hemisphere. This would be in the right direction, particularly if it goes beyond the creation of a common market and incorporates the fundamental EU principle of free mobility, allowing citizens the freedom to work and settle in any member country (incidentally, this led a very slim majority of the British population to vote xenophobically in favor of Brexit).
During a pre-summit phone call between the governments of Mexico and the United States, Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard declared that among other topics they will have to strike a “hemispheric position … on labor mobility, as a way to counteract irregular migration.” If it happens, this would be the first time that labor mobility is discussed during this kind of high-level summit.
I’m doubtful that much progress will be achieved on that front. In fact, AMLO may not even attend the summit, in protest over his counterparts from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela leaders not being invited. But it is encouraging that the Mexican leader is attempting to steer the discussion away from neoliberalism and towards a position vision for the entire hemisphere.
Adapted from the original published in the Spanish in La Jornada.