Corporations and Their Proxies Defeated in Miami -- But They Refuse to Give Up
By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

There was good news and bad news from inside the negotiations of the Ministerial meeting for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), held last week in Miami.

The good news: Brazil has succeeded in putting forward a framework that would alleviate the worst aspects of the U.S.-backed extremist proposals that threaten public health, the environment, and worker rights. With mobilized popula tions at home demanding nothing less, Brazil, Argentina and other countries appear to have defeated the U.S. effort to expand NAFTA to the entire hemisphere.

In at least four separate places, the final statement of the meeting, known as the Ministerial Declaration, reiterates the need for a "balanced" agreement. The key phrase of the Declaration states that, "Ministers recognize that countries may assume different levels of commitments."

What this means in practice is that countries will not be required to adhere to the market fundamentalist proposals advanced by the United States in the areas of intellectual property, investment, services and other areas.

While it would be best if there were no agreements in these areas whatsoever -- since the agreements in various ways are designed to subordinate public interest considerations to the commercial interests of multinational corporations -- at least no country will be required to agree to these proposals as a condition of participating in the FTAA.

Those countries that agree to specific commitments, in the investment area, say, will be required to honor them. But none of the Latin American or Caribbean countries have any real interest in doing so. There aren't many Uruguayan or Honduran investors looking for special protections in the U.S. market.

Brazil gained the upper hand by responding effectively to the U.S. position that it could not negotiate key agricultural issues within the FTAA. U.S. negotiators said they wanted to move on agricultural issues of concern to Brazil and other countries, but these matters had to be handled at the World Trade Organization (WTO), where they could be negotiated as well with the European Union and Japan. Well, said Brazil, if agriculture is a WTO issue, then so is intellectual property, which is already covered by a WTO agreement, and so are other controversial issues.

Given this move by Brazil, the United States was happy to maintain even opt-in agreements as part of the FTAA.

But there's no question the United States has lost its ability to impose its maniacal NAFTA vision on the hemisphere. "This is not what we wanted, and we have serious concerns," said Frank Vargo, U.S. National Association of Manufacturers vice president for international economic affairs. A good sign.

Unfortunately, the inside news from Miami wasn't all good. The United States violated the spirit of the ministerial declaration by announcing an intensified strategy of negotiating bilateral and mini-regional agreements containing exactly the horrific proposals -- on intellectual property, investment, and other areas -- that it failed to ram through in the FTAA.

The United States has already concluded a free trade agreement with Chile, and is scheduled to conclude negot iations over a free trade agreement with the Central American countries next month. In Miami, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick announced that the United States would soon commence negotiations over trade deals with the Dominican Republic, Panama, Colombia and Peru, as well as supposedly with Ecuador and Bolivia.

We asked the trade minister of a small country, the Bahamas, what he thought about the U.S. strategy of negotiating bilaterals.

"Most countries in the hemisphere have concerns" about the U.S. approach, Bahamian Minister of Trade and Industry Leslie Miller told us. "It's just pressure tactics. The U.S. wants to consolidate its position."

The strategy is euphemistically called "competitive liberalization" by its advocates, but it's little more than divide and conquer. The idea is to pit countries in the hemisphere against each other, negotiating individual deals that offer incremental benefits of improved access to the U.S. market, in exchange for massive concessions for U.S. multinationals. As countries watch others enter into free trade deals, they worry about being left behind, and agree to similar terms.

Whereas developing countries when united can stand up to U.S. pressure and demands, in isolation and in competition with each other, they are easy pickings.

Notwithstanding the benefits, this strategy has significant limitations from the U.S. corporate perspective, which is why some business groups have been publicly critical. The strategy requires too many negotiations with too many countries, and may leave the biggest markets out. Noting that Chile and Mexico already have free trade deals with the United States, Mark Weisbrot of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research points out that 70 percent of the remaining Latin American market (measured by economic output) is attributable to Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela -- countries with no interest in signing on to bilateral agreements with the United States that advance the U.S. extremist economic agenda.

Still, there's no getting around the fact that existing trade pacts, plus those under negotiation and those for which negotiations are pending, will lock up a huge chunk of Latin America, and significantly deprive countries of freedom to pursue independent economic policies.

Whether the USTR bilateral trade agreement offensive can be halted may turn on the U.S.-Central American agreement. If brought before the U.S. Congress next year and defeated, U.S. trade negotiators ma y be forced to abandon their present approach. A victory for U.S. negotiators and their business controllers will give renewed life to a model that has failed by any objective measure, other than serving multinational corporate interests.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter.
Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor.
They are coauthors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Common Courage Press).