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Canada’s hidden free-trade deal

Canada’s hidden free-trade deal

Rusa Jeremic

Citizen Special

Friday, August 12, 2005

Just after midnight on July 28, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 217-215 to approve the United States-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), ending a lengthy and often stormy debate. Canada is on the verge of signing a similar controversial agreement, yet most Canadians know nothing about it.

Free trade continues to be hotly contested internationally. Even some leading World Bank economists have begun to publicly question the model. Over the last several months, CAFTA has come under intense scrutiny and significant opposition in the U.S., a process has brought to light many negative impacts of free trade. Before the congressional ratification vote, the deal was debated in the media, the public and in the corridors of Washington.

In Central America, the CAFTA debate led to massive protests. As people made their voices heard on the streets, violence ensued and several peaceful protesters lost their lives. In Guatemala, during the ratification period, the right to protest became criminalized.

Meanwhile, here in Canada, our government is quietly negotiating much the same sort of agreement — known as the Canada-CA4 Free Trade Agreement, because it includes Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras — which calls for the free flow of investment and presumably the removal of tariffs and agricultural safeguards.

Canadians have just as many concerns about this type of trade as do Americans and Guatemalans. Free-trade supporters claim these deals open markets, enabling small economies to benefit by creating a level playing field for these countries to compete and thrive. Business and government proponents argue that such agreements bring prosperity and higher living standards. However, as Mexico’s experience under the North American Free Trade Agreement has shown, wealth generation has benefited a very few at the expense of a large majority. NAFTA demonstrates how the rights of foreign investors and corporations come before people and the environment.

Canada has maintained a close relationship with Central America since the 1980s when we opened our doors to refugees fleeing the war-torn region. Tens of thousands of Canadians took part in solidarity actions with their Central American neighbours. Many Canadians would be shocked to learn our government is promoting a trading model that will likely undermine any gains for the poor, instead of promoting equitable and sustainable development.

These days, a Canadian mining company, Glamis Gold, makes almost daily headlines in Guatemala as it moves forward with a controversial open-pit mining project that does not have clear local community support and whose operations have led to massive violence. The CA4’s investment rules will probably end up cementing this corporation’s rights over and above community rights and environmental concerns, making it nearly impossible to support domestic local economies.

Moreover, small, weak economies like those in Central America need to be able to safeguard certain agricultural products in order to keep local markets alive and protect affordable access to basic foodstuffs. Free trade removes such safeguards.

The continual secrecy on the part of the Canadian government is frustrating at best. A coalition of churches, NGOs, unions, and others, including KAIROS, has been meeting with our government for several years trying to get information about what’s in the Canada-CA4 agreement and what it will mean for Central Americans. At the end of the day, much of our concern is based on hypothesis because our government refuses to disclose draft texts or even basic information to the public and even to parliamentarians. The Canadian government claims its hands are tied because its Central American counterparts are unwilling to disclose draft texts.

When Canada hosted the Summit of the Americas in April 2001, more than 60,000 Canadians converged on Quebec City’s streets to demonstrate their concerns about being marginalized from the proposed Americas-wide free-trade deal, the FTAA, which could have far-reaching consequences in their lives. Responding to the discontent, the Canadian government convinced its hemispheric counterparts to agree to some transparency by committing to release all future draft texts. This was a small first step in untangling the nuances of free trade, but an important one for any democratic society.

How can it be that, in Quebec City, Canada managed to influence 34 countries — including the United States — to release negotiating texts, but now claims to wield zero influence over its Central American partners?

Given the magnitude of concern surrounding free trade, for Canada to be true to its stated commitments on transparency, the government should disclose all information pertaining to this deal and encourage real public input and parliamentary debate.

Rusa Jeremic is co-ordinator of the Global Economic Justice Program at KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2005