Sunday, November 20, 2005

The text of the HAG brochure

The Hemispheria Action Group (HAG) formed this summer in response to a press release announcing that Winnipeg will be hosting the second annual North American Summit Hemispheria from May 31–June 2, 2006. This summit will bring together political and business leaders from Mexico, the United States, and Canada to discuss NAFTA and the competitiveness of the North American economy. We in HAG see the Summit as promoting the neo-liberal agenda of competition and privatization that seeks to expand the wealth and power of corporations at the expense of people and the environment. We will work to educate and mobilize people in opposition to the agenda of the Summit Hemispheria. This brochure provides our assessment of the ten commitments that came out of the inaugural Hemispheria summit held in the Mexican city of Monterrey last May.

1. To advance the North American Free Trade Agreement

The Canada-US-Mexico NAFTA promised to remove trade barriers, increase economic growth, create jobs and strengthen democracy. In reality NAFTA is an investment agreement granting foreign investors a remarkable set of new rights and privileges, rights that promote deregulation and privatization of our local, national and international markets. NAFTA deals with subjects that can be seen as barely related to trade—local agriculture, investment, intellectual-property rights, and governmental involvement in the national economy. NAFTA is an extension of long-standing neo-liberal principles and institutions. It has led to forced reductions to government subsidies, the scaling back of public services, lost jobs, and less state regulation of profit-driven private market forces. NAFTA has contributed to the concentration of more wealth into the hands of the rich few, and deepening the divide between rich and poor. NAFTA wraps itself in progressive language, but what it does is undemocratically entrench neo-liberal policies into supranational law. Once in place, the rules and regulations of the trade agreement constrain elected governments. This means that people have even less influence over what governments do in their name. Because the interconnectedness of the world economy calls for community, the alternative to NAFTA is not isolation. Trade should be guided by principles of economic sustainability, social and ecological justice and development for all. This means stable, equal trade rules enforced and achieved through a truly democratic multilateral process.

2. To develop regional energy policies

The Energy and Basic Petrochemicals Chapter of the NAFTA agreement encourages sustained and gradual liberalization of trade in energy in the free trade area. Article 602 declares, "Energy and petrochemical goods and activities shall be governed by the provisions of this Agreement." Through the energy policy framework embedded within the NAFTA, there are few benefits and the negative impacts are felt by many. Corporate concentration within the energy sector has reached alarming proportions, resulting in higher profits for investors and higher prices for people. All the while, the further development and expansion of the oil and gas industries, large scale hydro dam projects and commercial mining operation has displaced indigenous peoples from traditional lands and caused environmental destruction. At the Summit Hemispheria in Mexico last May the promotion of renewable and responsible energy sources was discussed. But when looking at the path NAFTA has brought us down thus far—ever-greater dependence on non-renewable resources as a consequence of corporate control and the profit imperative—it is highly unrealistic to think that such goals will actually be achieved. Regional energy policy within the NAFTA framework will be corporate-driven and environmentally-destructive.

3. To address the migration phenomenon

When government officials talk about the need "to address the migration phenomenon" they are not talking about reassessing the merits of neoliberal free trade agreements such as NAFTA that generate the kind of destruction and destitution that force an increasing number of Mexican workers and small-scale farmers to migrate in search of work. Instead they are talking about controlling the movement of people while maintaining and expanding the very trade agreement that made migration essential to survival. Because NAFTA legalized the free movement of capital but failed to legalize the free movement of people, Mexican workers migrating outside of their national borders without official permits are criminalized, forced to pass through increasingly militarized borders and are likely to endure vulnerable employment positions once they reach Canada and the U.S. There, they are often denied citizenship rights, leaving them unable to secure labour benefits or protection and making them extremely susceptible to all kinds of abuse. The Canadian, U.S. and Mexican governments’ vision to address "the migration phenomenon" is not about addressing the reality that their free trade agreement results in exploitation and impoverishment that leaves people with little choice but to migrate and accept coercive work situations. Instead, this vision is about freeing the movement of capital while controlling the movement of people.

4. To promote regional competitiveness

When the leaders of the NAFTA countries talk of regional competitiveness they are referring to the notion that free trade amongst Canada, Mexico and U.S. will allow the region to be more competitive in the global market. This, they say, will translate into increased economic growth, more jobs and increased prosperity for all. The reality of competition is quite different. Corporate competition is about accumulating as much wealth as possible by cutting the costs of doing business wherever possible. This inevitably and above all means cutting the costs of labour by driving down wages and attacking workers rights and benefits. Corporate competitiveness is also about "growing or dying". This means that to survive, companies must seek to maximize control over land and resources, behave in environmentally destructive ways and turn everything including the most basic social services and resources like health care and water into commodities for sale. Neoliberal free trade agreements like NAFTA increase corporate access and power. Competition over a greater area means that minimal standards fall and the exploitation of people and the environment becomes even more severe. Wealth increasingly becomes concentrated in the hands of a few while the majority finds it increasingly difficult to meet their most basic needs. Commitments to regional competitiveness lead to increased exploitation, not increased prosperity.

5. To develop regional infrastructure

When leaders of the NAFTA countries talk about developing regional infrastructure they are referring mainly to huge transportation corridors built to serve the needs of capital, not the needs of people. North America’s Super Corridor Coalition (NASCO) has been lobbying the US government for years to build a huge superhighway down through the centre of the North American continent. The corridor consists of I-35, I-29, I-80, I-94 and Manitoba’s Provincial Trunk Highway 75. The planned corridor would be nearly a quarter-mile wide, and would transform the environment with road and rail traffic and oil, gas, electric, and water lines. Building this superhighway is also about developing "intelligent" infrastructure. Such "Intelligent Transportation Systems" would include "advanced traveler information services," "automated credentialing processes," and "safety assurance activities." This technology will increase "trade security" and make the movement of freight along the corridor and across international borders cheaper for businesses. It will also provide the state with an advanced means to monitor and control the movement of people.. A commitment "to develop regional infrastructure" literally paves the road for capital at the expense of people and the environment.

6. To share and adopt government best practices

"Best practices" has become a common phrase in the world of business and, increasingly, government. At first glance, this seems like a good thing. What could be wrong with figuring out the best way to do something and sharing this method with others? The problem is that "best" here isn’t about meeting people’s needs or environmental priorities — it’s about cutting costs regardless of what this means for people. So if it costs a municipal government less to hire a private company to collect garbage than to have city workers do it, that’s the "best practice" — even though this means replacing recently-paid jobs with low-paid jobs and pushing older workers out the door because they can’t work as hard as younger workers. "Sharing and adopting government best practices" results in shrinking the number of government employees (especially unionized workers), increasing their workloads, and having more of them employed in contract, temporary and part-time positions. The drive for "government best practices" in Canada, the US and Mexico is part of restructuring the public sector in ways that are bad for both those who deliver public services (from transit to health care) as well as those who use them.

7. To support education programs

What kind of education systems do neoliberals want to build? When we look around North America, we can see that neoliberal "education reform" is well underway. There are three ways this is happening: Commercialization means more corporate penetration of the education system at all levels. This ranges from corporate teaching resources to deals that give major corporations exclusive rights to sell on university campuses to more corporate sponsorship of research and corporate donations in exchange for status and influence. More user fees (including higher university and college tuition) is another aspect of commercialization. Another avenue for "education reform" is creating more opportunities for students to fail: more standardized tests, more homework, etc.. This stokes up competition among students, and increases the streaming of students towards different parts of the workforce. The third aspect of "education reform" is changing schools to put more emphasis on an "entrepreneurial spirit." Students are to be encouraged to think about marketing themselves from an early age. Certain subjects like engineering, math and computer science are emphasized because they’re seen as increasingly important, while others are neglected (like social studies, literature and art). This is education for the market, not for people.

8. To facilitate and promote security

Since 9-11, the U.S. administration has demanded stricter controls on the movement of people across borders in the name of "national security." The governments of Canada and Mexico want a fully-liberalized trade zone comparable to the European Union. As a result, all three governments are taking steps to build "Fortress North America": a tighter "security perimeter" with increasing cooperation between police and intelligence agencies and "harmonized" border controls. Laws already in place have increased restrictions on cross-border travel for many people (including Muslims, people of colour, and non-citizens) while business persons and other accredited" citizens are getting fasttracked through customs. As part of making it easier for corporations to do business within "Fortress North America," efforts are underway to build a North American "SuperCorridor" that would allow certified containerized goods to be easily shipped across borders. Clearly, after Canada and Mexico implement secure shipping regimes, other countries will then face the same demands for trade "security". But this "certification" is a package deal requiring harmonized intelligence and enforcement agencies that meets the approval of the U.S. state. The walls of "Fortress North America" are intended, from the start, to be portable and ever-expanding.

9. To Promote Cultural Diversity

When most people read "cultural diversity," they think of multiculturalism. But when government officials from Canada talk about promoting cultural diversity within the context of NAFTA, they are referring to their commitment to protecting Canadian cultural products from being pushed out of the market by foreign competitors. To this end, NAFTA contains a clause that exempts cultural products from being subject to the rules of free trade, allowing each member state to protect its own cultural industries. But there is a contradiction in these efforts because these same states are committed to free trade agreements that cultivate a non-diverse "neoliberal free trade market culture". The kind of society that neoliberalism creates isn’t really diverse at all. We’re all pressured to act individualistically, compete with each other, and accept the domination of our lives by market forces. Most of us are forced to spend our lives doing unfulfilling work with little or no control over what we do, just to put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads. This way of living, this neoliberal culture, is far from a shining example of genuine diversity. Although government officials may pride themselves in promoting diversity in cultural products, their neoliberal agenda imposes a more fundamental kind of cultural conformity.

10. To dignify economic humanism

Mexican President Fox has talked about the need to adopt "active social policies, centered on dignity, freedom and people’s capabilities so that they can take advantage of opportunities, generate assets and step out of the vicious circle of poverty by themselves and permanently." Fox calls this "a new economic humanism." Great words, well spoken, but is this possible within the NAFTA framework which has deepened poverty and deprived people of dignity and freedom? In reality, NAFTA has led to lower real wages for more people, displacing others from the land, a widening gap between the rich and poor and more poverty. The neoliberal economic principles embedded in the NAFTA — the weakening of social and environmental protection, privatization of public services, and increased market liberalization — have successfully paved the path to more poverty. The kind of "deeper integration" slated for discussion at the upcoming 2006 Hemispheria Summit in Winnipeg will only make this worse. Any talk of combining "humanism"—centered on humans, their values, capacities, dignity and worth—with NAFTA-type economics is a contradiction.

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