Pulling a Fast One

George bush rams through bill giving him control of trade deals

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a strange thing happened not long before Santa’s visit last month. George Bush received a surprise gift, a bequest of power that had eluded his predecessor and may have profound implications for Canada.Despite the momentousness of the occasion, our newspapers ignored it. The day after a squeaker vote in the U.S. House of Representatives that gave the president fast-track authority over trade deals, the only ink spilled was in a tiny story buried in the Globe business section. While the bill heads to the Senate soon for ratification, all observers assume it’s a done deal.

Granted, it’s more difficult to get the public whipped up over something technical like “trade promotion authority” than over the fruitless search for Osama bin Laden. But the December vote will have reverberations around the world. A year ago it was not even clear that Bush could scrape together enough votes to take the Oval Office, let alone score control over the the Free Trade of the Americas negotiations. Between then and now, we’ve had a war that’s turned the joke president into America’s favourite GI Joe and a tanking Argentine economy that threatens to unravel the entire free trade project.

And the massive anti-globalization movement has suddenly discovered how profoundly the terrain has changed following 9/11. Says Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, part of the coalition attempting to defeat the Trade Promotion Authority Bill, “We’ll probably look back at Quebec City as one of the last big blowout demonstrations. It might be a style that we don’t see as much any more.”

Anderson’s group was part of a coalition that also included the AFL-CIO, the umbrella group of U.S. labour, whose members made 50,000 calls to members of the House of Representatives beseeching them to vote no on the bill. Opponents wanted to allow congresspeople and senators to debate trade deal amendments — hopefully pro-labour and environment — instead of giving Bush the power to broker deals on his own, leaving Congress only a yes or no vote.

The president’s victory has come at great expense. Mostly, his operatives played the patriot card, warning Republicans that a defeat for the prez on such a crucial vote would humiliate him in the eyes of the world.

But Scott Paul of the AFL-CIO tells NOW that this tactic actually backfired, both among previously pro-free trade Democratic members of the House who voted overwhelmingly against the bill and among rank-and-file unionists, who resent Bush’s appeal to their patriotism when hundreds of their union brothers (many of them firefighters) perished on September 11. “Union members were quite concerned that their patriotism not be taken for granted.”

In the end, the vote was as close as the last presidential ballot — 215 to 214 — and the Bush operatives ended up buying the yeas of reluctant congresspeople, some of whom now face the fury of constituents in districts where free trade threatens plant closures.

One member of the House who voted nay was Tom Allen of Maine. “The trade issue is a big deal in Maine,” Allen says. That’s because one item tucked in toward the end of the bill packs a wallop for residents who drive across the Canadian border to buy cheaper pharmaceuticals. The legislation calls for “accelerated” implementation of TRIPS — short for
the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement. This is the infamous weapon multinational pharmaceutical companies wield against poor countries that try to develop cheaper generic drugs.

At last fall’s meetings of the World Trade Organization, the Bush administration promised to do the opposite – to give poorer countries longer to comply with TRIPS.

Allen says the bill could also be used against Canada’s method of drug pricing, called a “reference pricing system” because it takes into account factors such as the price in other countries and the rate of inflation. One section of the fast-track bill seeks to eliminate reference pricing in other countries that “denies full market access for United States products.”

Further examples of the U.S. reneging on promises to the WTO take the form of protections for the textile industry and Florida citrus growers. These won Bush the votes to put him over the top in the House, but, says Council of Canadians president Maude Barlow, “It undoes what (U.S. trade ambassador) Robert Zoellick was promising in Doha.” There, the Americans indicated they would open up their lucrative market to textile and agricultural exporters, among them some of the poorest countries in the Caribbean.

“Here’s the irony,” Barlow says. “To get fair trade, they had to promise to limit free trade.”

Professor Ricardo Grinspun, a Latin America specialist at York University, says passage of the trade bill is a bad omen. “It’s a worrisome development because it means the Bush administration is going to push more aggressively on (trade) issues. They will feel more empowered to proceed with an agenda that is problematic for countries in the south.”

Grinspun says the crisis in Argentina – which is now living with the fallout from having pegged its currency to the dollar – is a cautionary tale of the consequences of cuddling up to the elephant of the north.

Brazil, South America’s dominant economic power, has been far more reticent about turning itself into a U.S. satellite. For a long time, Brazil has been asking for more access to the American market. But to get fast track, Bush guaranteed House members he’d seek congressional approval before lowering tariffs on hundreds of imports, most of them agricultural. Sugar, soybeans and orange juice – Brazil’s most important exports – are on the list.

In retaliation, the lower house of Brazil’s congress has passed a resolution calling for the country to withdraw from trade talks with the U.S. “The Brazilians are infuriated,” Grinspun says.

But it’s not only countries to the south who were stabbed in the back in the wheeling and dealing on the House floor. The Canadian government may have a new round of trade disputes on its hands after the House vote. “We welcome the passage of the Trade Promotion Authority Bill, but we are concerned about the commitments made to secure its passage, particularly the concessions made to textile interests,” says Mia Yen, a spokesperson in the international trade department in Ottawa.

“They’re asking that the printing and dying of yarns and fabrics be done in the United States in order to qualify for (tariff-free) benefits. It’s going to discourage U.S. firms from having work done in Canada.”

Meanwhile, the Canucks are rolling out the welcome mat for the U.S. and the six other big western countries that are scheduled to hole up in the luxury lodges of Kananaskis country late in June. The question now is, will room be made for those who want to voice their opposition to international trade pacts?

Barlow says she doubts that the Alberta event will be a rerun of Quebec. In the aftermath of 9/11, activists are having to try out some new recipes. “There’s a real desire to get our concerns out in a way that isn’t confrontational in an unnecessary way,” she says.

Global activists will use a gathering in Porto Alegre, Brazil, at the end of the month to regroup for the post-9/11 era. Barlow says colleagues from other countries whom she met at an international gathering in Brussels last month are losing patience with the political paralysis of North Americans. “The rest of the world is, like, ‘Get over it.’ It was shocking. People from India would say, ‘Compare it with other countries where horrible things happen on a regular basis.’ It’s not that they don’t have sympathy. They just put it in a different perspective.”

At the moment, at least, there’s every sign of a strong activist presence in Alberta, says Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour. “The issues around globalization are just too important to be put aside for fear of offending sensibilities.”

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