Free trade: the big lie
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On March 10, 2010, former President Bill Clinton made this stunning confession to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee regarding his free trade policies in Haiti:
It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. I had to live every day with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else.
Even more surprisingly, Mr. Clinton, one of the founding fathers of the modern free trade agreement, admitted that this type of trade policy "failed everywhere it's been tried ... ." Truer words have never been spoken. And yet, even in the face of such a confession, and in the face of incontrovertible facts, the U.S. Congress is poised to pass not just one, but three new free trade agreements -- with Colombia, South Korea and Panama -- of the very type that Mr. Clinton now loses sleep over.
So, what are the facts?
Let's start with the mother of all free trade agreements -- the North American Free Trade Agreement -- the one which Mr. Clinton had promised would create jobs in the United States but which presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ran from in 2008, claiming that it needed fixing. And fixing it surely needs. According to the Economic Policy Institute, nearly 900,000 (mostly high-paying) U.S. jobs were lost to NAFTA between 1993 and 2002 alone.
Meanwhile, Mexico has fared even worse. Indeed, the same devastation Mr. Clinton's policies wrought in Haiti have been experienced in Mexico. Thus, the agricultural provisions of NAFTA -- almost identical to those contained in the Colombia Free Trade Agreement now being considered -- cost the livelihood and land of 1.3 million small farmers in Mexico.
Where did these small farmers go? Many are being forced to emigrate to the United States. Indeed, while small farmers make up a relatively small percentage of the Mexican population, they make up around 40 percent of Mexicans immigrating into the United States. Still others have been pushed into the illicit drug trade -- the very drug trade the United States purports to fight there.
Meanwhile, the good industrial jobs lost in the United States under NAFTA never translated into good jobs in Mexico. Rather, NAFTA created low-paying, dangerous and environmentally damaging industries on the other side of the border which have devastated Mexican workers and their communities. One only need look at Juarez, Mexico -- the city that was to be a model of development under NAFTA and which instead is experiencing violence at wartime levels, with 4,300 civilians murdered in the last two years out of a population of 2 million.
Again, it was NAFTA and the "free trade" principles it embodied which have done this, which have transformed Mexico into the near failed state it is today.
This now brings us to the Colombia FTA -- the one I know most about and which represents the biggest concern for labor and human rights advocates.
When running for office, President Obama took a principled stance against the Colombia FTA, echoing the concerns of labor that we shouldn't enter into a free trade agreement with Colombia in light of its abysmal labor and human rights situation. As Mr. Obama explained, "We have to stand for human rights and we have to make sure that violence isn't being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights."
The rationale behind this stance continues to this day, with 51 unionists killed in Colombia in 2010 and 23 killed so far this year, allowing Colombia to retain its dubious distinction as the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a trade unionist. In addition to unionists, human rights defenders, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, and Catholic priests defending the poor are also targeted in Colombia. This year alone, six Catholic priests have been murdered in Colombia.
Meanwhile, according to Colombia's own prosecutor general, right-wing paramilitaries aligned with the Colombian state have murdered more than 170,000 civilians over the past 15 years. Of these, around 50,000 have "disappeared." Yet this is a country to which the United States may give special trade preferences.
The Colombia FTA, while costing the United States an estimated 55,000 net jobs, according to the Economic Policy Institute, would wreak further havoc in Colombia. The agricultural policies that devastated Haiti and Mexico -- those allowing the United States to dump cheap, subsidized food into those countries -- would be applied to Colombia. This would lead to the impoverishment and dislocation of hundreds of thousands of small farmers in Colombia, many of whom would join the ranks of the 5 million internally displaced persons in Colombia -- the largest internally displaced population in the world.
In short, free trade has never worked as promised and it will not work now. But sadly, like the false prophets of a bad religion, those holding the reins of power in the United States continue to push "free trade" policies despite all the evidence that they have failed. These false prophets exhort us to believe in the magical force of the "invisible hand" of the "free market" to save us, all the while giving real and visible aid to corporations and Wall Street banks even as they tell working people to keep tightening their belts. It is time that these lies and these bad economic and trade policies be rejected.
First Published October 10, 2011 12:00 am