Sub-region integration a challenge to FTAA

18 January 2005

Sub-Region Integration a Challenge to FTAA

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Jan 18 (IPS) - The fifth annual World Social Forum will take place Jan. 26-31 in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre amidst an upsurge in Latin American sub-regional integration efforts, bolstered by the obvious failure of the project to create the hemisphere-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

The trade liberalisation zeal of the late 1990s has largely dissipated among most of the area’s governments, which are now more interested in bilateral treaties and negotiations for a global agreement under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) than in a Western Hemisphere trade pact.

From the very inception of the World Social Forum five years ago, the participating civil society movements have condemned the FTAA as a blatant U.S.-led attempt to impose the models and formulas of neoliberal globalisation across the Americas.

The FTAA project was conceived in the 1990s as a free trade mega-treaty stretching - from Alaska to Cape Horn", comprising the 34 active members of the Organisation of American States (OAS) — in other words, all of the countries of the hemisphere with the exception of Cuba, which was expelled from the OAS in 1962 under U.S. pressure.

The original FTAA timeline scheduled ratification by all member states in 2005, after which the pact would immediately enter into effect. Aside from the fact that the project is far behind schedule, a number of regional forums last year demonstrated the unlikelihood of reaching a binding hemispheric agreement.

Chilean economist Hugo Fazio, director of the National Centre for Alternative Development Studies (CENDA), told IPS that the FTAA negotiations have primarily pitted Brazil, at the head of the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), against the United States.

Mercosur, formed in 1991 by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, now includes another six South American nations (Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela) as associate members, thereby encompassing all of the countries of South America except Suriname, French Guiana and Guyana.

Among the main points of friction with Brazil, said Fazio, is Washington’s resistance to free trade in agricultural products and the negotiation of anti-dumping measures (as protection against unfair price competition) within the FTAA, under the pretext that this issue will be addressed by the WTO agreement.

As was already noted at the Social Forum of the Americas held in Quito, Ecuador last July, the George W. Bush administration is placing priority on bilateral trade pacts, including the free trade agreement with Chile that entered into force on Jan. 1, 2004.

Washington is negotiating treaties with four of the five members of the Andean Community of Nations, namely Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The fifth member, Venezuela, has been excluded, owing to the tensions between the United States and leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

A trade pact with the countries of the Central American Common Market is also in the works.

In this context, collective efforts by the countries of Latin America, as opposed to the hemispheric project promoted by the United States, have become more necessary than ever before, according to Fazio, who served as vice president of the Central Bank of Chile under President Salvador Allende (1970-1973).

While Mercosur, the most important Latin American integration process, has increased its number of associate members and expanded its scope to almost all of South America, it has not fully succeeded in creating this collective vision, he added.

Chile and Bolivia became associate members of Mercosur in 1996, while Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru followed suit during 2003 and 2004. At the same time, however, the latter three are negotiating free trade pacts with the United States.

"Mercosur needs to change tack," said Fazio. "The positive role it has played in opposing the establishment of an FTAA designed by the White House is not enough. It has to find its own lines of development."

A similar challenge faces the new South American Community of Nations, officially created at a summit of South American leaders held this past Dec. 9 in Cuzco, Peru. This new bloc comprises all of the nations of the continent, including Guyana and Suriname, excluding only French Guiana, which is an overseas department of France.

The economic focus of the South American Community "should be joint actions by Mercosur and its associate members," said Fazio.

Manuel Hidalgo, an economist affiliated with the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens (ATTAC), a leader in the global anti-debt movement, said that "Latin America is a territory in dispute."

One of the most pressing tasks of the moment, said Hidalgo, is the "consolidation of a South American political space outside the OAS and free of the imperial interference of the United States."

This goal should be pursued, he added, through the confluence of "the two tendencies that have most actively challenged the empire’s policies in the region: on the one hand, the ‘Bolivarian’ current, spearheaded by Venezuela and supported by numerous social and political movements in the region, and on the other, the ‘neo-developmentalist’ current, represented by the governments of Brazil and Argentina."

In late December 2004, Chávez and Cuban President Fidel Castro joined in Havana to officially launch a new proposal for regional integration: the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA, which means "dawn" in Spanish, while closely resembling the Spanish acronym for the FTAA, which is ALCA).

The idea of creating ALBA, meant to represent the antithesis of the FTAA, was originally put forward by Chávez in 2001 during a meeting of the Association of Caribbean States on Margarita Island.

The new project was inspired by the efforts of Simón Bolívar, who led the struggles for the independence of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela in the early 19th century and unsuccessfully pursued the goal of creating a federation of Spanish-American nations.

So far, ALBA has failed to attract much support from the other governments of the region, but it will undoubtedly be endorsed by many of the Latin American civil society representatives gathered in Porto Alegre.

The organisers of the World Social Forum - which is returning to its original venue of Porto Alegre after moving to Mumbai, India for last year’s fourth edition û are aiming to expand the theme of integration beyond mere economic or trade-related matters, giving it a more comprehensive scope in the fight against the neoliberal globalisation model.

"There is hope, there is the possibility of change, but we have to unite our wills and forces throughout all of Latin America and the rest of the world," said Argentine activist and Nobel Peace laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel.

For María Luiza Mendonça of the Justice and Peace Social Network, the promotion and defence of human rights is increasingly linked to the fight against harmful macroeconomic policies and to issues like the external debt of the developing countries and intellectual property rights in WTO negotiations.

source : IPS

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