Top 10 Reasons Why Latin American Women Oppose Bush’s Free Trade Agenda
November 7, 2005
Bush is branding Latin Americans’ broad rejection of his trade agenda at last week’s Summit of the Americas in Argentina as an attempt to "roll back the democratic process of the past two decades" (New York Times, 11/7/05). What Latin Americans are actually rolling back is the US-driven economic process of the past two decades, which worsened poverty, income inequality, displacement, and cultural and environmental destruction. Working within and alongside the social movements that are sweeping the region, MADRE’s Latin American sister organizations are putting forward their own reasons for rejecting Bush’s trade agenda. Here are 10 reasons that Latin American women reject Free Trade Agreements (FTAs).
1. Free Trade Agreements Threaten Food Security
The US demands that Latin American governments cut tariffs on US-grown food staples like rice and corn, while the US continues to subsidize its own large-scale agriculture. The double standard allows US agribusiness to undersell family farmers in Latin America. Many of these farmers are women and Indigenous Peoples who are losing their livelihoods and being forced off their lands.
2. Free Trade Agreements Threaten Public Health
The US demands trade rules that boost the profits of its pharmaceutical industry at the expense of public health. The US wants to block the sale of generic medicines, which will put life-saving prescription drugs out of reach for millions. The US stands by this position even when it comes to generic AIDS drugs, which are the key to treatment in poor countries because they are up to 98 percent cheaper than name-brand drugs (LA Times, 4/22/05). Women would be especially affected because they are among the fastest-growing group of AIDS sufferers and because they are primarily responsible for caring for ailing family members.
3. Free Trade Agreements Jeopardize Vital Public Services
The US is pushing Latin American governments to sell national water resources to private corporations. Privatization means rate increases that deny millions of poor people access to the most critical natural resource. In Guatemala, women, who are responsible for meeting their families’ household water needs, spend up to 85 percent of their earnings on water (Center Focus, May 2004).
4. Free Trade Agreements Undermine Labor Rights
The US is pressuring Latin American countries to ignore internationally recognized labor rights, including freedom to unionize and freedom from sex discrimination in the workplace. In countries such as Colombia, where trade unionists are routinely assassinated, a trade deal that lacks enforceable labor protections will put more workers at risk. The US also wants to deny women who work in the region’s free trade zones (mostly manufacturing goods for export) legal recourse for rampant sex discrimination in that sector, including forced pregnancy testing, sexual harassment, low wages, long hours, and unsafe working conditions.
5. Free Trade Agreements Exacerbate Environmental Damage and Threaten Natural Resources
The US is trying to block governments from limiting exports of their natural resources (American Prospect, 2/25/05). Under US-backed rules, corporations that have bought the rights to a country’s forests, fishing waters, mineral deposits, or oil reserves can totally deplete these resources, with grave consequences to ecosystems and the small-scale farmers and Indigenous Peoples who depend on them.
6. Free Trade Agreements Threaten Indigenous Women
The US is pushing to overturn regulations that protect Indigenous Peoples’ traditional knowledge by allowing corporations to patent seeds, plants, animals, and certain medical procedures developed and used by Indigenous women over centuries. If the US succeeds, Indigenous women would lose access to important medicinal plants and agricultural seeds unless they pay royalties to patent holders. Indigenous women’s traditional role as the protectors of their community’s natural resources and traditional knowledge would be eroded, threatening Indigenous cultures and women’s status within the community.
7. Free Trade Agreements Undermine Democracy
The US is demanding that governments give up their sovereign right to regulate foreign investment and their right to pass health, safety, and environmental laws that protect citizens. FTAs allow corporations to bypass domestic courts and sue governments in corporate-friendly international tribunals for profits lost due to legislated environmental or worker protections. Trade negotiations themselves are deeply undemocratic. They are conducted in secret, with no input from the communities affected by them.
8. Free Trade Agreements Increase Militarization
The US is relying on the use of military force to impose unpopular trade agreements in Latin America. US military aid to the region has increased along with the promotion of trade deals, fueling armed conflict in Colombia; Chiapas, Mexico; and elsewhere. This year, the US gave military funding to Guatemala for the first time in 15 years after Guatemala ratified CAFTA. The same month, Guatemalan troops opened fire on a group of Indigenous women protesting the passage of the trade deal (Portside, 3/30/05).
9. Free Trade Agreements Lock Countries into Supporting US Foreign Policy
The US has designated the FTAA as part of its "national security strategy" for the Hemisphere (US National Security Strategy, 9/02), which has earned opponents of its trade agenda the label "emerging terrorists" (World Policy Institute, 11/5/05). In fact, once a country becomes dependent on trade with the US, it is often pressured to sign on to other US policies, like the invasion of Iraq or the rejection of the International Criminal Court. FTAs can also block governments from pursuing trade deals with others in the region, which may be more beneficial to individual countries and Latin America as a whole.
10. There Are Viable Alternatives to Free Trade Agreements
The US is insisting that neoliberal economics is the only option for economic growth. But Latin America’s social movements are articulating viable alternatives for regulating trade and economic integration in ways that benefit-rather than harm-women, families, communities, and the environment. The women of MADRE’s sister organizations throughout Latin America affirm the need for Fair Trade Agreements that:
- Are negotiated through democratic processes with effective participation from communities that will be impacted, including women’s organizations.
- Ensure that life-sustaining resources such as water, food staples, and medicinal plants are guaranteed to all people and not reduced to commodities.
- Ensure that access to basic services, including health care, housing, education, and sanitation is recognized as a human right that governments are obligated-and empowered-to protect.
- Institute the region’s highest, rather than lowest, standards for labor rights and health, safety, and environmental protections.
- Adopt principles of "fair trade," including social security and development assistance programs that protect small farmers and workers and recognize the value of women’s unpaid labor in the household.
- Require foreign investors to contribute to the economic development of the communities where they have a presence.
- Promote policies that respect local cultures and collective Indigenous rights and preserve traditional agricultural techniques and biodiversity in food crops and nature.
- Recognize the links between economic growth and ensuring peace and human security.
The ABCs of FTAs
There are currently four main trade agreements between the US and countries in Latin America, all at various stages of negotiation.
NAFTA: The North American Free Trade Agreement was signed by the US, Canada, and Mexico in 1994. It's clear by now that NAFTA mainly benefits US corporations. It relaxed regulations on foreign investment and compelled Mexico to treat foreign investors the same as domestic businesses. Because multi-national corporations can out-compete most local businesses, NAFTA undermines efforts to promote sustainable industry and agriculture in Mexico. It even allows foreign corporations to sue governments for enforcing certain labor and environmental standards. In Mexico, manufacturing wages and farmers' incomes have plummeted, driving millions more people into poverty. NAFTA is the model for other trade deals in the region. Many of its most damaging provisions are enhanced and expanded in the newer trade agreements described below.
FTAA: The Free Trade Area of the Americas was the topic of last week's Summit of the Americas in Argentina. It seeks to turn all of the Americas (excluding Cuba) into one giant free-trade zone. Seeing the damage to Mexico from NAFTA, Latin American countries including Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and Uruguay have insisted on better terms under the deal. The US has refused, bringing FTAA negotiations to a halt.
CAFTA: Unable to make progress on the FTAA, the US turned to cutting side-deals with blocks of weaker countries. Over militant protests by the region's social movements, CAFTA has been ratified by El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Costa Rica has signed, but not ratified CAFTA.
AFTA: The Andean Free Trade Agreement is being negotiated between the US, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru (Bolivia is currently an observer but is expected to join). Right now, talks are stalled because the Andean countries are resisting US demands for provisions that would raise the cost of medicines and fuel the illegal drug trade by bankrupting small-scale farmers, compelling them to produce coca instead of food crops.