Neither a triumph nor popular - The FTAAs’ Ministers Meeting in Miami

All the versions of this article: [English] [Español]

Neither a triumph nor popular - The FTAAs’ Ministers Meeting in Miami


November 2003

(Translated by Anoosha Boralessa (Feb 2016). Not reviewed by or any other organization or person)

The ministers of 34 American countries, that are negotiating the scope and extent of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAAs) met mid November 2003 to finalize agreement on a number of issues, notably on intellectual property and agriculture. The presiding countries – Brazil and the United States – presented to the negotiators a proposal for an agreement that includes a list of measure that all countries would agree to, plus a second list that each country would be ”free” to adhere to or to reject. The text presented was accepted and the ministers ended the meeting a day before scheduled, on the basis that they had already reached the proposed objective. Strictly speaking, this was a necessary measure, to avoid another failure such as the one experienced by the World Trade Organization, at the recent WTO meeting in Cancun, Mexico. This was proof that the demonstrations against Miami negotiations were important and that the demonstrations in Cancun are still recalled. This was hailed as a significant popular triumph in different ways. Given that what happens from now on is too important for the peoples of America, it is more worthwhile to undertake a careful examination of what has happened.

On careful examination, we can see that the FTAAs has neither failed nor been derailed. The only assurance is that some agreements between governments have already been made official and that henceforth negotiations will have to address pending issues. From what can be deduced from previous drafts of the agreement, there is no indication nor guarantee that the final agreement is going to be different. But perhaps the most important thing from Miami is that, it is now clear and explicit that different negotiating strategies will be pursued in tandem. This is made clear in the Ministerial Declaration issued in Miami:

“We repeat that the FTAAs can coexist with bilateral and sub-regional agreements”... and “Furthermore, negotiations should allow countries that decide thus, to be able, within the FTAAs, to agree on benefits and additional obligations. A possible line of action could be that these countries participate in multilateral negotiations within FTAA to define obligations in each respective area.” In other words, whatever the United States fails to achieve in the FTAAs, it is going to aggressively look for in the WTO, WIPO and notably sub-regional or bilateral negotiations. The alleged “softening” of the United States in the FTAAs only indicates that, for the time being, it considers it more useful to take forward certain negotiations in other fora.

One can also see that Latin American governments are not defending popular or national interests. Almost all Latin American governments support the US’s toughest positions on one issue or another. And what they “defend” is almost exclusively the interests of big, national capital. Therefore, we are not here faced with positions that are fundamentally distinct: what we are witnessing is a dispute between neoliberalism where US capital has the most guarantees, or a neoliberalism where big Latin American capital can too obtain privileges. The needs of workers, farmers, the popular sectors and the middle class have not entered the discussion.

What we’ll see in the coming month has already been announced by the US: the push or signing of sub-regional treaties with different Latin American countries by which it hopes to impose, with greater precision and more effectively, a full range of measures that makes parts of the FTAAs appear timid. It is no coincidence that it has already been announced that the US – Central America treaty has been signed and that negotiations have opened with the Andean countries. In his letter dated 18 November, the US Minister of Trade, Robert Zoellick, explains to the US Congress that,
“The negotiations of an FTA with the Andean countries is a logical step in the context of US Government’s promotion of competitive liberalization in the hemisphere”.

Furthermore, on making his announcements to the press, Zoellick acknowledged that the government has taken an aggressive attitude in the quest for widespread neo-liberalization on the continent. And if there is any doubt on other type of connections, Zoellick also explains in his letter to the Congress that the negotiations for an Andean FTA will serve as “the natural complement to Plan Colombia”.

In his presentation to Congress, Zoellick explains fundamental elements of the negotiations with the Andean countries. Through these, it may be concluded that the United States seeks to impose the same pattern that it has already imposed in Chile and that it hopes to impose in Central America. In other words, we can expect the following:

a) a sufficiently large (but not necessarily meaningful) reduction in customs, that the United States will use as a bargaining chip, by making concessions or applying pressure based on what it seeks to obtain in substantive aspects of the treaty. If the Andean countries’ governments behave as the Chilean government did, it will mean that peasant agriculture will be severely disadvantaged.
b) unlimited opening to privatizing all public services, public spaces and natural resources. Among these, this will mean privatizing bodies of water (not only drinking water), seas and fisheries. It will also open the gates to privatizing government functions such as regulation and audit, primary education, health and the administration of justice.
c) granting preferential conditions to US investors, which include guaranteeing profits and making it impossible to revoke licenses to operate. Privileging investment and suspending all restrictions on privatization will probably lead to eliminating the few guarantees that some indigenous people currently still have, such as the non-alienability of indigenous lands or territories.
d) requiring intellectual and industrial property laws to be amended to require patenting without exception (Chile, for example, will have to allow the patenting of plants within the next four years). It will be possible to patent plants and animals, and keeping the seed from the harvest may end up being a crime punishable with imprisonment. It will also mean patenting medicines and serious restrictions on developing IT.

e) making it impossible to maintain support programmes or development policies in any social sector. What is to expected is the end of public research and technical support programmes or credit for peasant farming or for micro-businesses.

The characteristics described above are nothing new or exclusive. In fact, they reflect what the US and for a good measure, the European Union and Japan have been trying to impose in the WTO and WIPO. What makes this special is that with the bilateral treaties, the United States has secured some conditions that it was finding difficult to achieve at the multilateral level or that were progressing more slowly than it wished. The strategy has been divide and rule. The treaty with Chile has been taken forward as the first outside North America because Chilean governments have demonstrated a special vocation to come to heel; the same reason explains the interest in taking forward negotiations with Central America, with the Costa Rican government as its principal ally.

For this reason, it is no coincidence that at this moment the United States is NOT putting any pressure to reach the same result with Venezuela, Argentina or Brazil, even though these three countries are far more commercially significant than Chile, Central America or the Andean Region. The governments of these three countries have demonstrated an intention to be independent that is a long way off from challenging the privatization and consolidation model that is imposed today, but that clearly does not satisfy US aspirations. Therefore, what happened in Miami is not the result of failed negotiations or a triumph of mobilizations; it simply results from the US deciding to multiply its strategies, to abandon its multilateral strategies as the central strategy for the Americas and to go forward more aggressively in bilateral or sub-regional conversations. In this way, it dispels whatever risk there may be that Latin American countries will build some sort of bloc. On the other hand, making progress through fragmentation allows the United States to exert its weight in a way that is more unmasked and to get what it wants gradually. Meanwhile, it can hope that in Brazil, Argentina or Venezuela, governments will be elected that are somewhat more submissive or that isolation permits it to impose its conditions without opposition.

What happened in Miami does not exterminate the FTAAs nor its dangers; it only marks a shift in the pathways and mechanism by which it is attempted to be imposed. Latin American governments have not made great efforts nor have they demonstrated more interest in opposing the divisive tactics of the US. The different Latin American social sectors have before them a huge opportunity to remain united and to effectively score a triumph. Perhaps the Campaign against the FTAAs has to convert into the Campaign against all FTAs, including the FTAAs, but the substantive objectives have not changed. The truth: both unity and active opposition have only become more urgent.