It's kind of reassuring to realize that four years after the tear gas uproar in Quebec City, the Free Trade Area Of The Americas (FTAA) pact remains stalled. But before we get the warm-and-fuzzies about anti-globalization activism, we should consider that the federal Liberal cabinet, far from the noise and confusion of street protests, is now secretly working on a less grandiose pact with equally nasty consequences for Southern nations.
Could it be that while the larger hemispheric trade pact withers, its constituent parts are scattering like roaches to darker corners, away from the gaze of a once-scrutinizing movement?
"The FTAA is entirely stalled," says Jean-Yves Lefort of the Council of Canadians, pointing out how American negotiaters at the World Trade Organization are refusing to end agricultural subsidies, which is annoying developing nations in general and Latin America in particular. "If they can't resolve those issues at the WTO, the FTAA will probably never go forward. There are signs that this is a dead agenda."
Meanwhile, work continues in Ottawa on the Central America Four Free Trade (CA4) pact, which started quietly in Quebec City behind the security fences. Canada's deal is not even slated to make it to Parliament for debate. It will be vetted by cabinet, having been initiated by an order-in-council.
"It's being debated in secrecy," says Rusa Jeremic of ecumenical justice organization Kairos. "We've been meeting with trade negotiators to try to get some access to what the deal is about. We do know there's a new investment chapter based on Chapter 11," she says, referring to the controversial "investor-state" clause of NAFTA that allows foreign corporations to sue governments over enviro or labour regs and discourages subsidies for domestic industry. It was also one of the foundations of FTAA negotiations.
And just this July, the U.S. ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in the House of Representatives by a slim margin. If CAFTA had been debated four years ago, it's easy to imagine the House would have been ringed by riot police. Guatemalan legislators had to ratify their end of the deal behind security barriers in March (one demonstrator was killed). Yet Northern activists, likely diverted into anti-Iraq war concerns, raised little outcry.
"I would say [these small pacts] are the FTAA by other means," muses Karl Flecker of Canadian trade-justice think tank the Polaris Institute. "The big players aren't making the headway they need to make on the world stage, so they're saying, "Let's do it on the bilateral stage. '"
"There are a lot of hidden dangers in the bilateral approach," adds Jeremic. "Stopping the FTAA is a victory. But with bilaterals, the dominant countries primarily of the North are able to strong-arm poorer countries because they don't have to reach consensus with 34 countries."
Trade with Central America accounts for only around 1 per cent of all U.S. trade, and only a slightly higher percentage of Canada's. This leads many to believe that the deals will involve more than simply regional trade.
CAFTA goes further than many previous agreements in terms of natural resources. Generalized American intellectual property laws will allow the wholesale patenting of indigenous strains of seeds and medicinal herbs, threatening traditional agriculture and healing practices, and will also bar the sale of cheap generic pharmaceuticals.
A spokesperson for Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade could not be reached for comment by press time. But in a statement of objectives, the department states that a successful CA4 will strengthen growth and democracy in Central America and that negotiations are committed to poverty alleviation, economic stability, peace and democracy.
I supposed if all the info were public, we'd be better judges.