International trade in the Americas stands at a critical juncture that could dramatically alter the face of the Western Hemisphere.The proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is heading toward a vote in almost all of the sovereign nations of North, Central, and South America. According to the official FTAA website, www.ftaa-alca.org, the FTAA is the attempt of the governments of the democratic nations of the Western Hemisphere to establish a single free trade zone.
The impact that this treaty could have on all of the participating nations could be devastating, according to Jesus Albeiro Martinez, a union leader from Colombia, and Ana Maria Hernandez Torres, a labor activist from Mexico, who were both guests of Students for Leftist Action at Lawrence on Monday, Oct. 7.
According to these two speakers, as well as their interpreter, Jason Wallach of the Mexico Solidarity Network, the FTAA will bring nothing but problems for all nations involved. They say it will exacerbate conditions NAFTA created throughout all of the Americas, from Chile to Canada.
The speakers asked all Americans, especially those living in the United States, to work within the existing system because of the effect that U.S. policy has on the rest of the world.
Torres asked that everyone show support for workers from all over, such as the Mexican maquila factory workers. A show of solidarity will be one of the most effective tools in changing the way trade operates in the Western Hemisphere and around the globe, she said.
Perhaps the most pressing issue, said Martinez and Torres, is that of self-reliance and autonomy. Martinez said the free trade treaty “forces us (Colombians) to lose our autonomy, our culture” because of the growing pressure from multinational corporations and groups like the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.
Martinez asked, “Why is it that huge transnational corporations are forcing us to become consumers of products we can already produce [in our own country]?” He called for Americans as a whole to be more concerned with human needs rather than treaties that serve to increase the wealth of a few.
Torres emphasized that governments make the treaties without consulting the people of their respective nations. Torres said, “We disagree with the politics of the free trade treaty because we have not seen any benefits.” She said instead of adding to NAFTA, Americans should work to change it so the multinational corporations will respect the workers.
Torres has seen firsthand what NAFTA has done to Mexican workers. She spent eleven years working for one of the maquila factories, factories that appeared just across the U.S-Mexican border as early as the 1960s. This area just across the border was the only area of Mexico that had free trade status with the U.S. until the passage of NAFTA, when the entire country was opened to free trade.
Just prior to NAFTA, the workers in the maquila factories had been able to increase wages to about $130 per week, according to Torres. Immediately following the passage of the new trade agreement, the old maquila factories moved to the interior of the countries and wages dropped to only $30 or $40 a week.
According to the speakers, the FTAA will only extend these problems further south and create more problems, socially, economically, as well as environmentally.
A problem both speakers touched on was the problem of environmental pollution. Torres told students that after NAFTA corporations were no longer responsible for the disposal of their waste. As a result, huge dumps have popped up containing toxic and flammable waste.
The FTAA will almost certainly face a vote in the U.S. congress, probably by 2005, according to Wallach. The speakers urged everyone to let their senators and representatives know how they feel about the treaty before the vote.