Obama Reverses Campaign Pledge to Renegotiate NAFTA
August 11, 2009
Democracy Now! democracynow.org
President Obama has wrapped up a two-day visit to Mexico for talks with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The three leaders met in Guadalajara to discuss issues including immigration reform, trade, Mexico's drug war, the crisis in Honduras, and the swine flu outbreak. It was Obama's first official summit under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. On the campaign trail, Obama had promised to open up NAFTA to renegotiations. But he's backed off that pledge since taking office, blaming the global economic meltdown.
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Manuel Perez Rocha, Associate Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and a member of the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade.
Laura Carlsen, Director of the Americas Program at the International Relations Center. She has lived in Mexico many years and has published numerous articles on social and political issues in the country.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: President Obama has wrapped up a two-day visit to Mexico for talks with Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The three leaders met in Guadalajara to discuss issues including immigration reform, trade, Mexico's drug war, the crisis in Honduras, and the swine flu outbreak. It was Obama's first official summit under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.
On the campaign trail, Obama had promised to open up NAFTA to renegotiations. But he's backed off that pledge since taking office, blaming the global economic meltdown. Speaking to reporters on Friday, Obama said, quote, "At a time when the economy has been shrinking drastically and trade has been shrinking around the world...we probably want to make the economy more stabilized in the coming months before we have a long discussion around further trade negotiations," he said.
Obama's reversal on NAFTA has come under criticism from labor and human rights groups. In Mexico, NAFTA has been blamed for squeezing out small Mexican farmers, depressing wages, and spurring waves of immigration to the United States. Before the summit, a group of protesters gathered at the US embassy in Mexico and called on Obama to uphold his campaign pledge. This is Dolores Rojas of Oxfam.
DOLORES ROJAS: [translated] It's time for President Obama to fulfill the promises he made to his electorate. He promised, while campaigning and as president, to renegotiate NAFTA. At this first summit, he ought to start keeping his promise. Mexican President Felipe Calderon should fulfill the commitment signed by his predecessor in the National Rural Agreement to renegotiate said treaty. Canadian Prime Minister Harper should also address the demands of the parliamentary committee and of a growing number of citizens and organizations in his country who share that sentiment, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on NAFTA, we're joined now by two guests. Manuel Perez Rocha is an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and a member of the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade. He's joining us from Washington, DC. And joining us by Democracy Now! video stream from Mexico City is Laura Carlsen, director of the Mexico City-based Americas Policy Program of the Center for International Policy.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Manuel, overall, your response to the—what they call the Three Amigos summit?
MANUEL PEREZ ROCHA: Thank you, Amy, for the invitation.
Well, I think it was mostly a protocolarian summit, a photo op. And unfortunately, there wasn't a major breakthrough in most of the pending issues in the tri-national agenda. For us, civil society organizations that have been working against the Security and Prosperity Partnership, it is a—somehow a welcoming sign that they are not talking about this framework anymore; however, most of the elements that are part of the Security and Prosperity Partnership agenda are still there, namely, increased regulation and increased militarization of Mexico. So, my overall impression is that the summit has been a lost opportunity to signal Obama's intention and willingness to help Mexico to change.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And, Manuel, you write about the SPP, the Security Prosperity Partnership, in your latest piece, and you talk about who was invited behind these closed-door meetings. Can you talk about some of that, please?
MANUEL PEREZ ROCHA: Well, in the last three years, since 2005, this initiative that was undertaken by Bush, by former President Bush, by former President Fox and Martin from Canada, the only invited stakeholder to these talks were big businesses. They formed this ad hoc group called the North American Competitiveness Council, in which only thirty big corporations of North America gave—used to give any input to the presidents, and this was what led the agenda of the tri-national relations for three years.
What we're seeing now is somehow a continuity, because previous to Guadalajara, to the Guadalajara summit, there wasn't any consultation at all to civil society organizations, to small businesses, to farmers, to human rights groups, about what should lead the agenda for North America. This is also a reason why I think this has been a missed opportunity. And it is discouraging when President Obama has—had declared during his campaign that in the first year of office he would conduct the summits with Mexico and Canada in a different way than President Bush used to do, inviting civil society organizations, inviting small businesses, inviting all stakeholders of society, to give input and participate in the discussions of the tri-national agenda and the future of North America.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Laura Carlsen, the issue of NAFTA, this was not really talked about at this summit. On the campaign trail, Obama has discussed—he pledged to renegotiate NAFTA, but has backed off that campaign pledge since then. Why renegotiate NAFTA?
LAURA CARLSEN: All three citizenries, in the United States, Canada and Mexico, have reasons to renegotiate NAFTA, and they're very legitimate reasons. That's why I think this was more than a missed opportunity. I think it was definitely a step backwards from Obama's campaign promises.
In the United States, labor is asking for a renegotiation to incorporate those labor standards into the trade agreement, because as side agreements, both labor and environment have been basically ignored. There's no real sanctions to them, and there's no means of controlling this flow of businesses south to Mexico in order to [inaudible] labor and have more control over working conditions by violating workers' rights.
In Mexico, of course, the big reason to renegotiate NAFTA has been that small farmers have been displaced from the countryside by having to face imports from the United States. There have been an estimated two million farmers that have lost their livelihoods because of subsidized interests in—imports in the farming communities, and many of those have ended up migrating.
In Canada, they're looking for greater control over their natural resources.
So it was a real slap in the face to citizen movements that these issues didn't even come up at this summit. And at some point, the leaders are going to have to deal with them, because that's what we deserve.
AMY GOODMAN: If NAFTA were to be renegotiated, what are the issues you think should be renegotiated?
LAURA CARLSEN: Well, the Mexicans are calling for corn and beans and basic foodstuffs to be eliminated from NAFTA in order to have policies within the nation that can assure a secure food supply and livelihoods for farmers. There's also a question of each country having control over its natural resources to be able to do planning for sustainable development at a time when that's obviously critical.
What Obama has asked for during the campaign that these side agreements become a part of the trade agreement so that they're not always completely subordinated to the commercial aspects of NAFTA. And I think that that's also critical. So these are the issues that are on the table, and it was surprising and very disappointing that they didn't come up at the summit.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Manuel, you've also written about swine flu. This was an issue, the outbreak of the swine flu, at the summit. And you bring in NAFTA as a reason for swine flu and the outbreak, a possible reason. Could you explain?
MANUEL PEREZ ROCHA: Well, yes. We think—I think, and the people I work with, that more than continued collaboration, which is what the presidents pledged to in Guadalajara, and more than continued collaboration, what is required is to instruct health authorities in the respective countries to investigate the conditions that have led to the emergence of the H1N1 flu virus, also known as the swine virus.
And it's also known as the NAFTA virus, because there is evidence that has been uncovered today that suggests that the massive US-owned hog-raising operations were shifted to Mexico once NAFTA started being implemented in 1994, and big US companies moved their operations to Mexico to make the most of lack of environmental regulations. So this is why, you know, ground zero was located in this area of Veracruz in Perote, where these farms with draconian health conditions and environmental regulations were operating. And this is where the—one of the places where the flu started—started disseminating.
So, what we say is that what we need to see is the roots, the roots of the crisis of the flu, of this flu crisis, that is going to intensify in the Northern Hemisphere in the next fall, instead of just looking for only very inefficient solutions.
AMY GOODMAN: It's interesting that the whole outbreak of the swine flu got very little into—and certainly in terms of mainstream media attention in the United States—the actual hog farms, both in the United States and in Mexico. In fact, tremendous pressure to stop calling it swine flu, Manuel, and to start calling it H1N1.
MANUEL PEREZ ROCHA: Yeah, that's right, Amy. I think it's been a very clear intention from our governments not to really excavate further into which are the roots and the causes that have—you know, that are behind this health crisis, this near pandemic that we're living today. Well, the World Health Organization has already called it a pandemic, and they say it's unstoppable. But if we don't redress the whole economic model that stands on the lack of environmental and labor—the exploitation of environmental and labor lack of regulations and enforcement, we will continue to see the multiplication of this kind of crisis.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Manuel, you also talk about—there's an alternative summit going on right now, with a big protest march planned. Could you talk about that?
MANUEL PEREZ ROCHA: Well, the alternative summit happened from Saturday until yesterday. And there were at least sixty organizations from Mexico, Canada and the US that were there to send a message to the three presidents that we need another model, a new economic model. And this is why I think it was a missed opportunity and, I agree with Laura, a step backwards, that they didn't take this opportunity to start discussing a new economic model to start redressing all these problems, to start redressing also the deep economic and social crisis that Mexico is experimenting today.
The reason why Mexico is contracting almost—well, in the month of May, the economy contracted ten percent. And this year, the forecast is that the economy will shrink about seven or eight percent. This is a much bigger contraction than any other country in Latin America. And the reason why this contraction is happening is because of Mexico's dependence to the United States economy. Eighty percent of Mexico's exports go to the US economy. And it's not Mexican exports; it's the exports of US companies exporting from Mexico to the United States. And many of these are, for example, the car companies—Chrysler, Ford, General Motors—that have contracted and have succumbed. And this is why they're not exporting so much from Mexico to the United States, and this is the reason why Mexico is shrinking so much. So we have to change the model, and Mexico has to start growing internally.
AMY GOODMAN: Manuel Perez Rocha is with the Institute for Policy Studies, a member of the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade. Laura Carlsen is joining us from Mexico City. She's director of the Americas Program at the International Relations Center. When we come back, we're going to also talk about other issues raised at the summit. We'll talk about the drug war and the coup in Honduras. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We continue on the Mexican summit, what they're calling the Three Amigos summit. Laura Carlsen, I want to ask you about Honduras. On Monday, President Obama responded to criticism the US hasn't done enough to oppose the Honduran coup regime.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The same critics who say that the United States has not intervened enough in Honduras are the same people who say that we're always intervening and the Yankees need to get out of Latin America. You can't have it both ways...
If these critics think that it's appropriate for us to suddenly act in ways that in every other context they consider inappropriate, then I think what that indicates is, is that maybe there's some hypocrisy involved in their approach to US-Latin America relations that certainly is not going to guide my administration's policies.
AMY GOODMAN: That's President Obama speaking at a news conference at the Three Amigos summit in Guadalajara.
Laura Carlsen, you've been following the developments of the coup in Honduras. Your response to President Obama basically calling critics of the US not doing more to oppose the coup hypocrites?
LAURA CARLSEN: I was shocked and insulted at that statement, as one of those people who's been calling for stronger statements—sanctions from the United States. It was a snide and petty remark. And besides that, it's just not accurate.
Intervention is when you get involved in external affairs. What we've been calling for is for the United States to do exactly as the European Union and other countries across the world have done, which is to apply the sanctions that are called for in US legislation to cut off aid to an illegal military coup, or also to withdraw an ambassador who no longer has a valid counterpart in the country. So that's not intervention; that's simply following and being consistent with the policies and the laws in the United States. This comment was a real disappointment, because it's necessary that those sanctions be applied and that the ambassador be withdrawn.
We've been in constant contact with the Honduran grassroots organizations, which—according to polls, the majority of the people in Honduras that are in the streets, that are fighting the illegal coup, a coup that's been proclaimed by the OAS, the Organization of American States, by the United Nations, by every nation in the world—and what they're saying is, "We're doing our part. We need the United States to stop aid to this coup, so that we can finally restore democracy in the country." And this comment didn't help.
AMY GOODMAN: Laura Carlsen, Zelaya was just in Mexico meeting with the Mexican president, meeting with Calderon, and also gave a major speech in Mexico City. Describe what he was saying, what he was calling for, the reaction in Mexico to the coup in Honduras.
LAURA CARLSEN: He called for President Calderon to talk to President Obama and get a stronger response for him. There was a statement about the coup calling for the restoration of constitutional order that came out of the Three Amigos summit; however, there was no mention of President Zelaya in it. And we also have this additional comment by President Obama.
In Mexico City, there was an organization—there was an event of grassroots organizations to listen to President Zelaya speak. And there was a lot of identification among those people with the struggle that's going on in Honduras because of what they still feel was a stolen election in Mexico in the year 2006. He talked a lot about citizen power and the need to build democracies that are not just based on representation and voting every so often, but also on participation and participatory democracy. And that was exactly what the national survey that was planned for June 28th that led to his ouster was all about: people voting on whether they wanted to call a constitutional assembly, not to end term limits, but to hold a constitutional assembly to reform the Constitution.
AMY GOODMAN: The issue that you were saying of it's not about the United States invading Honduras against the coup regime, but just the level of financial support it gives, when we were speaking to Juan Almendares, who actually ran against President Zelaya in the last election but is opposed to the coup, a Honduran peace activist, he called Honduras a US-occupied country, the level to which the economy of Honduras depends on the United States, and the smallest amount of economic pressure could bring down the coup regime, Laura.
LAURA CARLSEN: Yeah, that's true. What President Zelaya said here in Mexico—and I was in that audience—was that if the United States actually took a firm stance in cutting off military aid and cutting off other types of aid, that the coup wouldn't last five minutes. He said 70 percent of the economy is dependent on the United States, and to have that cut off, the money that's still in the pipelines, would be a significant blow to the coup, which has held on, despite this unanimous international condemnation and the protests in the streets in Honduras so far. So this is very important for the Honduran movement and to end this illegal situation. And the United States does have considerable power in its hands that does not require intervention. It simply requires following the law and cutting off aid to an illegal government.