Obama Administration Pursuing Panama FTA

Panama Free Trade Agreement

The Obama administration is currently considering plans to pass the Panama Free Trade Agreement (Panama FTA). The agreement–which is a NAFTA-style free trade agreement–was negotiated under the Bush administration but was not passed before he left office.

Presently, it is being pushed by a number of large banks–many of which received government bailout money. Obama’s trade representative has indicated that the administration is supportive of the agreement.

This is unfortunate as during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama expressed opposition to NAFTA, saying that he was open to having that treaty “renegotiated” to expand environmental and labor protections.

Public Citizen’s Citizens Trade Campaign came out against the agreement, stating:

On behalf of our more than twelve million combined members, we are writing to express our strong opposition to the Panama “Free Trade Agreement” (FTA). This pact reflects the unsuccessful ending point of the past administration’s trade policy and should not serve as the starting point for the new Congress and administration.

Responding to broad public demand for change, more than one hundred candidates from both parties ran on platforms of trade reform in 2008. The past trade model has led to massive American job loss, downward pressure on wages, the loss of nearly 300,000 family farms and massive trade imbalances that have contributed to our current economic crisis. It has given broad, expansive new rights to foreign corporations to challenge our environmental and public health standards, and flooded the United States with unsafe imported food and products. And, it has devastated developing nations where millions of family farmers have been forced off their land and poverty, despair and desperation-driven mass migrations have grown.

Like many of the proposed free trade agreements in the Americas, the Panama FTA uses language that is almost directly replicated from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). This language is problematic and raises doubts about the extent to which environmental and labor standards will be enforced, limits access to medicines, and grants preferences to foreign investors that allow them to sue governments in order to create a more business-friendly climate.

Panama’s Offshore Tax Haven Status also an Issue

Public Citizen has also released a report criticizing the prospect of a free trade agreement with Panama because the country makes it easy for U.S.-based corporations to setup subsidiaries in Panama in order to avoid paying taxes. In fact, it is so easy to do so that Public Citizen’s dispatched one of its interns to give it a try. Here’s what she found:

Passage of the Panama FTA would not reign in these practices. In fact, Public Citizen argues it would take away regulatory provisions aimed at restricting the use of offshore tax havens.

More on the Panama FTA can be found on Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch website.

Headlines: Obama Calls for NAFTA Changes; US Commander says US Troops Needed in Afghanistan for 3 More Years

Democracy Now Headlines: Obama Calls for NAFTA Changes; US Commander says US Troops Needed in Afghanistan for 3 More Years

Headlines from DemocracyNow.org, a daily TV/radio news program, hosted by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, airing on over 650 stations, pioneering the largest community media collaboration in the US.

Obama Calls for Climate, Labor Safeguards in NAFTA

President Obama visited Canada on Thursday in his first trip abroad since taking office. Obama spent seven hours in the Canadian capital of Ottawa meeting Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Obama called for a new round of talks on adding labor and environmental provisions to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

President Obama: “With a NAFTA agreement that has labor provisions and environmental provisions as side agreements, it strikes me, if those side agreements mean anything, then they might as well be incorporated into the main body of the agreements so that they can be effectively enforced. And I think it is important, whether we’re talking about our relationships with Canada or our relationships with Mexico, that all countries concerned are thinking about how workers are being treated.”

Obama and Harper announced one initiative: a dialogue on developing clean energy. On the issue of Canada’s environmentally destructive extraction of oil from the Alberta tar sands, Obama was ambiguous. The President stressed the need to curb global warming but also noted Canada’s status as the top energy provider to the United States. On Afghanistan, Obama said he did not press Harper to reconsider Canada’s plan to withdraw its troops by 2011.

US Commander: 60,000 Troops Needed in Afghanistan for at Least 3 Years

Meanwhile, the top US commander in Afghanistan says at least 60,000 American troops will remain there for at least three to four years. General David McKiernan also says at least 10,000 additional US troops will be needed on top of the 17,000 ordered by President Obama this week.

Hundreds Protest NATO in Poland

In Poland, hundreds of people demonstrated outside a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Krakow Thursday. The US has used the meeting to call for greater involvement of other NATO forces in Afghanistan. The protesters denounced the US-led occupation.

Protester: “NATO really could have stopped its existence after the Cold War. It should not exist at all. Now it’s looking for new enemies, looking for expansion, and that leads to a rise in arms deals in the world. It’s a huge waste of human resources, and it kills people in Afghanistan.”

Kyrgyz President Orders Closure of US Base

The president of Kyrgyzstan has signed into law a measure closing a US military air base. The move came hours after the Kyrgyz Parliament overwhelmingly approved the closure and ordered US forces out within six months. Despite the call, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday the US is finalizing a new offer to ensure continued use. The Manas Air Base has played a central role in the US occupation of Afghanistan.

Report: Gitmo Prisoner to Be Returned to Britain

The British resident Binyam Mohamed will reportedly soon be freed from Guantanamo Bay. The Washington Post reports Mohamed will be flown to Britain next week. Mohamed’s case has drawn international controversy amidst torture allegations and a US-British row over the release of documents. Mohamed has claimed his confession to terrorism charges was given only after he had his penis sliced by a blade. The Bush administration refused to release key documents to Mohamed’s lawyers and warned British officials that trying to obtain them would jeopardize British “national security.”

Netanyahu to Become Israeli PM

In Israel and the Occupied Territories, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have locked up the Prime Minister’s office after winning support from another right-wing politician. On Thursday, Avigdor Lieberman said he would join a Netanyahu coalition government, giving Netanyahu a large advantage over Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, whose Kadima Party narrowly edged Likud in elections earlier this month. Meanwhile, Livini has ruled out joining Netanyahu’s coalition over his opposition to peace talks with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni: “Sixty-five members of parliament decided to say to the Israeli president that they prefer Bibi Netanyahu as their prime minister. So this is a coalition that I cannot be part of, since I know that I believe in a peace process. I believe that any peace process should be based on two states for two peoples.”

Although Livni disagrees with Netanyahu on holding peace talks, she’s promised to seek “maximum” Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank under any peace deal.

Kerry, Congress Members Tour Gaza

Meanwhile, three US lawmakers have visited the Gaza Strip in the most high-level American contact with the coastal strip in over eight years. On Thursday, Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, as well Congress members Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Brian Baird of Washington, toured Gaza on separate trips. The lawmakers refused to meet Hamas leaders but were shown some of the destruction from the three-week Israeli assault that ended last month. Kerry said US policy won’t change from insisting Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel and respect previous agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority.

Sen. John Kerry: “None of us have any illusions that there is a place for terrorists at the table. People need to change their attitude. People need to change their approach. And we’re hopeful that this new opportunity will provide us with a chance to explore the possibilities of real peace.”

The US position has been criticized because it refuses to demand the same conditions on Israel. The Israeli government has refused to renounce violence, recognize previous agreements, and recognize a Palestinian state, which it continues to prevent through settlement construction in the West Bank and the ongoing siege of Gaza. After their tour, Congress members Ellison and Baird expressed sympathy for Palestinians in Gaza. In a statement, Baird called the human suffering in Gaza “shocking and troubling beyond words.” Ellison said, “People, innocent children, women and non-combatants, are going without water, food and sanitation, while the things they so desperately need are sitting in trucks at the border, being denied permission to go in.”

Aid Convoy Heads to Gaza from Europe

A 100-vehicle, mile-long aid convoy is making its way through Europe with a stated final destination of the Gaza Strip. The group “Viva Palestina” set off from London on Saturday. Organizers plan to gather more participants as the convoy passes through France, Spain, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, where they hope to cross the Rafah border into Gaza. The vehicles include a fire engine and ambulances. They’re carrying goods including clothes, blankets and children’s toys.

Report: Covert Israeli Program Targets Iran Nuclear Officials

The Telegraph of London has revealed new details on covert Israeli operations inside Iran. Intelligence sources say Israel has established a “decapitation” program to assassinate Iranian officials involved in nuclear activities. Israel has been linked to the deaths of several figures in Iran’s nuclear program, including a scientist who died under mysterious circumstances in 2007.

Texas Financier Served with Fraud Papers

Here in the United States, federal agents have served civil papers to the Texas billionaire Robert Allen Stanford in the case accusing him of an $8 billion fraud. The Securities and Exchange Commission says Robert Allen Stanford used his Antigua-based bank to defraud investors by selling them phony certificates of deposit. Stanford wasn’t taken into custody, because he hasn’t been charged criminally. Like the Bernie Madoff fraud scandal, Stanford’s case has again raised questions about the SEC’s ability to regulate the securities industry. Critics say the SEC missed a series of warnings about Stanford, as they did with Madoff.

California Senate Passes Education Cuts, Tax Hike

In California, the state Senate has approved a contentious $42 billion budget bill. The measure cuts $15 billion in education spending and imposes a $12 billion tax hike.

NYU Student Protest Grows Despite Expulsion Threats

Here in New York, a group of several dozen students continue to occupy a school cafeteria at New York University. The group Take Back NYU has submitted demands including the establishment of a socially responsible investment committee, a union for graduate student teachers, a tuition freeze, a full disclosure of the school’s annual budget, and support for Palestinian students in the Gaza Strip. The students say they’ll continue their occupation despite threats of expulsion. Overnight, hundreds of supporters gathered in the streets outside the cafeteria to cheer the protest. A group of new protesters reportedly joined the sit-in after breaking through a police barricade.

Post Offers Limited Apology as Cartoon Protests Continue

Meanwhile, protests are continuing today outside the offices of the New York Post following the publication of a cartoon that critics say depicts President Obama as a chimpanzee. Amidst boycott calls from a number of civil rights activists and organizations, the Post issued an apology of sorts last night. It said in part, “To those who were offended by the image, we apologize. However, there are some in the media and in public life who have had differences with The Post in the past–and they see the incident as an opportunity for payback. To them, no apology is due.”

Peace Activist Peter DeMott Dies at 62

And the longtime peace activist Peter DeMott has died at the age of sixty-two. Shortly before the US invasion of Iraq, DeMott and three other peace activists poured their own blood on the posters, flags and walls of a military recruiting station outside of Ithaca, New York. The activists became known as the St. Patrick’s Day Four. Demott served four months in federal prison for the action.

He became a peace activist after fighting with the Marines in Vietnam.

Peter DeMott: “I arrived in Vietnam on 8th of December of 1968 and was there, for about two more weeks–I left on the 30th of November of ’69, so there for about one week shy of a year. And so, I participated in that war, and I know firsthand that war only begets more war, that war is organized mass murder and that it doesn’t really solve anything. It just makes the likelihood of enduring peace coming about all the more difficult. And then, so I–in the buildup to the war in Iraq, you know, my personal experience of having been in the Vietnam was very motivational for me in that it inspired me and kind of morally compelled me to speak out in a nonviolent way to say, ‘No, this war must not happen, and I’m willing to put my body in the way of the war and its actualization in any nonviolent way that I can.”

Obama Chief of Staff Emanuel Key in Passage of NAFTA

Obama’s newly appointed Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was key in the passage of NAFTA–a piece of legislation that is almost universally hated by the Democrats’ grassroots base. Does Emanuel’s appointment say anything about where Obama is going to stand?


Obama’s first appointment–Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel–has been widely reported in the corporate and progressive media. In most of the coverage, the focus has been on Rahm’s political style and the hard line antics that earned him the nickname “Rahmbo.”

In this vein, an Associated Press article that ran in The Grand Rapids Press on Friday–“Obama’s First Pick: ‘Rahmbo’“–is representative of much of the coverage. The article focuses almost exclusively on Emanuel’s personality and his political style. For example, it includes a story about how Emanuel once mailed a Democratic pollster a dead fish to express his disapproval. However, there was little exploration of his politics.

Emanuel is a centrist democrat who worked in the Clinton White House before leaving for the private sector (where he earned millions as an investment banker) and then joining Congress. He supported the congressional resolution that authorized the use of military force against Iraq, is a strong supporter of Israel, is aligned with the Democratic Leadership Council, and has what can best be described as a hawkish–or imperialist–view of US foreign policy.

But, it is Emanuel’s role in securing the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that seems most at odds with Obama’s campaign and the economic debate over NAFTA during the 2008 Democratic Party primary.

Emanuel and the Passage of NAFTA

The passage of NAFTA under President Bill Clinton was one of Clinton’s most controversial actions. It pitted environmentalists, organized labor, and activists against the Democratic Party’s corporate backers and ushered in a debate that still rages to this day. Many of these constituencies saw the passage of NAFTA as a betrayal and point to job losses, weakened environmental standards, and other problems as proof of their critique.

In facing down stiff opposition to the trade agreement from the Democratic Party’s base and grassroots groups, Clinton turned to Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel cut his teeth as a fundraiser during Clinton’s 1991 presidential campaign. Following the campaign, Emanuel become one of Clinton’s key operatives in the fight to pass NAFTA. Emanuel worked closely with the so-called “NAFTA czar”–William Daley, the son of late Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley (and a friend of Obama’s who was recently appointed to his transition team)–in mustering enough votes for the trade agreement. In The Selling of ‘Free Trade,’ Emanuel is remembered for his “aggressive” work on NAFTA and being a critical part of the administration’s NAFTA working group. Emanuel lobbied for votes, helped direct the media strategy (including one targeted leak to undercut news of an anti-NAFTA politician’s election in Canada), and participated in the administration’s campaign to get the agreement passed–over public opposition–no matter what the cost. An October 26,1993 article in The Hotline said that the White House’s NAFTA effort “came to life” under Emanuel, who served as its “operational director.”

Emaneul has reflected positively on the administration’s passage of NAFTA:

“You know, politics is about mending and tacking and so on, and setting your priorities. We were a very determined administration. We made a lot of compromises to get NAFTA passed and a lot of deals to get NAFTA passed.”

Emanuel’s Support for NAFTA and Obama’s Position: Not that Strange After All?

In his statement announcing Rahm Emanuel’s appointment, Obama makes no mention of Emanuel’s support of NAFTA–even when he highlights his work during the Clinton administration. Instead, Obama says:

“During his seven years in the Clinton White House, Rahm was the point man on some of the most difficult issues, from the passage of landmark anti-crime legislation to the expansion of health care coverage for children.”

Most press coverage of Emanuel’s appointment has mentioned that he played a key role in the passage of NAFTA, but none has explored how this may be at odds with Obama’s campaign.

During the primaries, Obama aggressively criticized NAFTA. However, following the end of the primary, Obama began to tone down his rhetoric and appeared to retreat on his NAFTA rhetoric. In an interview with Fortune magazine, Obama stated that much of the anti-NAFTA rhetoric was “overheated and amplified” and that he is a supporter of free trade and is looking for ways to make free trade agreements work for all.

Emanuel now has issued mild criticisms of NAFTA and has said that it would be negotiated differently now, but that the NAFTA issue is a distraction from larger problems with the economy. These mild criticisms are a lot like what Obama has said and are in many ways similar to Obama’s position: it isn’t the logic of free trade agreements and neoliberalism that is wrong, it’s how they are done. For his part, Rahm earlier this year urged the passage of several pending neoliberal trade agreements.

Rahm and NAFTA: Does it even Matter?

There is certainly a progressive case to be made against Rahm and a such critique certainly has merit. On issues from NAFTA to the Iraq War, Rahm’s position has been disappointing or at odds with what many progressives believe.

However, many progressives are defending Rahm as being necessary to navigate the difficult inter-workings of Washington politics. They argue that Rahm will not set policy priorities, but simply reflect Obama’s goals and direct his staff. Still, the Chief of Staff is responsible for determining the president’s schedule and controlling access to him–which gives Emanuel a key role in determining the voices Obama will hear.

At the same time, Emanuel is representative of some of the worst of Clinton’s politics and the rightward shift of the Democratic Party over the past two decades. Emanuel’s appointment–coupled with the appointment of a slew of former Clinton administration officials to Obama’s transition team–serve as important reminder that progressives need to be on their toes if they want to be represented in the Obama administration.

Last NAFTA Tariffs Removed

10,000 years of corn

Yesterday, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into full effect with the cancellation of all remaining tariffs protecting Mexican agricultural products. NAFTA is responsible for the displacement of Mexican farmers, a growing disparity between the rich and poor in Mexico, and increased immigration to the United States. Moreover, in the United States, NAFTA has meant the loss of thousands of jobs for US workers.

Here in Grand Rapids, Red Hydrant Press is hosting an event exploring the history of corn in Mexico and the effects of NAFTA:

10,000 Anos de Maiz / 10,000 Years of Corn

On January 1, 2008 one of the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will lift all limitations on how much corn the US can export to Mexico. Since 1994, US corn has flooded the Mexican market and put thousands of small farmers out of business, often times forcing them off their lands. The genetically modified corn from the US also infects the more than 80 varieties of corn that are cultivated in Mexico.

Join us for an evening of art, poetry, music, video and information that both celebrates the cultural heritage of corn in Mexico and provides opportunities for anyone to take action in support of campesinos in Mexico.

6-9pm this Friday, January 4 at the Red Hydrant Press studio space – 314 Straight St. SW

For more directions and more information, contact Alynn Guerra at 808-0092

Sin Maiz, no hay Paiz!”

In Mexico, the first was marked by protests against NAFTA and a declaration against NAFTA:

Declaration Against the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Migra

To All Communities in Resistance to Exploitation and Oppression.

To All Communities in Struggle for Indigenous Peoples’ Dignity and


To All Communities of the World.

We are the Frente Contra las Redadas del Condado de Ventura. We are a network of organizations, collectives and individuals that was formed in 2007, when Union del Barrio, one of the oldest Mexican Liberation organizations north of the U.S./Mexico border called for broad unity and organized resistance against the increased racist laws and Migra-terror against migrants.

Today, January 1st 2008 the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) enters its final stage of implementation. NAFTA, since its inception, was designed to help the rich U.S. Agriculture and Industrial Corporations take over the markets of Mexico and destroy the small farms and national industries. It has caused millions of displaced or unemployed Raza to move to the cities or migrate to what today is the United States and Canada.

According to America’s Policy Program analysts, “Every hour, Mexico imports $1.5 million dollars worth of agricultural and food products, almost all from the United States” While, “In that same hour, 30 people–men, women, and children–leave their homes in the Mexican countryside to take up the most dangerous journey of their lives–as migrants to the United States.” (America’s Policy Program Congressional Briefing, “Standing Up to NAFTA”)

For the rich this is good news, but for us, the working poor, it signals more poverty, more repression, and more death. This is why we resist. We resist the oppression and exploitation of our work, our lands, our community, and of our dignity.

Every year over 400 people die crossing the U.S./Mexico border, a border that each day is more militarized. Every day this Wall of Death stretches onward, inch by inch, and everyday more Migra agents are added to the ranks, signed ujp to terrorize and chase down workers like hunted animals. Every day, some racist politician or their lackey, conjures up new legal ways to implement their laws of oppression against migrants, against the workers that come across the Wall of Death.

The Migra has unleashed a wave of repression against migrants, against workers, men, women and children with laws and plans like Operation Gatekeeper, a plan that forces migrants to cross the border through the deserts to die. At the same time, another vicious plan to repress us is Operation Endgame, a plan that aims to deport 12 million undocumented workers out of the United States by the year 2012.

The cycle of fear and death continues and now the very same campesinos that are forced off our lands in Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, and other areas of Mexico, are here in the barrios of the United States, waking up at 4 a.m. everyday, to go pick the same crops that are shipped off around the world, making those at the top richer, while we at the bottom get poorer.

Just as our brothers and sisters, the Zapatistas, descended down from the Chiapas Lacandon Jungle on the eve of 1994 when the first phase of NAFTA was implemented, we today, fourteen years later, on this eve of 2008, in one of the oldest Mexican barrios in California, el Barrio de La Colonia, declare Ya Basta! Enough is Enough! We call on all those that stand on the side of humanity to join us and fight for justice and dignity.

We will organize for the next four months in preparation for our March for Dignity that will take place on International Workers’ Day, May 1, 2008 in Colonia Park, here in the city of Oxnard. Meet us here, march with us. If you cannot come, organize a March for Dignity in your community, wherever you are.

But as we march, we must understand that we cannot just march for one day or believe that politicians will solve our problems. We must organize ourselves. As our Zapatista sisters and brothers said in the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, we must organize and struggle for work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace.

We are in the same struggle as our Chiapaneco brothers and sisters, because we are, as we said loud and clear in the Mega-Marchas of 2006 against the racist law HR-4437, One People Without Borders!

Stop NAFTA! Stop Migra-Terror!

El Pueblo Unido! Jamas Sera Vencido!

Frente Contra Las Redadas del Condado del Ventura

January 1, 2008

Chumash Peoples’ Territory”

Speaker Addresses Immigration

On Tuesday, Flor Crisostomo spoke on the origins of immigration and immigration reform at a lecture organized as part of a speaking tour conducted by the Mexico Solidarity Network.

On Tuesday, Flor Crisostomo spoke at Grand Rapids’ Aquinas College on immigration, its underlying causes, and immigration reform. Crisostomo–an indigenous Zapoteca–has been in the United States since 2000 after emigrating from Oaxaca. Since April of 2006 when agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided her place of employment, Crisostomo has been working with Centro Sin Fronteras in the Chicago area. She is currently on tour with the Mexico Solidarity Network.

Crisostomo told the audience of students and community members that immigrants are in the United States only by necessity. Many–herself included–have children in Mexico or Central America and would prefer to be with them. However, they have made the decision to come to the United States rather than watch their children die of hunger. Crisostomo explained that it has been “painful” not to be able to watch her children grow. The current wave of immigration has been driven by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its destruction of indigenous peoples’ livelihoods. Crisostomo said that these trade agreements have been made without any thought of their human impacts, with the authors only looking at the potential profits and not their effects on families.

Crisostomo talked about immigration reform and current organizing efforts designed to address the issue. She traced current efforts for immigration reform to the 1980s and the call for general amnesty, but explained that particularly since 9/11, the effort has faced a significant backlash. Underlying the debate has been a “great cloud” of racism that has sought to scapegoat immigrants, with Crisostomo referring to the Minutemen and the Ku Klux Klan, as well as a legacy of racist immigration policies including Operation Wetback and the Repatriation Act. She reminded the audience that immigrants have made significant contributions to society while most have fulfilled the obligations–including working honestly, paying taxes, and obeying laws–of citizenship. Unlike the portrayal of immigrants by opponents of immigration, who describe immigrants as seeking to live off the government and wanting to change the traditions of the United States, Crisostomo said that most immigrants simply want to send a little bit of what was “snatched” from them by international trade agreements back to their families.

She said that the current debate over immigration reform has been helped by recent mass mobilizations and asserted that reunification of families should be at the forefront of reform efforts. Enforcement-only measures and ICE raids have had the effect of deporting parents almost daily, especially because so many families live in mixed-status homes. Crisostomo said that unfortunately the current debate has emphasized the political aspects rather than the human aspects. Moreover, she said that the Democrats promised to “resolve” the immigration issue if they won the Congress and Senate but they have not done so thus far, nor have most of the Democratic frontrunners offered plans on immigration.

Bill Clinton, NAFTA, and Michigan

In 1993, then President Bill Clinton aggressively promoted the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) promising that it would create thousands of jobs. Among the more controversial aspects Clinton’s legacy, NAFTA has cost thousands of jobs in the United States, including over 60,000 in Michigan, while having devestating effects on workers in Mexico.

bill clinton promoting nafta photo

Later this month, former President Bill Clinton will visit Grand Rapids to speak at the Economics Club of Grand Rapids annual dinner. In response to his visit, Media Mouse is continuing a series of pieces examining the legacy of Clinton. Yesterday we covered Clinton’s Iraq policy and today we will examine Bill Clinton and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

In his signing statement, President Clinton was praised by Vice President NAFTA as an issue that was able to “transcend ideology” and gain bipartisan support. Clinton compared the signing of NAFTA to the fall of the Berlin wall, while promising that “NAFTA means jobs.

American jobs, and good-paying American jobs.” Clinton promised that “NAFTA will create 200,000 American jobs in the first two years of its effect” and “a million jobs in the first five years of its impact.” Of course, this did not happen.

For residents of Michigan, the impacts of the NAFTA have hit close to home. As corporations have moved jobs outside of the United States to maximize profits by paying lower wages and to escape regulations, the economy in Michigan has suffered. According to the Economic Policy Institute, all fifty states have experienced job loss due to NAFTA, although Michigan is among the hardest hit states. The Economic Policy Institute has determined that Michigan lost over 63,000 jobs due to NAFTA. In a 2004 video produced by Media Mouse titled “The Adventures of the NAFTA Bunny,” Media Mouse documented several thousand jobs lost in West Michigan at area companies ranging from Electrolux (2,700) to Johnson Controls (885).

While explaining that “jobs moving to Mexico” is a result of NAFTA is commonplace in Michigan and around the United States, less examined is the role of Bill Clinton in passing NAFTA. NAFTA was negotiated and signed under the Bush administration, but was ratified in Congress in 1993 following an aggressive push by Bill Clinton who made NAFTA a major legislative priority. Clinton aggressively promoted NAFTA as part of his agenda despite public opposition of 2-to-1 against the trade agreement. Clinton joined the rest of his administration and corporate lobbyists in a “full-court press” for votes on NAFTA, making it a “do or die” vote. In order to secure the votes for its passage, Clinton aggressively lobbied Republicans and offered money for pork projects in exchange for votes, while organizing a series of ineffective “side agreements” that were designed to counteract opposition from the labor and environmental movements.

The ratification of NAFTA and its subsequent results fit within a larger foreign policy goal of the Clinton administration of advancing United States interests, summarized by Clinton’s Treasury Secretary who stated that “I’m tired of a level playing field…We should tilt the playing field for U.S. businesses.” Moreover, NAFTA helped to advance the interests of the global ruling class, with NAFTA making a significant amount of money for the ruling elite in government and the private sector. NAFTA was pushed with the support of the media system, despite the fact that much of the public was opposed to the deal. Clinton would continue passing similar trade deals throughout his administration, with the Clinton/Republican alliance pushing through the World Trade Organization (WTO) and China’s being granted PNTR. However, while the effects of NAFTA on workers in Canada, Mexico, and the United States as well as who the likely benefactors would be received attention in the alternative press at the time, the full story on NAFTA has still been largely ignored by the corporate media.

The effects of NAFTA has been the subject of a plethora of books, studies, and articles, and cannot be exhaustively covered within this article. The effect on jobs in the United States, mentioned previously, has been significant. The United States government has certified that more than 525,000 jobs were specifically lost to NAFTA as companies took advantage of provisions in NAFTA making it easier and more profitable to relocate to Mexico. Corporations based in the United States have also used the threat of moving to Mexico as a way of weakening unions and union organizing drives. Many of the workers who have been displaced by NAFTA have found significantly lower paying jobs in the service industry, which offers pay of twenty-three to seventy-seven percent less and few or no benefits. According to Public Citizen, “NAFTA has aggravated the problem of deindustrialization and helped perpetuate the stagnation of real wages for millions of hard-working Americans and their families.”

In Mexico, over 1.5 million farmers have lost their farm-based livelihoods due to the flood of United States corn, while wages in the manufacturing sector fell from an average of $5 per day to $4 per day. Prices paid to corn farmers, once the backbone of Mexico’s agricultural sector, have fallen by 70%. As a result, half of the Mexican work force works on less than $8 per day. Furthermore, a third of the 800,000 jobs created in Mexico by NAFTA–many in the low-wage maquiladora sector–have left Mexico and relocated to Asia. Thousands of Mexicans have been displaced from their homes due to changes in the agricultural sector, and have relocated to the border region where they live in poor conditions and work low-wage jobs.

NAFTA also has effects on national sovereignty and democracy. Rights and protections within NAFTA gave preferential treatment to foreign investors. In many cases, this treatment exceeds what is available under domestic law, with NAFTA provisions allowing corporations located within any of the three countries to sue the other countries over regulations–including health, zoning, or environmental regulations–that impede a corporation’s ability to make profit. This has happened, with Canada reversing its ban on a gasoline additive called MMT, which destroys catalytic converters and is a suspected neurotoxin, after U.S. Ethyl Corporation filed a NAFTA Chapter 11 case for $201 million alleging the public health policy violated its NAFTA rights. In Mexico, the government was required to pay U.S.-based Metalclad Corporation $16 million in compensation after a Chapter 11 claim that the denial of a municipal construction permit for a toxic waste facility in an environmentally sensitive zone near the city of Guadalcazar violated its NAFTA rights. Moreover, these cases are filed in secret under NAFTA’s Chapter 11 rules, making oversight next to impossible.

Devos, the Democrats, and NAFTA Advertisement

As part of the Dick vs. Jen video contest tomorrow night at the Wealthy Theatre in Grand Rapids, Media Mouse has put together a short video for the contest. The video highlights the fact that while Democrats like to blame job loss due to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on the Bush administration, it was the project of bipartisan cooperation in support of neoliberal economic policies:

To see more satirical ads, come to the Dick vs. Jen video contest on November 3 at the Wealthy Theatre (1130 Wealthy St SE). Admission is $5.

Presentation Explores Immigration and NAFTA

On Friday, a presentation at Grand Valley State University explored the myths and realities of immigration from Mexico to the United States. The presentation focused on NAFTA and the effects that it has had on Mexico as a root cause of immigration to the United States.

On Friday, a presentation at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) by Noemí Peregrino González of Borderlinks and Celeste Escobar of the Mexico Solidarity Network explored the myths and realities of immigration from Mexico. The presentation was conducted by Noemi Peregrino Gonzalez, a resident of the United States-Mexico border region, and was translated by Celeste Escobar. Around twenty-five students listened to Gonzalez speak about her experiences living and working on the border and the larger context in which immigration from Mexico to the United States takes place.

Gonzalez began by explaining that migration is a part of human history and is so important that it was made a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. She conducted an activity with audience members to show that, with the exception of indigenous people, the United States is a nation of immigrants and that at some point in history families made the decision to migrate to the United States. She made a distinction between natural migration when one chooses to move and is able to move freely without papers and violent or forced immigration when one either has to move because they have no choice or in which people displace others in the process. Gonzalez also reminded the audience that the United States has a history of forced migration with slavery and the genocide of the indigenous population on the land claimed by the United States. Forced migration is what the United States is experiencing from Mexico, with Mexicans crossing in dangerous deserts and scaling border fences because they have no options due to economic policies imposed on their country at the behest of multinational corporations and the fact that there are no legal channels for migration into the United States.

Gonzalez explained that while there has always been migration from Mexico to the United States, it has increased since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. NAFTA was made by two advanced, industrialized countries (the United States and Canada) and Mexico, a “third world” and poor nation, and as such favors the United States and the interests of multinational corporations. Despite these inequities, Mexico went along with the agreement out of a combination of corruption and the willingness of the country’s president at the time to “sell out” Mexico in addition to promises of improvements in Mexico’s economic situation. The agreement promised Mexico improved living standards, economic sustainability, a guarantee that Mexican wealth and resources would stay in Mexico, and an end to migration from Mexico to the United States. After twelve years, none of these promises have been accomplished and migration has tripled due to the displacement of farmers after the Mexican government agreed to modify its constitution to rewrite land ownership rules. Farmers were further hurt when protective tariffs to guard against the dumping of United States corn onto the Mexican market were abolished immediately rather than gradually as promised. These policies have forced farmers to the boarder region where they have to find work in low paying, dangerous, and environmentally destructive factories known as maquilladoras that produce for export. In the town where Gonzalez lives, she explained that out of 83 maquiladoras, only five pay $75 per week and the rest pay below that amount, resulting in widespread poverty. Moreover, workers are prevented from unionizing by a combination of multinational corporations who threaten to move jobs to China if border region workers “start acting like Zapatistas” and by company unions that represent the interests of the factories’ owners.

While there are difficulties in organizing in Mexico, Gonzalez and Escobar explained that there are many people in Mexico resisting the impact of NAFTA and neoliberal globalization. They cited the Zapatista movement, the popular movement in Oaxaca, and the organizing by students and peasants as examples, but stressed the importance of similar organizing taking place on the United States’ side of the border. Gonzalez likened immigration to a tree, arguing that it does not work to trim it and ignore the roots if you want to stop it from growing, just as United States immigration policy will not be effective if it ignores the root causes of immigration. The enforcement only solutions advocated by bills such as HR 4437 and the construction of more fences will only result in continued immigration and more deaths along the border according to Gonzalez. Escobar stressed that Republican politicians are using anti-immigration propaganda as a means of scape-goating and winning elections even as immigrants make a variety of contributions to the United States, including paying taxes and social security. She explained that people should vote for politicians that do not advocate for punitive immigration policies, although the suggestion will be difficult for those in Grand Rapids and Michigan given that Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow has voted for the further militarization of the border (her Republican challenger is also anti-immigrant), area Representatives Vern Ehlers and Pete Hoekstra supported HR 4437 and recent measures militarizing the border, and Democratic candidate for governor Jennifer Granholm (along with Dick DeVos) has supported the militarization of the border. In light of these votes, a better strategy would be to take Escobar’s advice to get involved in local organizations such as GVSU’s Students Against Sweatshops or those listed in the Progressive Directory of Western Michigan and work on issues of immigration and neoliberalism from outside the political system.

The Impact of NAFTA and Globalization on Immigration: Midwest Social Forum

On Saturday, a panel discussion was held at the Midwest Social Forum in Milwaukee to examine the oft-forgotten ways in which the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and globalization provide a necessary context for understanding the debate over immigrant rights.

On Saturday, a panel discussion was held at the Midwest Social Forum in Milwaukee to examine the oft-forgotten ways in which the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and globalization provide a necessary context for understanding the debate over immigrant rights. The discussion featured three panelists—Leila Pine, a labor and immigrant rights activist; Christine Neumann-Ortiz of Voces de la Frontera; and Leone Bicchieri an organizer with the SIEU’s Justice for Janitors campaign. The panel explored how NAFTA has affected Mexico and spurred immigration, NAFTA’s continuation of a legacy of colonialism towards Mexico, and how organized labor—as one of the most vocal opponents of NAFTA—can support the movement for immigrant rights.

The panel began with Wisconsin activist Leila Pine sharing a slideshow of photos that she took of Mexico on a recent delegation to the country. The photos were shared as a means of setting the stage from which to talk about NAFTA, with the photos clearly showing a harsh economic reality for much of the Mexican population, particularly for those living in rural communities where agriculture has been devastated and where low-wage workers—often displaced due to NAFTA—work in maquiladoras. This economic reality has been brought about in part due to the combined removal of access barriers for United States agribusiness under NAFTA, the elimination of the Mexican Ejidos system of communally owned land as mandated by NAFTA, and United States corn subsidies that have resulted in the flooding of the Mexican market. Christine Neumann-Ortiz asserted that NAFTA has brought nothing more than “unemployment and exploitation” both in the United States and in Mexico. Neumann-Ortiz explained that while Mexico has become the United States’ second largest trading partner, more jobs have been lost since the passage of NAFTA than have been gained. Her statistics, from the years 1994 to 2002, documented that 500,000 factory jobs have been gained due to NAFTA but that 1.3 million have been lost in Mexico while wages for these jobs have also fallen. In the United States, one million jobs have been lost and new jobs obtained by workers displaced by NAFTA pay 13% less and are in the service industry. This has created a situation where workers on both sides of the border are being exploited and set against each other using a “divide and conquer” strategy that prevents strong union organizing.

Both Leila Pine and Christine Neumann-Ortiz placed the discussion of NAFTA in the larger context of colonialism in the Americas. Early on in the discussion, Pine reminded the audience that globalization was not the beginning of United States’ domination through trade but that rather it is a continuation of colonialism. While NAFTA has rightfully garnered considerable attention, it is only the latest in a long line of economic policies that institutionalize colonialism. Neumann-Ortiz expanded on this by explaining that there has always been an uneven economic relationship between the United States and Mexico—formed during the era of colonialism—and continuing to this day through institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Contemporary neoliberal trade agreements with their opening of borders for capital but closing them for people were described as being “essential” to understanding immigration. It was also mentioned that these trade agreements, by virtue of their affects on both immigrants and workers within the United States, could function as a basis for bringing disparate movements such as the immigrant, labor, and environmental movements together.

The final panelist, Leone Bicchieri of the SEIU, shared a number of insights into why the labor movement has failed to get involved in the struggle for immigrant rights despite the fact that the struggle of immigrants and labor are often “one in the same.” He explained that this coalition has failed to materialize for a number of historical reasons including the narrow view that unions are only pursuing membership, that labor leaders have historically failed to act in solidarity with black and brown communities, and a failure on the part of unions in the United States to engage in (or even talk about) class struggle. He apologized for the fact that the labor movement in the United States has been historically racist, but argued that now the immigrant and labor movements need to come together to act collectively. To do this, organized labor is going to need to give up the idea that the goal is simply to elect better politicians and instead needs to start “catering to the needs of the people.” He explained how in Madison on May 1 the labor and immigrant movements were able to come together over mutual interest in a unionization campaign and explained that the September Labor Day demonstrations for immigrant rights will be another opportunity to work together. Bicchieri went on to state that unions need to actively participate in the immigrant rights struggle and not simply “join” it by going to events and attempting to get people involved in labor’s issues.

Vern Ehlers Answers Questions from Constituents at Annual “Town Hall” Meeting

On Saturday, Vern Ehlers, congressional representative for the Grand Rapids area and Michigan’s 3rd District, held a “town hall” meeting during which he addressed a variety of questions from immigration to peak oil.

On Saturday, Representative Vern Ehlers, the federal Congressional representative for Michigan’s Third District, gave what he termed an “update” on activity in Washington and allowed a total of 45 minutes for questions from the audience. Representative Ehlers described the interest in this year’s town hall meeting as being quite exceptional and said that he will work to either schedule another meeting in the fall or will make 2007’s annual meeting an hour-and-a-half. In previous years, Ehlers said that he had scaled the meeting back due to what he termed a “lack of interest.”

Ehlers began the event giving a fifteen minute overview of “what is going on in Washington,” beginning with the need for people to enroll for the new Medicare benefit—“Medicare Part D.” While giving no specifics of the plan or who would benefit from it, Ehlers told the audience that people need to sign up by May 15 or there would be a penalty, because as he said, it is an insurance program and you cannot have people enrolling only when they were sick. Ehlers then described how “the budget is a huge issue this time of year” and explained that the Congress has successfully cut everything in the “discretionary spending” category with the exception of defense and homeland security. Ehlers also addressed gas prices, which he described as something that Americans “have go to live with” blaming high prices on what he called the “fear factor” that results from political instablitiy in Nigeria, Venezeula, and the Middle East. Ehlers also described how demand for gasoline has increased due to large vehicles in the United States and new cars in China and India and suggested that an increase in fuel economy standards would be a potential solution. The recession was also proclaimed to be “officially over” during his introductory comments, with Ehlers stating that “everyone has a decent job now” although “it may not be the job they prefer” and that this is one of the “big issues” facing Michigan.

During the question and answer period, Ehlers addressed a wide variety of questions from those dealing with peak oil to immigration. In response to a question about NAFTA and CAFTA, Ehlers once again stated that the two trade agreements have been beneficial to the United States while ignoring the thousands of job losses incurred by workers in Michigan due to NAFTA. This discussion of NAFTA was briefly tied to immigration by audience members, although the two interrelated issues were never addressed together by Ehlers. Instead, Ehlers said that he had “a concern about the large number of illegal immigrants” and that it was an issue that affected all ethnicities and that it was too easy to get into the United States on the coasts and through Canada. He claimed that “illegal immigration” is not a new problem and that it has been ongoing for years but that in recent years it has become easier to enter the country, despite the fact that it remains difficult to enter the country illegally. During the discussion Ehlers claimed that he did not have any answers to the problem, specifically in light of the difficult question of what to do with people who have been in the United States for years, but then later confirmed that he supported HR 4437 which offers a very clear approach to the so-called “problem” of immigration by further criminalizing immigrants and their supporters. Ehlers also indicated support for “reforming” the tax system and stating that he opposes the current progressive income tax and instead would favor something like the so-called “fair tax” that would eliminate personal and corporate income taxes and replace them with a consumption tax that Ehlers said was more inline with the tax policies of other countries.

Throughout the event, a small group of antiwar activists with the group Code Pink sat in the audience wearing pink with “no war” slogans on their hats and clothing, signifying the opposition to Ehlers long-term support for the war. While Ehlers conveniently picked over members of the audience seeking to pressure him to stop supporting the ongoing occupation of Iraq, Ehlers was eventually asked a question about his support for the illegal invasion of Iraq. Ehlers said that the situation in Iraq is improving with the establishment of a new government and that the “main problem” in Iraq is that the United States was not prepared for the post-war situation. Ehlers claimed that he raised these concerns from the start of the war, although he offered no specifics. Similarly when an audience member asked him a question about whether or not President George W. Bush should be punished for taking the country to war illegally using distorted intelligence, Ehlers dodged the question by saying that before one could be punished that the premise would have to be proven true, thereby suggesting that he believes President Bush did nothing wrong in the pre-war lead up to war.

From the start of the Ehlers overview, he was generally very condescending towards the audience, repeatedly touting the fact that he is a “scientist” and that he is a “nuclear physicist” and doing so in such a way that projected the notion that he somehow had a superior understanding of every issue, even those that had nothing to do with his educational background. These condescending remarks had their height with Ehlers using a simplistic analogy about how he wished that “energy were purple” so that people could understand exactly how much energy they are using and so that it could be quantified. He went on to describe how he felt that most people—with the exception of scientists like himself—cannot understand energy because it is not tangible. During this discussion of energy the entire discussion focused on personal energy use, despite the fact that earlier comments focused on the need for alternative sources of energy and higher fuel economy standards. Ehlers also reacted quite negatively when someone attempted to pass the microphone to another audience member, with Ehlers describing how he would chose who to recognize to speak because it was his event.