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Is Free Trade a Fair Trade?

UM teach-in to explore the effects of Quebec free trade summit

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Its proponents call it trade liberalization, the easing of international barriers to trade and investment throughout the Western Hemisphere to allow businesses to compete on a more level playing field, thus raising the standard of living in all countries.

Its critics condemn it as “NAFTA on steroids,” the establishment of regulations behind closed doors that thwart the will of citizens to set their own standards for health, labor, human rights and the environment, while surrendering their sovereignty to corporate executives, non-elected trade representatives and the forces of the free market. The result, they say, is a corporate “race to the bottom” for wages, rights and the environment.

The latest battle to galvanize the world’s progressive community is over the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a treaty that would expand the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to 34 nations in the Western Hemisphere. After years of negotiations, the FTAA is expected to be finalized next week at the Third Summit of the Americas in Quebec City.

With images of Seattle and last year’s demonstrations against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank fresh in mind, organizers in Quebec City have been preparing for months for the massive demonstrations that will inevitably ensue: Erecting six miles of barbed wire fences around the convention center, training thousands of riot cops and reserving hundreds of hotel rooms to serve as makeshift jail cells. In the United States, major demonstrations are also planned at border crossings along the Canadian and Mexican borders.

In Missoula, the Native Forest Network is sponsoring an FTAA Teach-In on April 17 to explore the implications of this landmark trade pact. The Network has arranged an international panel of speakers from throughout the Americas, including environmental and human rights activists from Mexico, Chile and Argentina.

Among them is Silvestre Pacheco, who will represent Rodolfo Montiel Flores and Teodoro Cabrera, two Mexican farmers imprisoned and tortured for protesting local logging practices in their home state of Guerrero. Both Cabrera and Flores have been adopted by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience.

Also slated for the panel are Chuck Willer and John Goodman of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, a coalition of environmental and labor groups that recognizes that protecting the environment and preserving jobs go hand-in-hand. The Alliance was formed in April 1999 while Kaiser Aluminum steelworkers were protesting the policies of their parent company, Maxxam, at the same time that enviros were protesting Maxxam’s logging of ancient redwoods in northern California.

“There’s been a horrendous propaganda campaign to keep workers and environmentalists separated in this country, to undermine our unity,” says Goodman, a steelworker in Spokane for the last 24 years. “They know that when the people stand together, like they did against the WTO, there’s strength.”

Goodman’s opposition to corporate globalization was born from his experiences with NAFTA, which he says has been a colossal failure for American steelworkers, resulting in the loss 500,000 to 700,000 jobs to Third World nations, while simultaneously driving down wages in those countries by as much as 23 percent.

“We don’t mind competing,” says Goodman. “But these corporations are moving into Third World countries and exploiting the people to the point where they live in squalor. Somewhere in this equation comes into play human dignity and respect for the environment that sustains life.”

Admittedly, the discussion panel is heavily loaded with critics of globalization. One expert who has agreed to talk about the benefits of free trade is Joanna Shelton, senior fellow at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana. Shelton served as deputy secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, and before that, on the U.S. House Ways and Means subcommittee on trade.

“Let’s look at one simple fact,” says Shelton. “The United States in the last decade has had the largest amount of imports and exports in its history as a share of all our production. What has our unemployment rate been doing? It’s been the lowest in 30 years. So to argue that increased trade and investment has a negative effect on jobs just doesn’t hold water.”

Shelton argues that those countries that have opened their borders to trade have seen their economies grow twice as fast as those that have remained protectionist, benefiting not just corporations, but that nation’s citizens.

Of all the issues that irk FTAA opponents, however, its apparent lack of openness in the negotiation process raises the greatest concerns. But Shelton argues that U.S. negotiators have been at the forefront of pushing for greater transparency in trade organizations like the WTO. She points out that among the 140 member nations of the WTO—including some advanced industrial democracies—many are not even comfortable with openness within their own political systems.

But secrecy in trade negotiations, especially on a trade pact with such broad implications, has found critics in Congress as well. On March 15, 54 members of Congress sent a letter to President Bush asking that his administration impose a simple standard of openness and public accountability on FTAA negotiators.

“[T]he American people and their elected representatives have every right to see what is being negotiated in their names,” the letter reads. “If the negotiations can’t withstand public scrutiny, then the U.S. has no business committing to the agreement.”

The FTAA Teach-In will be held on Tues. April 17 at 7 p.m. in the Urey Underground Lecture Hall at the University of Montana. The event is free and open to the public.

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