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FTAA dead but not quite buried, say activists

IPS - 11 April 2005

FTAA Dead but not Quite Buried, Say Activists

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Apr 11 (IPS) - Activists and academics are singing the requiem for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a U.S.-driven initiative that they say will soon be buried. However, the governments that have participated in the talks are not yet talking about failure.

According to the plans drawn up in December 1994 by the heads of state and government meeting in the first summit of the Americas in Miami, the FTAA negotiations were to be completed by January this year — a deadline that was missed — and the free trade area was to go into effect in December, which is not likely to happen.

The creation of a free trade area stretching from Alaska to the southern Argentine province of Tierra del Fuego (leaving out only Cuba) thus remains what it has been from the start: merely an ambitious notion.

”We wouldn’t say the FTAA has already been buried, but it’s clear that it is dead, or that it was never even born, at least not in the shape and form in which it was first envisioned over 10 years ago,” Héctor de la Cueva, coordinator of the Hemispheric Social Alliance (HSA) — a regional grouping of Latin American and Caribbean organisations opposed to ”neo-liberal globalisation” — told IPS.

Germán de la Reza, an academic who specialises in regional integration questions, described the FTAA project as ”a flop”, and said it was not likely to be revived for at least 20 years.

”It’s time to sing the requiem,” he told IPS.

De la Reza said the governments may formally launch the FTAA at year-end, but he maintained that any such announcement would simply amount to the signing of a document in which the countries of the Americas would sum up their existing trade accords and express their intention to continuing negotiating further agreements.

The 34 governments taking part in the FTAA negotiations are not yet speaking in terms of failure, with the exception of the administration of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, which has also declared the FTAA dead.

Opponents in Latin America of the free trade project that has taken shape in the context of the Organisation of American States (OAS) have argued that it is a neo-colonialist attempt by the U.S. government and business sectors to strengthen their influence over the peoples and countries of the rest of the hemisphere.

The negotiations have been stalled since early 2004 over disagreements on issues like farm subsidies, intellectual property and government procurement, said Luz María de la Mora, the head of the international trade negotiations unit in Mexico, the country that is hosting the last stage of the FTAA talks.

However, ”there is a chance that the FTAA will be born, because although the negotiating process is stalled, it could still be revived,” she commented to IPS.

”By the end of the year, we could have a less ambitious FTAA that would certainly be different from the one that was proposed in 2004, but would be just as real,” she added.

Argentina’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Mar. 6 warning that the FTAA talks would remain at a standstill until the United States gave off ”clear signals” that it was willing to open up to products from the rest of the Americas.

The communiqué reflected agreements reached the day before at a meeting in Buenos Aires between the Argentine Foreign Ministry’s assistant secretary for economic integration, Eduardo Sigal, and the director of the international negotiations department at Brazil’s Foreign Relations Ministry, Regis Arslanián, who were discussing the trade negotiations undertaken by the Mercosur (Southern Common Market) members: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Among the factors that have gradually weakened the FTAA project is Washington’s refusal to scale back its trade protectionism, especially in the area of agriculture — a hurdle that is also blocking trade talks in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), de la Reza noted.

Other elements that have stood in the way of progress are loud protest demonstrations by civil society, the emergence of left-leaning governments in South America opposed to the free trade initiative to one degree or another, and Washington’s shift in priorities after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

”I believe that what really blocked the FTAA was the social mobilisation, which will not let up, because what the United States is seeking now are bilateral accords, that are just as harmful,” said de la Reza.

According to the original plans of those who came up with the idea of the FTAA, the talks were to have been completed, and the agreement submitted for approval to the legislatures of the participating countries, by the fourth summit of the Americas, to take place in Argentina in November.

But that will not be the case. The draft of the final declaration to be adopted at the summit in Argentina merely states that a paragraph assessing the progress made towards free trade in the hemisphere, including the FTAA, and pointing the way forward, is to be included somewhere in the document.

Due to the impossibility of reaching a broad hemisphere-wide agreement, the region’s trade ministers agreed in 2003 that each country would join the FTAA under flexible deadlines and terms, and merely pledged to continue negotiating.

But progress has not even been made towards the ”FTAA lite” version that was agreed in 2003.

In the meantime, the U.S. government has been pushing instead for bilateral accords, or agreements with smaller subregional groups of countries.

In early 2004 it signed a free trade agreement (CAFTA) with the Dominican Republic and the Central American countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, and it is currently negotiating an agreement with three Andean countries: Ecuador, Colombia and Peru.

”Some governments aligned with Washington may still be interested in reviving an empty FTAA agreement, but the truth is that the original plan is dead and will soon be buried,” said de la Cueva.

The activist said a symbolic funeral for the FTAA may be held by social movements in the region when they gather in Argentina in November, parallel to the summit of the Americas.

 source: IPS