August 10, 2003
By Raffique Shah
LAST Friday, Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez paid a fleeting visit to this country to hold talks with Prime Minister Patrick Manning. According to spokespersons for the Trinidad and Tobago Government, the two leaders were expected to discuss matters of mutual interest, namely oil and gas on the economic front, and crime, especially the illicit drugs and guns "trade" between criminal elements in both countries. I have no idea whether they got around to discussing multilateral trading agreements, especially those like the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement (FTAA), on which Chavez and Manning hold opposing views.
The Manning government is all "gung ho" about the FTAA, so much so that overtures have been made to have its head offices sited in Port of Spain. In fact, the head of Manning's "Vision 2020 Task Force", Arthur Lok Jack, is known to be an ardent promoter of the FTAA and similar protocols that supposedly will allow free trade. Chavez on the other hand has spoken out against it, strongly critical of the economic havoc it could wreak on poorer countries in the region. For his stand on that and other mechanisms of globalisation, he has had to face stiff opposition in his own country, mainly from the business sector.
It is ironical that big business, especially domestic manufacturers in countries like ours and Venezuela, would want to rush in where bigger businesses that are better positioned to enjoy the benefits of such protocols, are treading cautiously. Because the first entrepreneurs who feel the heat of unfair competition fostered by free trade are small-to-medium manufacturers. Before them, the agricultural sector in most countries go under, victims of low cost producers. In the latter case, for example, we have witnessed the death of the banana industry in the Eastern Caribbean at the hands of US$2-a-day-labourers working the plantations in Central America for agro-giants like Grace and Chiquita.
For several years now, more so since the last GATT Agreement was signed in the early 1990s, countries like ours have rushed to fulfil the requirements long before the developed countries even thought about them. One of the bigger scams in that regard was what transpired with the sugar industry in EU countries. They did not touch the subsidies they granted to beet farmers, as required by the GATT. They continued much the way they operated earlier, dumping subsidised white sugar in Third World markets. The food producers' lobby in the US and the EU are so powerful, their interests so intertwined with those of big capital and globalisation, they won't be touched.
Take world coffee producers as another example of victims of globalisation. A recent Oxfam report showed that coffee farmers sell their beans at around 60 per cent of what it costs them to produce. Ten years ago producer-country exports captured one-third of the value of the coffee market. Today, their earnings are less than ten per cent. Farmers in Vietnam are pulling their children out of school, they no longer afford basic medicines, and they are even cutting back on food. Meanwhile the big four coffee roasters—Kraft, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble, and Sara Lee—each have coffee brands worth more than US$1 billion. That's the power of globalisation. The rich get richer, the poor poorer.
When the FTAA kicks in, and if countries like those in the Caricom, ACS and the Andean Pact do not actively resist it, or better still prepare ourselves to meet its challenges head-on, agriculture will either fall into the hands of the multinationals or die, and manufacturing will suffer a similar fate. One way to fight the giant-of-an-enemy is for developing countries to "go downstream", meaning to cooperate with each other to add value to whatever we produce, be it oil or gas, bananas or bodi. Venezuela and Trinidad, being oil and gas producers, will be central to any such "fight back".
In his incisive new book The New Rulers of the World, Australian born journalist John Pilger writes of the "global economy": "On the surface it is instant financial trading, mobile phones, McDonald's, Starbucks, holidays booked on the net. Beneath this gloss, it is the globalisation of poverty, a world where most human beings never make a phone call and live on less than US$2 a day, where 6,000 children die every day from diarrhoea because most have no access to clean water."
Pilger continues: "In this world, unseen by most of us the global north, a sophisticated system of plunder has forced more than 90 countries into ‘structural adjustment" programmes... This is known as ‘nation building' and ‘good governance' by the ‘quad' dominating the World Trade Organization (the US, the EU, Canada and Japan) and the Washington triumvirate (the World Bank, the IMF and the US Treasury) that controls even minute aspects of government policy in developing countries."
Sounds familiar? Remember the pay cut public servants took when the NAR government went to the IMF? Listen to the rooftop cries of decision makers like Ken Valley and John Rahael? "No subsidies! Sell your shares to Cemex! Make a profit or die!" I don't know if they read, but if they do they fail to understand the implications of the FTAA, of structuring the economy by-the-IMF-book. Yes, we have oil and gas, and yes we can expect an economic boom of sorts. But what would such inflow of revenues mean if or when our farmers are driven away from food production, if our manufacturers have to compete against Thai or Brazilian businesses that pay workers US$2 a day? We will never be able to enjoy our wealth if, in bending to the will of the domineering North, we sacrifice the already low quality of life too many of our citizens have to endure. It's the same situation in Venezuela, rich in oil but riddled with poverty. And Chavez did not cause that: he came to power just a few years ago.
So while most people will have wanted Manning and Chavez to seek to plug the illicit gun-trade gap, there are issues that are infinitely more important than that. Hell, even talks on oil and gas pale before the central questions about a common, collective response to globalisation, to the FTAA, to the gross inequity of the WTO and the IMF. I know many would view this column as the rantings of a "leftover leftist".
But I will not stay silent and see my beloved country toe the thin line between poverty and prosperity, make the wrong choices that will spell doom for so many ordinary citizens. No oil boom should come-and-go and leave us with huge pockets of poverty. Never again.