After 25 years of free trade, we've had enough!

Encounter on the fringes of the G20 summit end of November 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Political article
The newly founded platform "America Latina mejor sin TLC" opposes any new free trade and investment agreements. And the impacts of existing agreements are to be assessed.

"After 25 years of free trade, we've had enough! Ten years ago we successfully opposed the planned continent-wide Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), but today the new Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) are moving in the same direction as the FTAA back then!" This sums up the demand by Latin American NGOs which launched the platform America Latina mejor sin TLC (Latin America is better off without FTAs) on 27 November in Buenos Aires. Furthermore, "95 per cent of Latin America’s intra-regional trade is already liberalized. Why then are governments still negotiating FTAs? Because the new agreements address issues that transcend borders and concern the decision-making power of States. A case in point is the so-called regulatory harmonization mechanism. It consists of making national regulations compatible and homogenous in order to facilitate dialogue with the private sector. These regulatory arrangements entail the assurance of exorbitant privileges for foreign multinationals!"

Anti-G20 demonstrations

The platform of free trade opponents, comprising social organizations, trade unions, women’s and youth associations, launched its appeal not just anywhere, but in the Argentine Senate itself. "The only way to challenge the free trade agreements is through dialogue, and this must also include scope for discussion with the Parliaments", said Luciano Ghiotto of the Argentine alliance. Two Senators were present to support the platform – Fernando Solanas, Chair of the Environment Committee, as well as Magdalena Odarda from Patagonia, Chair of the Committee for Indigenous Peoples, who was particularly concerned about the ever-expanding mining industry in Latin America. "We are against all free trade agreements, as they destroy the environment and restrict the regulatory capacity of States. There is no good or less bad agreement!”, said Luciano Ghiotto.

The platform launch came as part of the week of action against the G20, organized in protest against the meeting of Heads of State and Government scheduled for the first time in Latin America. Workshops against free trade and the mining industry were held at the university and on the Plaza del Congreso in front of the Argentine Parliament, where participants defied sometimes torrential rain under plastic sheets. The mobilization culminated on 30 November in a huge demonstration by tens of thousands, with the procession being led by a representative of the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and Perez Esquivel, the 89-year-old Nobel Peace Laureate. In the end, the mass protest through the streets of Buenos Aires was as peaceful as the chanted slogans and atmosphere were militant.

Scepticism about NAFTA

"The first agreement to be signed, and which opened the door to all the others, was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)", explained Alberto Arrojo from the Mexican NGO INAI. "Today Mexico has free trade agreements with more than 50 countries. In renegotiating NAFTA, Donald Trump was prepared to scrap the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism, but Mexico asked for it to be kept, it's absurd! It will therefore apply to Mexico but not to Canada. The new Labor chapter brings little new, as it is not binding and contains only recommendations. Although the chapter on Rules of Origin calls for wage increases and stipulates trade union freedom for auto industry workers linked to global production chains, they make up only 2.8% of the country's workforce. Beyond this, the implementation of NAFTA will depend on Mexican labour law, which is currently being reformed."

Under the new NAFTA Agreement, rechristened the USA-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the value of automobiles entering the North American market on preferential terms must be 40-45% produced by (Mexican) workers earning at least in US$16 an hour. We will have to wait and see whether these provisions lead to higher wages in Mexico's auto industry or shift production back to the USA.

Concerns over TPP II

TPP II describes what is left of the Trans-Pacific Partnership after the US pull-out, with 11 member countries remaining and effective as of 30 December 2018. Ana Romero of the Peruvian NGO REDGE expressed concern over the pressure being exerted by her Government on the Parliament to ratify TPP II. In Peru's Ministry of Health too, there are fears that access to medicines will be limited. Chilean Senator Ignacio Latorre also spoke of the ongoing TPP II ratification process in his country and the fact that the provisions of the agreement are already being mirrored by several new FTAs that have either been concluded or are being negotiated. One feature of the mega-deals – of which Alliance Sud was critical during the discussions around the deadlocked Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) and the CETA (Canada-EU FTA) – is that they lay down aspects that cannot be revisited in the future.

The newly launched platform is not only appealing to Latin American governments not to sign free trade and investment agreements. Like Alliance Sud, it is also calling for impact assessments of existing agreements by independent parties, for example regarding human rights. And a citizens’ audit should be conducted, independently of existing agreements. Unlike the case of Ecuador, however, its findings should be binding. Ecuador’s independent CAITISA Commission indeed found that investment agreements were harmful, but the Government simply ignored the finding.