Obama's agenda for change and the 2009 Summit of the Americas

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Barack Obama's electoral victory represents hope for change in the US relations with Latin America, but he will have to work against time to showcase the new policy direction at the Fifth Summit of the Americas, to be held in Trinidad and Tobago in April next year, write Rick Arnold and Manuel Pérez-Rocha.

Barack Obama's electoral victory represents hope for a change in direction for US relations with Latin America and within the North American region- a change that departs from the Monroe Doctrine of US superiority over its 'backyard' neighbors. North American pundits have already been suggesting that a new US administration must focus its energies on the current economic crisis along with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - leaving no time to deliver on other campaign promises such as putting into practice a new ‘good neighbor' policy in the Americas and re-visiting existing and pending free trade agreements.

The pundits may not be giving the 44th President and his team enough credit when it comes to their ability to multi-task. With expectations so high, Obama will need to move on various fronts simultaneously to be seen to be working at fulfilling the hopes that have been raised. These next few months will be important ones to be able to demonstrate to all the other countries in the American continent -,from Canada to Argentina- that the US is turning its back on the continental ill will generated by the Bush administration. . In its place Obama will want to communicate that the US has a new vision for this hemisphere, one that is based on equality, respect and understanding. The new administration will be up against a deadline to showcase this new policy direction when the Heads-of State from all the countries in the hemisphere are present at the
V Summit of the Americas to be held in Trinidad and Tobago on April 17-19, 2009.

The new Obama administration will need to recognize that the largest economies in South America have been moving away from the "Washington Consensus", a neoliberal straight jacket forced on developing countries over the past three decades by US-backed lending institutions such as the IMF and the IDB (Inter American Development Bank). The accompanying concept of ‘free trade' has become an anathema for most people in the hemisphere as the disparity between rich and poor has widened dramatically, despite promises on the contrary. The recent phenomenon of the democratic election of a growing number of left-leaning governments in this hemisphere is a direct result of the failed structural adjustment policies that Washington has imposed since the eighties with the help of the ruling elites in most Latin American countries.

Begin the change in North America by re-opening NAFTA

Obama's implementation of his campaign promise of opening up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will be a step in a positive direction given the adverse effect that this unfair deal has had on workers and small farmers in Mexico, Canada, as well as in the US. Since Obama started his campaign for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party he declared that NAFTA and other free trade agreements would need to be amended to make sure that enforceable labor and environmental provisions prevailed. This has been echoed by the Democratic Party in its
"Renewing America's Promise" document. Of particular interest in this document is the intention to "Recommit to an Alliance of the Americas" and the need for "Smart, Strong and Fair Trade Policies" including amending NAFTA.

Contrary to some suspicions, Obama's promise to amend NAFTA may prove to be more than electoral double-speak. After the November 4th elections the following has been added to Barack Obama's webpage: "Amend the North American Free Trade Agreement: Obama and Biden believe that NAFTA and its potential were oversold to the American people. They will work with the leaders of Canada and Mexico to fix NAFTA so that it works for American workers."

This commitment by Obama to renegotiate NAFTA has been welcomed by civil society in all three signatory countries. In Mexico and Canada, civil society organizations, unions, and associations of producers will make sure that any agreement among our countries works for Mexicans and Canadians as well. However, both Canadian Prime Minister Harper and Mexican President Calderon have shown reluctance at having NAFTA opened up for re-negotiation for fear of opening a "Pandora's box" - that once their respective populations get a chance to assess the impact of 15 years of NAFTA, there will either be a clamor for drastic change to the model, or a call to get out of it entirely. Undoubtedly, the first months of Obama's administration will be an intense tug of war between the few but powerful who will defend the status quo and the many who want change.

Stop the extension of the SPP to the rest of the continent

To make things more challenging, there is more to change than NAFTA. Since 2005 when the ‘three amigos' - Bush, Martin and Fox - met in Waco, Texas and announced the SPP (Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America), it has served as an undemocratic mechanism for the expansion of corporate power and the extension of the North American perimeter for the US ‘war on terror'. Legislatures as well as civil society have been totally excluded from any input into the SPP while 30 corporations that form the North American Competitiveness Council (NACC) dictate "recommendations" to the governments via their secretive "prosperity" and "security" working groups.

So far the SPP has meant a myriad of regulatory convergence measures (often to the lowest standard available); deeper deregulation in areas untouched by NAFTA; increased pressure on Mexico to open up its strategic energy industry to foreign investors, and on Canada to speed up its volume of oil exports from tar sands. In terms of security the SPP has resulted in stepped up militarization of borders, and in security measures like the Merida Initiative by which the US aids the Mexican government with half a billion dollars yearly (for three years) for military training and equipment. In a related measure Canada agreed on February 14, 2008 to the Canada-U.S. "Civil Assistance Plan" (CAP) which was signed at the U.S. Army North headquarters, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. This agreement allows the militaries of either nation to send troops across the other's borders during an ‘emergency'.

On September 2008 as the global economic crisis was grabbing the headlines, Bush called on Heads-of-State and government officials from 11countries from the American continent present in New York for the opening of a new session of the United Nations, to sign an accord called Pathways to Prosperity in the Americas (PPA). All the signatory countries have a free trade agreement with the US, or are negotiating one [1]. Significantly, the PPA was announced at the headquarters of the corporate sponsored Council of the Americas that serves in the US as the secretariat for the secretive and undemocratic Security and Prosperity Partnership.

The PPA bears many of the hallmarks of the SPP. According to the
Mexican Action Network on Free Trade, the PPA is "based on two similar components to the SPP: on one hand an economic, mercantile and financial agenda covered by the term ‘prosperity', and on the other a ‘security' agenda of enhancing military and police powers to combat terrorism, narcotraffic, illegal migration, etc.." The PPA, like the SPP, is little more than an attempt to justify economic deregulation and to promote an escalation of militarism in the region (i.e. the return of the moth-balled US IV fleet to Latin American waters).

Now, in the run up to the Trinidad and Tobago Summit, it is time for the Obama administration to announce the cancellation of the SPP along with its hemispheric extension, the PPA. Fortunately, early this year Obama declared that "Starting my first year in office, I will convene annual meetings with Mr. Calderon and the prime minister of Canada. Unlike similar summits under President Bush, these will be conducted with a level of transparency that represents the close ties among our three countries. We will seek the active and open involvement of citizens, labor, the private sector and non-governmental organizations in setting the agenda and making progress". The challenge to respond to this aspiration will be a test of what is to come in the Trinidad and Tobago Summit.

Obama should give the Bush FTAA 'plan B' a quick burial

The Bush administration is making a last ditch attempt to re-package "free trade" through the PPA, employing the now familiar rhetoric that "this initiative will provide a forum where leaders can work to ensure that the benefits of trade are broadly shared. It will deepen the connections among regional markets." However Bush still conveniently ignores the evidence that past attempts at opening up markets has actually led to regional disintegration and provoked an increase in inequality and poverty in the region.

The PPA is a highly divisive strategy designed to defeat the process of Latin American integration. Bush said about the PPA that "this initiative is open to all countries, as participants or observers, in the Western Hemisphere that share our commitment to democracy, open markets and free trade". Equating open markets and free trade to democracy is a worn out formula and it is easy to guess whose yardsticks for defining democracy will be used. But beyond this simplification, the gravity of the PPA is its intention to guarantee a bloc of loyal and submissive Latin American governments that can be used against regional integration processes like
UNASUR. Twelve South American countries including the economic giants of the region have signed on to UNASUR, while a string of 'Pacific Rim' countries, excluding Ecuador and Nicaragua, have been corralled by the US and led into the neo-liberal PPA pen.

Other actors throwing their support behind the PPA are the World Bank and the IDB. Despite the financial crisis of epic proportions in the United States that has spread throughout the world and not spared Latin America - with Mexico one of the hardest hit- , the World Bank and the IDB say we need more of the same in terms of economic policy. These institutions have hailed the PPA as "a timely effort to defend Latin America's hard-earned economic gains in the face of global financial instability (given that) trade has been a powerful tool for growth in this region, which has often relied on exports to recover from past crises". The President of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, has said that "I welcome this initiative because trade can play an important role in overcoming poverty. With the Doha global trade negotiations stalled, it is more important than ever that countries press on with trade liberalization." And the IDB President Luis Alberto Moreno has said that "This is not the time to recoil from trade liberalization but to deepen our economic integration. The ratification of the free trade agreements between the United States, Colombia and Panama would be an important step in the right direction."

"Yes we can" - change for the Americas coming from below

Hemispheric-wide resistance to the first attempt by the US to force the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) on every nation on this continent led to its eventual defeat at the IV Summit of the Americas held in Argentina in 2005. The organizers of the April 2009 V Summit of the Americas had hoped to focus on a social agenda of providing a decent living for all those who call the "Americas" their home. The emergence of the PPA, or Bush's Plan B for the FTAA, represents a threat to the urgent need of having all nations in the hemisphere focus on tackling the disparities that make the region the most unequeal in the world.

According to Obama, "what's good for the people of the Americas is good for the United States". Among the specific proposals Obama has made (political freedom and democracy; freedom from fear and security; freedom from want and opportunity) in the "New Partnership for the Americas" document, he says that "it's time for a new alliance of the Americas" that leaves behind "eight years of failed policies" and "top down reforms", and puts forward instead an "agenda that advances democracy, security, and opportunity from the bottom up". For Obama to make good on his vision for a new ‘partnership' in the Americas, the divisive Bush PPA initiative must be laid to rest well before the April V Summit of the Americas gets under way.

The 2009 IV Peoples' Summit in Trinidad and Tobago

During April 17-19, 2009 the IV Peoples Summit will be taking place in Port of Spain, Trinidad (while the Heads-of-State are simultaneously meeting at the V Summit of the Americas).The message of a 'change agenda' for the hemisphere will be brought to the island nation by social movements coming from all points in between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego. A key focus for discussions during the People's Summit will be the economic meltdown hitting the capitalist system, and the opening that this provides for the implementation of a peoples' agenda promoting sustainable development, social justice, equity, and peaceful coexistence.

In conjunction with the Hemispheric Social Alliance [2], social movements present in Trinidad and Tobago will be providing a ‘change agenda' that in large measure will likely be echoed by representatives from many of the newly elected governments in Latin America and the Caribbean. The V Summit of the Americas will be an ideal setting for Obama to signal a new respectful and consultative role for the US in the Americas as well. Will Obama avail himself of the opportunity to take this courageous step forward? Ojalá!


[1] The countries that have signed the PPA are Canada, Chile, Colombia Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panamá, Perú and the United States

The Hemispheric Social Alliance is a 10 year old network with national, regional and sectoral chapters. In the North American region the members are Common Frontiers in Canada, the Reseau Quebecois sur L´Integration Continentale (RQIC), the Alliance for Responsible Trade (ART) in the United States and the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade (RMALC).

Copyright © 2007 Alliance for Responsible Trade

- Rick Arnold is the Coordinator of Common Frontiers Canada; Manuel Pérez-Rocha is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and participates with the Alliance for Responsible Trade.


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