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.

Earth Democracy Author, Vandana Shiva, Speaks at WMU

Activist Vandana Shiva Recently Spoke at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo

Indian activist and author Vandana Shiva spoke at Western Michigan University last Thursday on the theme of sustainability, the topic of one of her most recent books,Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace.

Shiva began her talk by saying that we live in extremely important times, because the paradigm of fossil fuels consumption is killing us. She also used a comment from the founder of the Indian Satyagraha movement, Mohandas Gandhi. Gandhi, when writing about the Western World, said that it “only promotes consumerism and comfort.” But, this model, according to Gandhi, is one that is self-destructive.

Corporate Globalization is a Dictatorship

Shiva then went on to talk about corporate globalization as a form of dictatorship. Corporate globalization uses force to achieve its goals as well as legal and institutional constructs such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). One example the author gave was how the global grain giant Cargill took control of the agricultural policies under the GATT/WTO. Shiva said they wrote the agreement and essentially represented the US at the international level to push through an agricultural policy that would allow them control of much of the world’s grain market.

Another way that Cargill has negatively impacted local agriculture is their dumping of soy oil on the market in India several years ago. Shiva said they were able to do this with huge subsidies, also part of the WTO agreements, which undercut the local market. People could not compete with the price of the soy oil, which was not nearly as good for human consumption as the dozens of other oils that Indians used. In response, women organized a Satyagraha campaign and made their own oil in defiance of the law.

Intellectual Property Rights and Seed Theft

The other main issue that Shiva addressed was the destructive consequences of intellectual property rights. Intellectual property rights were essentially an expansion of traditional property rights that included seeds, humans, and any other form of life. India had a non-patent framework for products built into their constitution, but that changed with the WTO. What this has meant is that Monsanto controlls 95% of the global seed store. Seeds–which are the ultimate regeneration resource–have now been privatized.

This control of the global seed stock is being manifested in three ways. First, corporations are using genetic modification that necessitates the use of more pesticides, most of which are manufactured by the same corporations. Second, the control of global seed stock means that these corporations can control the price of seeds. So for example, last year Monsanto raised corn seed costs from $200 a bag to $300, which meant that they profited even more off world hunger. The third way they control seed stock was to legally insert into the WTO agreements the inability of farmers to save their own seeds, thus making them dependent on companies like Monsanto to buy their seeds.

One crop where this seed control has been devastating for Indian farmers is with cotton. The GMO cotton seeds that Indian farmers are now forced to buy also require large amounts of pesticides and farmer just end up going into debt. This crisis has resulted in a great deal of resistance, but it has also meant that many Indian farmers have taken their own lives. Shiva said that over 200,000 farmers have committed suicide as a protest of the seed control. One irony with this is that the highest areas of suicide are the same area of Indian where Gandhi’s campaign of homespun cotton began, a campaign that complimented a national boycott of British made clothes from cotton.

Climate Chaos or Earth Democracy

Shiva also addressed the issue of Climate Change, which she said is an inaccurate way of naming the problem. We should call it climate chaos, because with Global Warming, weather patterns have become unpredictable and destabilizing. This, the author/activist said was due to our addiction to fossil fuels.

“We are not phasing out fossil fuels, because they are now used in agribusiness. The toxic nature of fossil fuels agribusiness is killing the soil. 40% of greenhouse gases are produced because of the way we grow and distribute food.”

Shiva believes that the only way to move away from this addiction to fossil fuels, as it relates to agriculture, is a shift to localism, “The local level is where the change must happen, with food production and energy creation. Local food systems are very important and are even an antidote for wars,” Shiva said. “Why did the US go to war in Iraq? Oil. The same is true for Afghanistan and other parts of the world.” She then said that a shift to bio-fuels is not a sustainable solution either. “If all of the corn that is grow in the US right now is used for bio-fuel it would only provide 7% of the fuel needs. So, if the appetite of resource consumption continues then wars are inevitable.”

The author/activist said that the only viable transition away from this corporate structure is what she calls earth democracy:

“The current economic system is based on theft. We have to restore our economy. I started the seed saving group Navdanya as a way of defending life. Life is to be shared, not bought and sold. The earthworm does not eat up the soil that it lives in, it enriches it. We need to catch up to these other species. We need to look to them as teachers, these species, the soil, because that is where life gets renewed. The soil is an alternative to the collapsing economy, to the fossil fuel destruction, and it is an alternative to wars.”

Shiva concluded by saying that earth democracy is different than electoral democracy because in electoral democracy you expect someone else to do it for you, but with earth democracy we must make the changes ourselves.

Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants

Click on the image to purchase this book through Amazon.com. Purchases help support MediaMouse.org.

It has been a few years since Rep. Sensenbrenner proposed draconian legislation known as HR 4437. His proposed legislation, which would have made being undocumented in the US a felony, was a major catalyst for mobilizing a new wave of immigrant justice activists in 2005-2006.

However, immigration rights and reform was a non-issue during the 2008 presidential election. Candidates steered clear of taking a position on what many saw as a “controversial” issue. Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, is an excellent book that reminds us of the importance of immigration as a justice issue.

Veteran writer and photo journalist David Bacon has spent years observing and writing about the harsh realities that face people who are part of the migrant stream coming from Central America and Mexico into the United States. Bacon combines the best of analysis with how US immigration policy impacts individuals and their families.

Illegal People is not so much a methodical look at how globalization creates migrants, rather it is a collection of essays and stories about people who have come from countries like Guatemala and Mexico after economic hardship as a result of trade policies such as NAFTA and CAFTA.

Bacon weaves throughout the book examples from US history of migrants who have been victims of racist immigration policy to those who have organized against this repression. The author draws the links between how the US treated Chinese immigrants in the later part of the 19th century to how US policy treats Mexicans today. The book also provides excellent examples of how migrants have organized themselves in response to immigration policy. Bacon provides a window into the campaigns by Chicano and Filipino activists in the 1960 that led to the creation of the United Farm Workers and the organizing behind the current immigrant rights movement.

Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants is not only a great resource for understanding what drives much of the immigration to the US, it provides a framework for responding to the racist and xenophobic movements that want to build a wall along the US-Mexican border.

David Bacon, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, (Beacon Press, 2008).

Report says CAFTA has Failed to Deliver

A new report from the Stop CAFTA coalition charges that CAFTA has failed on numerous fronts and has not improved the lives of workers in the signatory countries. The coalition says that CAFTA’s failings should be used as reason to suspend the agreement and reject future neoliberal trade agreements.


Earlier this month, the Stop CAFTA Coalition released a report on the effects of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and called for the trade agreement to be suspended by president elect Barack Obama.

The report argues that CAFTA has failed on several fronts and that its failure should be seen as a reason to reject the pending Colombia Free Trade Agreement and focus instead on agreements that focus on human rights, and economic, social, and environmental sustainability.

The report argues that the problems that come with CAFTA–often dismissed by critics as “growing pains” that will even out over time–are problems inherent to the flawed economic theories that shaped the agreement. As with many neoliberal trade agreements, jobs gained have largely been low paying–and often dangerous–jobs at factories owned by multi-national corporations. Similarly, a rise in exports reported by some CAFTA countries has largely benefited multinationals. Intellectual property rights included within CAFTA have stopped local corporations from being able to sell generic medicine to impoverished citizens who cannot afford brand-name drugs. The agreement has also paved the way for destructive environmental projects including open-pit mines and hydroelectric dams. Moreover, CAFTA’s rules make it harder for citizens to challenge these projects.

The report also briefly looks at how the United States has been impacted by CAFTA. The agreement’s passage was hotly debated in the legislature and many unions and NGOs opposed CAFTA. Some of them opposed the agreement on the grounds that it would negatively affect the agricultural and industrial sectors of the US economy. The report concludes that there has been relatively little effect on those sectors. However, it cautions that any gains for the US under CAFTA favor large corporations over small ones, and agri-business over small farms.

Overall, the report concludes that:

“The promises of DR-CAFTA have not been realized in the first three years of its implementation. If DR-CAFTA is not seriously renegotiated, it will continue to harm local economies and people, promote migration, and greatly increase the economic inequalities that persist throughout the region. Without changes to the current economic model and vast improvements to local infrastructure, employment opportunities will continue to be scarce, and the poor will continue to become poorer as the rich continue to become richer.”

The report offers several ideas for alternatives to the neoliberal CAFTA, including ALBA, a cooperative trade agreement focusing on development and mutually beneficial policies, and the Association Agreement with the European Union. In addition, it contains a “Pledge for Trade Justice” that offers elements that must be present to have an agreement based on justice and equality. These include increased transparency, stronger core environmental and labor standards in the body of trade agreements, provisions allowing for locally focused sustainable development, and more.

CAFTA was supported by West Michigan Representative Vern Ehlers who has a history of supporting neoliberal trade agreements including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow both voted against CAFTA.

The Stop CAFTA coalition has released two previous reports on the effects of CAFTA in 2006 and 2007.

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.

Group Urges Pressure on Candidates’ Trade Stances

Public Citizen has issued a call for activists to pressure candidates on trade issues in light of the global economic crisis. Representative Ehlers–who has consistently supported neoliberal trade agreements such as NAFTA–is ripe for such pressure.

Public Citizen–a nonprofit advocacy group fighting for government and corporate accountability–is calling on citizens to “Bird-Dog for Fair Trade:”

With less than a month to go before the election on November 4th and the whole nation riveted by global economic chaos, there’s no better time to discover where your federal candidates stand on globalization and fair trade policies. The momentum is on our side and support is growing for an end to the failed NAFTA/WTO model that has resulted in global financial instability, lost jobs, stagnant wages, a flood of unsafe imports, human rights abuses and harm to the environment.

Bird-dogging is an exciting way to make a huge impact. The ability to raise your issues in public so that your officials must deal with them, on-the-record, is the core of democratic action and accountability. Polls are showing that globalization and trade issues are of widespread interest to voters, so bird-dogging on the issue provides a public service, letting everyone know clearly where the candidates stand.

The organization is asking people to get in touch with them for help in holding legislators accountable for their support of neoliberal trade polices. In addition, the organization has prepared a series of guides to “Key Votes in Congress” that shows how Michigan legislators have voted on trade policies.

Here in West Michigan, an obvious place to start would be with Representative Vern Ehlers. Ehlers has consistently supported neoliberal trade policies such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and others.

In a voters guide from MLive.com, Ehlers said the following in response to the question “What is your position on U.S. trade laws:”

Since the end of World War II, the United States has pursued long-term policies aimed at lowering worldwide trade barriers. These policies benefit us since trade opens new markets for U.S. companies. American companies are the most efficient and productive enterprises in the world, and 60 years of mostly sustained economic growth has proven the benefits of free trade. Also, stronger economic ties between countries foster good diplomatic relations. Countries that share in the benefits of trade have incentives to work out disagreements diplomatically rather than using other avenues, particularly over issues such as labor standards, environmental protection and human rights. As we consider our trade policies, we must ensure that U.S. goods may enter foreign markets on the same terms that goods from other countries enter ours. I have concerns about a trade agreement with South Korea since U.S. lightweight trucks are not provided equal access to the Korean market. Also, I have major concerns about China’s devaluation of currency since it creates an unfair trade advantage, and I support imposing tariffs on Chinese goods if China does not reform its intellectual property practices.

Polls Reveal Michigan Attitudes on “Free Trade” and NAFTA

Two new polls reveal some interesting views on NAFTA and neoliberal trade agreements. In the first, 55% of those polled in Michigan say NAFTA and the WTO have been “a bad thing.” In the second, voters respond that by a margin of almost 3 to 1 they believe the US should withdraw or revise NAFTA.

While MediaMouse.org does not typically report on results from polls, we found two new polls to be interesting because they contained some interesting perspectives on “free trade” and neoliberal trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The first, a “Big Ten Battleground” poll on Michigan asked a group of Michigan residents:

“In general, do you think that free trade agreements like NAFTA, and organizations like the World Trade Organization, have been a good thing or a bad thing for the United States?”

The results–while not surprising given the effects of NAFTA on Michigan–are worth noting. Only 23% of respondents said the agreements had been “a good thing,” while 55% said they had been “a bad thing.” The remainder of those surveyed either didn’t know or refused to answer.

A second poll conducted by Zogby and the pro-NAFTA Inter-American Dialogue had some more interesting findings relating to how people in the United States perceive NAFTA:

* By a margin of nearly three-to-one, likely voters believe that the United States should revise or withdraw from NAFTA.

* Anti-NAFTA voters outnumber pro-NAFTA voters in every demographic group.

Ehlers Supported Trade Agreement Contributing to Sweatshops in Central America

The National Labor Committee–an organization that fights to defend the human rights of workers in the global economy–has released a new study finding evidence that the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has facilitated the development of sweatshops in Central America. In 2005, West Michigan Representative Vern Ehlers supported CAFTA.

The National Labor Committee’s most recent investigation has found that Salvadoran women sewing $165 jackets for The North Face and $54 shirts for Eddie Bauer cannot afford to pay for basic necessities on the wages paid at the Korean owned Youngone S.A. de C.V. factory. There, workers report being paid only 94 cents for each $165 North Face jacket that they sew while enduring sexual harassment, forced overtime, and verbal abuse. An effort to form a union failed when the organizers were all illegally fired.

While these conditions are ostensibly illegal under CAFTA, the limited enforcement mechanisms have allowed the conditions to persist. The National Labor Committee has previously documented other instances in which CAFTA has contributed to the development of sweatshops in the Americas.

Ehlers Speaks at Event Promoting Colombia Free Trade Agreement


Earlier this week, Grand Rapids area congressional Representative Vern Ehlers spoke at event sponsored by the Grand Rapids and US Chamber of Commerce. The event–part of the national Chamber’s “TradeRoots” series–promoted trade agreements as a means of helping Michigan businesses succeed. Additionally, according to a media report, the event promoted the passage of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (Colombia FTA), which the Chamber’s representative said would help businesses in the United States. The same article said, “Government and business representatives also discussed how the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement will remove barriers to U.S. service providers doing business in the country; provide a secure, predictable legal framework for U.S. investors; and effectively enforce labor and environmental laws.” Unfortunately, there is nothing available online about what Ehlers said specifically at the event. In the past, Ehlers has supported many similar trade agreements.

The Colombia Free Trade Agreement has been criticized by Public Citizen for being based on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and thereby replicating its flaws. Moreover, the Colombia FTA has been criticized for ignoring anti-union violence in Colombia. The AFL-CIO, one of the largest unions in the country, is opposed to the Colombia FTA and has committed to mobilizing its members against it.

Clinton and Obama Have Almost Identical Positions on NAFTA and Healthcare

Recently the media and the two Democratic Party frontrunners–Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama–have been debating their stances on healthcare and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). However, while the two candidates are criticizing each others’ positions on the two issues, they are largely have similar positions according to FactCheck.org. The following video explores some of what they are saying and what their actual positions are:

However, lost in the back-and-forth debate about NAFTA is a discussion of the substance of their positions on NAFTA. While they have been willing to attack each other, they have not applied the same scrutiny to the impact of trade agreements such as NAFTA.