A debate on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) organized by Concordia’s Solidarity Network to Stop the FTAA (SNSF) drew close to 250 people to McGill’s Law Building last Thursday.
SNSF member Sam Labrier explained why they held the event, “The [FTAA], which seeks to link 34 nations of the Americas -all except Cuba – will have profound effects on almost 800 million people.
It is vital, particularly given the proposed 2005 implementation date, that the advantages and the dangers of this deal be closely examined and understood so that a wider political awareness and participation can be engendered.”
Debaters, chosen for their knowledge of international trade issues, included McGill economics professor William Watson and McGill faculty of law member Armand de Mestral in favour of the FTAA.
In opposition, there was Ottawa-based lawyer Steven Shrybman and Montreal-based writer and activist Jaggi Singh.
The debate began with Watson, who challenged negative conceptions of free trade, saying that the inclusion of Mexico in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993 was of great benefit for them. As a result, the rest of Latin America “wants a piece of the action,” he said.
He argued that free trade would eliminate the big U.S. market advantages and end discriminatory treatment of foreign products in the market.
“Under free trade we can run our systems the way we want to,” Watson said, “and if we decide to ‘open up’ to private interests, any foreign company would have to be allowed to bid.”
Shrybman countered this idea: “Free trade agendas used to be about trade, but now they mean access to markets without having to invest in local economies. [Free trade] is a way to block-in a neo-Liberal agenda across the hemisphere and undermine democratically elected governments.”
To show the FTAA is about more than just traditional trade, Shrybman gave the example of the Canadian government’s decision – after much pressure – to keep healthcare, education and culture out of the deals.
When de Mestral’s turn came, he argued the whole thing has been blown out of proportion, and that the FTAA is supposed to be “old fashioned tariff reduction and taking the impediments away from moving products across borders.
Writing all of these other things into a trade deal is asking too much,” he said.
Later on, de Mestral changed his tone by saying that the FTAA would help poorer countries. “Letting Latin America be the way it has been the past 100 years surely isn’t the answer” he said.
“The FTAA is trying to deal with all of these issues and unite and reconcile differences and values.”
Singh gave the example of the millions of Mexicans forced into low wage factory work in maquiladoras after NAFTA was implemented.
He also mentioned NAFTA’s Chapter 11 law, which has given corporations the right to sue governments for restrictions/regulations that cost them profit.
“The FTAA will basically tell people throughout the Americas that this is your only choice, undermining their rights to self- determination,” Singh said.
McGill environment student Jessica Fahey said the event was “an eye-opener,” and that she learned a lot due to the more in- depth analysis that was presented.
George Mallari-Lee, a John Abbot Cegep student, said he had never heard the pro-FTAA argument. “Seeing both sides of the debate was instructive and showed new possibilities,” he said.
This Thursday, the heads of state of the 34 countries of the Western Hemisphere, multinational corporations and a handful of non-governmental organizations will meet in Miami for the eighth ministerial meetings of the FTAA.
Demonstrations against the FTAA, including one starting at 3 p.m. in front of the Hall Building, will be taking place throughout the Americas to coincide with the ministerial.
To this date, very little consensus has been reached on the draft text.
For more information, contact: stopft[email protected], call 931-2377 or visit www.education-action.net.