Tuesday, April 28, 2009

From The Pope of Hope Files: Obama Reneges on NAFTA

Well fancy that: the same guy who has surrounded himself with neoliberal fundamentalists since the moment he hit the campaign trail breaks a promise to renegotiate NAFTA. Could have seen that one coming a mile away. Bruce Dixon describes what NAFTA is, and why it is so toxic:
NAFTA and all the other so-called “free trade agreements” are in fact investor rights agreements. They make businesses operated by international investors substantially immune to local laws and regulations on health, safety, wages, hours, labor rights, antipollution, financial and other practices. They establish secretive extrajudicial courts with no appeal where corporations appoint the judges who can decide in favor of them.

NAFTA was negotiated by the first Bush administration in 1991 and 92. Outside the community of market fundamentalists, it has always been wildly unpopular. George H.W. Bush couldn't move it through Congress, and it was a big issue in the 1992 presidential election. In a memorable moment of one presidential debate opposite Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, independent candidate Ross Perot predicted that if NAFTA were enacted the “giant sucking sound” we'd all hear would be the movement of millions of jobs leaving the U.S., fleeing southward to Mexico.

Bill Clinton won that election. In the same way our current president is able to cheerfully hand over trillions to Wall Street, to refuse to investigate torture and violations of the Constitution, to leave 50,000 troops and many more mercenaries in Iraq, and extend the Afghan war to nuclear-armed Pakistan with scarcely a public murmur from his left, Clinton did for the bipartisan Party of Business what its Republican wing could not. Clinton abandoned congressional Democrats and “reached across the aisle” to Newt Gingrich, leader of the Republicans in Congress to work for NAFTA's passage. The fact as the National Review quoted Clinton aide Dave Dreyer at the time, "...that nobody wants this (NAFTA). There's just no popular sentiment for it,” made no difference. The Party of Business wanted it very badly indeed, and having a Democrat push it threw opposition into disarray. Though most congressional Democrats voted against NAFTA, it squeaked through with near unanimous Republican support and a minority of Democrats, championed by the Democratic president. Clinton invited Jimmy Carter and Bush back to Washington to take part in the signing.

Ross Perot proved prescient, according to NAFTA at 10, a comprehensive report put out a decade later by Public Citizen. An investor rights agreement rather than a so-called “free trade agreement” it drove down wages on both sides of the U.S. - Mexican border and put self-sustaining Mexican farmers, the people who invented corn and beans out of business by the millions. Mexico became dependent on corporate-grown food from the U.S. Millions of its ex-farmers were driven by hunger into the cities, where there were few or no jobs, and then came north to the U.S.
I've mentioned before that NAFTA was not only bad for workers in the US (which was all the Perotistas cared about) but also for workers in Mexico as well. That giant sucking sound wasn't just the sound of jobs leaving the US, but increasingly leaving Mexico thus leading to massive human displacement - the devastating consequences we're experiencing currently. To give you a taste of what I'm talking about:
By November 2002, the US Department of Labor had certified 507,000 workers for extended unemployment benefits because their employers had moved their jobs south of the border. The Department of Labor stopped counting NAFTA job losses, but the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, DC, estimated that NAFTA had eliminated 879,000 jobs. That was five years ago.

But US job loss didn't produce job increases in Mexico - it eliminated them there too. In NAFTA's first year, more than a million jobs disappeared in the economic crisis NAFTA caused.

To attract investment in Mexico, the treaty required privatization of factories, railroads and other large enterprises, leading to more layoffs of Mexican workers.

On the border, Ford, General Electric and other corporations built factories and moved production from the United States to take advantage of low wages. But more than 400,000 maquiladora workers lost their jobs in 2000-2001 when US consumers cut back spending in the last recession, and companies found even lower wages in other countries, such as El Salvador or China.

Before NAFTA, US auto plants in Mexico had to buy parts from Mexican factories, which employed thousands of local workers. But NAFTA let the auto giants bring in cheaper parts from their own subsidiaries, so Mexican auto parts workers lost their jobs, too.

The profits of US grain companies, already subsidized under the US farm bill, went higher when NAFTA allowed them to dump cheap corn on the Mexican market, while at the same time it forced Mexico to cut its agricultural subsidies. As a result, small farmers in Oaxaca and Chiapas couldn't sell corn anymore at a price that would pay the cost of growing it.

When corn farmers couldn't farm, or auto parts and maquiladora workers were laid off, where did they go? They became migrants.

The real, dirty secret of trade agreements is displacement. During the years NAFTA has been in effect, more than six million people from Mexico have come to live in the United States. They didn't abandon their homes, families, farms and jobs willingly. They had no other option for survival.
From Kill NAFTA before NAFTA kills Mexican corn:
A few clips from a recent John Ross column:
Some say that these indeed may be the last days of Mexican corn.

In fact, this January 1 may prove to be a doomsday date for Mexican maiz when at the stroke of midnight, all tariffs on corn (and beans) will be abolished after more than a decade of incremental NAFTA-driven decreases. Although U.S. corn growers are already dumping 10 million tons of the heavily subsidized grain in Mexico each year, zero tariffs are expected to trigger a tsunami of corn imports, much of it genetically modified, that will drive millions of Mexican farmers off their land - in NAFTA's first 13 years, 6,000,000 have already abandoned their plots - and could well spell the end of the line for 59 distinct "razas" or races of native corn.


Monsanto, which dominates 71 per cent of the GMO seed market, has operated in Mexico since the post-World War II so-called "green revolution" that featured hybrid seeds ("semillas mejoradas") that only worked when associated with pesticides and fertilizers manufactured by the transnational chemical companies. Selling hybrid seeds and chemical poisons in Mexico continues to be profitable for Monsanto whose total 2006 sales here topped 3,000,000,000 pesos ($300 million USD.) It doesn't hurt that Monsanto Mexico sells hybrid seed for $2 Americano for a packet of a thousand when its states-side price is $1.34.

22,000,000 Mexicans, 13,000,000 of them children, suffer some degree of malnutrition according to doctors at the National Nutrition Institute and Monsanto insists that it can feed them all if only the CIBOGEN will allow it to foist its GMO seed on unwitting corn farmers. But the way Monsanto sells its GMO seed is severely questioned.

Farmers are forced to sign contracts, agreeing to buy GMO seed at a company-fixed price. Monsanto's super-duper "Terminator" seed, named after California's action hero governor, goes sterile after one growing cycle and the campesinos are obligated to buy more. By getting hooked on Monsanto, Mexican farmers, once seed savers and repositories themselves of the knowledge of their inner workings, become consumers of seed, an arrangement that augurs poorly for the survival of Mexico's many native corns.

Moreover, as farmers from other climes who have resisted Monsanto and refused to buy into the GMO blitz, have learned only too traumatically, pollen blowing off contaminated fields will spread to non-GMO crops. Even more egregiously, Monsanto will then send "inspectors" (often off-duty cops) to your farm and detect their patented strains in your fields and charge you with stealing the corporation's property.

When Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser came to Mexico several years back to explain how Monsanto had taken his farm from him for precisely these reasons, local legislators laughed that it was a science fiction scenario. "It is going to happen to you," the old farmer warned with all the prescience of an Aztec seer.
I've been trying to tune my readers in to the growing crisis facing our fellow humans who make their lives and livelihoods in Mexico. NAFTA, beloved by both the Clintonistas and Bushistas, has certainly been a godsend for their corporate cronies, but an utter nightmare for family farmers and merchants in Mexico since it went into effect in the early 1990s:

In Mexico, “Poverty has risen by over 50 percent during the first four years of NAFTA and wages in the manufacturing sector have declined,” reports the Data Center.

A 2004 report published by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means states that “At least 1.5 million Mexican farmers lost their livelihoods to NAFTA.” The situation is only expected to worsen in 2008 when Mexico is required to comply with a NAFTA deadline to totally eliminate its corn and bean import tariffs. Many policy experts predicted that farmers displaced by NAFTA would migrate to the United States.

Indeed, a comparison of U.S. censuses of 1990 and 2000 shows “the number of Mexican-born residents in the United States increased by more than 80 percent,” states Jeff Faux in “How NAFTA Failed Mexico,” The American Prospect (July 3, 2003.) “Some half-million Mexicans come to the United States every year; roughly 60 percent of them are undocumented. The massive investments in both border guards and detection equipment have not diminished the migrant flow; they have just made it more dangerous. More than 1,600 Mexican migrants have died on the journey to the north.”

While NAFTA is responsible for the latest “migration hump,” it is not the sole culprit. Practices by bodies like the World Trade Organization, “along with the programs dictated by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, have helped double the gap between rich and poor countries since 1960,” reports Noam Chomsky in The Nation. The ensuing foreign debt deprives these countries from accumulating capital to develop competitive industries and has lead to mass migration northward.

After NAFTA was passed by Congress in 1992, “the agreement raised concerns in the United States about immigration from south of the border,” according to “NAFTA, The Patriot Act and the New Immigration Backlash” by the American Anthropological Association. To counter the predicted influx of Latin Americans, President Bill Clinton signed The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. “The 1996 Welfare Reform bill included anti-immigrant and other measures that eliminated many social services for undocumented immigrants,” the report states. The current ICE raids are a result of these long term policies.

As you can gather from those paragraphs, when folks are driven to near-starvation, they have this amazing tendency to look around for some means of providing food and shelter for themselves and their families.
I followed that up with:
Migra Matters recently had an interesting updated take on what's going on as NAFTA continues to decimate not only the family farmer but also encourages the destruction of biodiversity. The usual propaganda in the US press trumpets how "wonderful" NAFTA is, claiming it's a "win-win" for farmers and ranchers. However,
Mexican farmers cannot see NAFTA as a win. Not by a long shot. They recognize it as a disaster.
[T]he changes [brought by NAFTA] are deeply unpopular in Mexico, where farmers fear unrestricted imports will depress prices and stir competition in producing white corn, which has been grown since the Aztec times.

Most of Mexico's three million corn producers and half a million bean producers make a living on small farms that are a far cry from the sweeping, industrialized operations that characterize U.S. agriculture.

Corn tariffs have gradually been phased out since the trade deal was implemented, and imports of U.S. yellow corn to Mexico, mostly used in animal feed, have skyrocketed. They now account for close to 35 percent of Mexican consumption.
Some background:
*At the start of the year Mexico lifted 14 years of protection for corn, beans, milk and sugar under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that took effect in 1994. The regional trade pact groups Mexico, the United States and Canada.

* Mexican lawmakers demanded [on 1/4/08 that] President Felipe Calderon consider renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement and meet with farmers, who fear a flood of cheap U.S. imports.

* "This is a national security issue," said Samuel Aguilar, of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, in a speech before the Congress. "The agricultural chapter of NAFTA could generate a social conflict." /snip

Mexico may lose as many as 350,000 farm jobs this year because of competition from the U.S.

* Some Mexican farmers say competing against highly subsidized U.S. goods could put thousands out of work on top of about 2 million Mexican farm jobs lost over the last decade.
NAFTA is a recipe for complete disaster in Mexico:
Timothy Wise, a professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts, calls unblunted liberalization in those sensitive goods a "recipe for disaster" for those who depend on Mexico's vulnerable farm sector.

"Just as the U.S. became the largest supplier of animal feed, it has the capacity to become a dominant supplier of dry beans and white corn, undermining markets in Mexico and creating a dependence on external sources for the two very clear main staple foods," he said.
Of course, this economic disaster will lead directly to the displacement of small, Mexican farmers, and act as an incentive to those farmers' forced migration to the US. In short: NAFTA's destroying Mexican subsistence farmers and forcing them through economic pressure to leave failing, subsistence farms and enter the US. I've discussed this before here and here.
Not only are the family farmers increasingly consigned to the status of the permanently displaced, but NAFTA is setting the stage for an ecological catastrophe:
NAFTA will have a gigantic, negative biodiversity impact. There are two primary kinds of corn grown in the US, white and yellow. Yellow is mostly animal food. And in the US, unlike Mexico, corn is a genetically modified crop. "In the US, by 2006 89% of the planted area of soybeans, 83 percent of cotton, and 61 percent maize was genetically modified varieties." source. Even before the end of NAFTA, genetically modified corn presented a problem in Mexico:
Rural and urban activists throughout the Americas are calling on grain exporters, the biotech industry, and the US and Canadian governments to stop dumping untested and unlabeled genetically engineered corn on Mexico and other nations, where irreplaceable corn varieties are being damaged by "genetic pollution." In Mexico researchers have detected widespread contamination of traditional varieties of corn, caused by surreptitious imports of genetically engineered corn into Mexico by grain export giants such as Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill

And now, there is even greater reason to be concerned:
Those who want to introduce bioengineered corn in Mexico appear to be gaining an upper hand.

A law to allow experimental planting of GMO strains in northern Mexico was passed two years ago but was never signed. Agriculture Minister Alberto Cardenas said this week the law could go into effect in a matter of weeks.

"We don’t want to be behind. We have to start testing now," said Catalino Flores, a geneticist working with Salazar’s organization in San Salvador El Seco.

Corn yields in the United States can be more than three times those in Mexico, according to Mexican growers.

"There will be drought resistant corn in 5 to 10 years. If you don’t plant something like that when everyone else is, you’ll be down the drain," Flores said.

About half of U.S. yellow corn sent to Mexico comes from genetically modified seeds. Mexico’s agriculture minister reckons GMO seeds smuggled in from the United States are already being planted in northern Mexican states.
So what's the big deal? It's fairly simple: GMO corn threatens non-GMO corn species, undermining bio-diversity.
[S]some farmers worry that introducing GMO seeds could contaminate hundreds of wild blue, red and multicolored corn varieties planted for centuries in Mexico.

"The farmers who want to plant transgenic corn are irresponsible, they don’t care if the are putting the genetic heritage of Mexico at risk," said Victor Suarez head of a small farmers’ group that wants keep trade protections for corn and beans.

The ancient Maya, who lived in southern Mexico over 1,000 years ago, believed the gods made men from maize. The plant was adopted over 500 years ago by Spanish conquerors and spread to the rest of the world.

So to make a long story short, not only will NAFTA destroy Mexican subsistence farming and contribute to migration from Mexico to the US for former subsistence farmers, it also will endanger the bio diversity of corn in Mexico (if not the entire hemisphere).
Think about what a loss of biodiversity means. You end up with far fewer strains of the plants you're harvesting, which means that in the event of some disease that wipes out one or more of those limited strains of plant, a lot of folks are going to starve, to put it bluntly. I'm sure the wonks from these corporations will try to assure the rest of us that they've got all sorts of lovely chemicals that will prevent that from ever happening, but I wouldn't bet on it. Heck, as the petroleum-fueled "green revolution" draws to a close in the post-peak-oil era, the availability of said chemicals will be questionable (as will the viability of the massive corporate farming enterprises) over the long haul. Expect famine, probably sooner rather than later.

Rather than being a win-win, NAFTA over the long haul is more like a lose-lose, outside of a small handful of corporate executives betting the future of humanity on their expected short-term profit margins.

What to do? I've been saying that we need to kill NAFTA before it kills Mexican corn. I'll keep saying it again, and again - as often as necessary.
Those most victimized by NAFTA have referred to it properly as genocidal:
Every once in a while, I mention that the Zapatistas had, in their communiques, referred to NAFTA as genocidal. Here is just one, by Subcomandante Marcos, that jumped out at me as I was doing some background reading this evening:
The U.S. government has been wrong more than once in regards to its foreign policy. When this has occurred it is due to the fact it is making a mistake as to the man it ought to be backing up. History is not lacking in this type of examples. In the first half of this decade, the U.S. government made a mistake backing Carlos Salinas de Gortari. It made a mistake signing a NAFTA which lacked a majority support from the North American people and which meant an order of summary execution against the Mexican Indigenous people.

On the dawn of 1994 we rose up in arms. We rose up not seeking power, not responding to a foreign order. We rose up to say "here we are." The Mexican government, our government, had forgotten us and was ready to perpetrate a genocide without bullets or bombs, it was ready to annihilate us with the quiet death of sickness, of misery, of oblivion. The U.S. government became the accomplice of the Mexican government in this genocide.

With the signing of NAFTA, the U.S. government acted as guarantor of and gave its blessing to the murder of millions of Mexicans. Did the people of the U.S. know this? Did it know that its government was signing accords of massive extermination in Mexico? Did the people of the U.S. know that his government was backing a criminal? That man is gone. We remained. Our demands had not been solved and our arms kept saying "here we are" to the new government, to the people of Mexico, to the people and governments of the world. We waited patiently for the new government to listen to us and pay attention to us. But, within the dark circles of U.S. power someone decided that we, the insurgent Indigenous people of the Mexican South East, were the worst threat to the United States of America. From the darkness came the order: Finish them up!

They put a price on our brown skin, on our culture, on our word, because, above all they put a price on our uprising. The U.S. government decided, once more, to back a man, someone who continues with the politics of deceit of his predecessor, someone who denies the people of Mexico democracy, freedom and justice. Millions of dollars were lent to that man and his government. Without the approval of the American people, an enormous loan, without precedent in history, was granted to the Mexican government. Not to improve the living conditions of the people, not for the democratization of the country's political life, not for the economic reactivation promoting factories and productive projects. This money is for speculation, for corruption, for simulation, for the annihilation of a group of rebels, Indians for the most part, poorly armed, poorly nourished, ill equipped, but very dignified, very rebellious, and very human.
I cleaned up a couple glaring spelling errors, and highlighted passages that struck me as deserving emphasis, but otherwise the text is as originally translated.
The Obama regime of course has precious little interest on job loss, displacement, environmental collapse, or genocide caused by NAFTA - after all Obama is merely playing for the money men who backed his presidency. It is crucial to realize Obama does not and in all probability never has cared about the impact that neoliberal economic policies have on the rest of us. He's only been a bit more slick in selling the snake oil than his predecessors and a bit more savvy when it comes to pushing the right buttons to get the so-called "progressives" to vote him and his sorry excuse of a party into office. That he spoke with forked tongue is of no surprise. That people will continue to suffer and starve as a consequence should also come as no surprise. That there are no innocent bystanders as such egregious human suffering continues to be perpetrated in the enforcement of policies such as NAFTA (remember what I was saying about organizational and structural violence earlier?) should not only recognized, but should be shouted from every street corner (physical and virtual) as possible.

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