The Really Tough Question in Buenos Aires

March 28th, 2001
By Naomi Klein

Next Friday, trade ministers from the 34 countries negotiating the Free Trade Area of the Americas will meet in Buenos Aires. Many in Latin America predict that the ministers will be greeted with protests much larger than the ones that exploded in Seattle in 1999.

The FTAA’s cheerleaders like to pretend that their only critics are white college kids from Harvard and McGill who just don’t understand how much "the poor" are "clamouring" for the FTAA. Will this public display of Latin American opposition to the trade deal change all that?

Don’t be silly.

Mass protests in the developing world don’t register in our discussions about trade in the West. No matter how many people take to the streets of Buenos Aires, Mexico City or Sao Paulo, defenders of corporate-driven globalization just keep on insisting that every possible objection lobbed their way was dreamed up in Seattle, by somebody with newly matted dreadlocks slurping a latte.

When we talk about trade, we often focus on who is getting richer and who is getting poorer. But there is another divide at play: which countries are presented as diverse, complicated political landscapes where citizens have a range of divergent views, and which countries seem to speak on the world stage in an ideological monotone.

In North America, we are finally hearing the debates about whether or not more of the same model of deregulation, privatization and liberalization will protect our heath and education and water systems. In Western Europe, the foot-and-mouth inferno is putting the entire model of export-oriented industrial agriculture on trial.

And yet such diversity of public opinion is rarely attributed to citizens of Third Word countries. Instead, they are lumped into one homogenous voice, channelled by dubiously elected politicians or, better yet, ousted ones such as Mexico’s Ernesto Zedillo, now calling for a global campaign against "globophobes."

The truth is that no one can speak on behalf of Latin America’s 500 million inhabitants, least of all Mr. Zedillo, whose defeat was in part a repudiation of NAFTA’s record. All over the Americas, market liberalization is a subject of extreme dispute. The debate is not over whether foreign investment and trade are desirable—Latin America and the Caribbean are already organized into regional trading blocs such as Mercosur. The debate is about democracy: what terms and conditions will poor countries be told they must meet in order to qualify for trade and investment?

For the past two decades, these terms and conditions have been negotiated and enforced by the IMF and the World Bank in exchange for loans. Social services have been privatized, user fees introduced, agricultural subsidies cut (while richer countries kept theirs), hard-won land-redistribution programs abandoned, and minimum wage controlled—all in the name of becoming "investment ready."

Argentina, the host of next week’s FTAA meeting, is currently in open revolt over massive cuts to social spending—almost $8-billion (U.S.) over three years—that have been introduced in order to qualify for an IMF loan package. Last week, three cabinet ministers resigned, unions staged a general strike, and university instructors moved their classes to the streets.

Though anger at wrenching austerity measures has focused primarily on the IMF, it is rapidly expanding to encompass trade deals such as the proposed FTAA. The Zapatistas began their uprising on Jan. 1, 1994—the day the North American free-trade agreement came into force. Seven years later, three-quarters of the population of Mexico live in poverty, real wages are lower than they were in 1994, and unemployment is rising. No wonder the Zapatistas were able to draw 150,000 supporters to the streets of Mexico City earlier this month.

And despite the claims that the rest of Latin America is clamouring for a NAFTA to call its own, the central labour associations of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay—representing 20 million workers—have come out against the plan. They are now calling for countrywide referendums on membership in the FTAA.

Brazil, meanwhile, has threatened to boycott the summit altogether, furious at Canada’s dirty trade war and wary that the FTAA will contain protections for drug companies that will threaten its visionary public health policy of providing free generic AIDS drugs to anyone who needs them.

Defenders of free trade would have us believe in a facile equation of trade = democracy. The people who will greet our trade ministers on the streets of Buenos Aires next week are posing a more complex, and challenging, calculation: how much democracy should they be asked to give up in exchange for trade?