A Welcome Failure

Trade ministers ink a watered-down deal …. so why is everybody celebrating?


Delegates and protestors alike have packed their bags and quit Miami. Another international trade summit has closed without a significant deal being signed. So why is everyone claiming victory?

After five days of heated debate in the conference center and protests on the street, the stated goal of turning North America into one giant free-trade zone is still far from a reality. Trade ministers from 34 countries had aimed to finish negotiating the details of the Free Trade Area of the Americas by Friday, but no one was surprised when the ministers failed to seal the deal. In fact, with the collapse of last summer’s WTO meegin in Cancun, many predicted a less-than-productive meeting in Florida. And, on Thursday, the delegates announced that they would close the conference one day early, as there was nothing left to negotiate. Ultimately, Miami had become another meeting that failed to meet its goals.

Instead, of announcing the creation of the “NAFTA of the Americas,” trade ministers signed onto a deal dubbed “FTAA light,” providing a core agreement for all countries to sign, but allowing each nation to opt out of the most controversial measures. While this watered-down deal is expected to meet the 2005 deadline, does it really deserved to be celebrated as some long-awaited victory?

As Sarah Anderson writes in The Nation, the Bush administration failed to get the deal it has been pushing for. In fact, the Bush team was actually foced to change its tune under pressure from Brazil and other developing countries. And, as Harvey Shaiken, the director of Berkeley’s Center for Latin American Studies, told the Christian Science Monitor, even with the U.S. retreating, the major concerns delegates brought to the conference were not resolved.

“The tough issues have been deferred rather than resolved…For the United States on the eve of an electoral year that’s just fine. And for Brazil, [a country] deeply concerned with some of these issues domestically, that’s also just fine. In effect they’ve chosen negotiating paths that satisfy domestic political concerns and, at the same time, give the illusion of movement internationally. You’ve got a meeting of minds that didn’t seem possible.”

Choosing to put aside the heavy issues for the next meeting sounds like the same tactic of previous meetings. But it’s no surprise when you look at the heart of the issue. While Brazil is not the only country to have beef with the U.S., they are taking the plunge and challenging American dumping practices. While the U.S. government used to aid the agricultural industry by paying farmers to keep their land fallow, the 1990s wave of free-market madness ended this practice. The result has been huge surpluses driving down prices on the international market. For Brazil citrus and beef are at the heart of the issue. Brazil wants the U.S. to change its dumping laws and lower tariff for their imports — essentially they want to implement the “free” aspect of free trade. But clearly those in the U.S. who would lose from a deluge of cheap Brazillian goods — namely Florida’s gigantic citrus industry — don’t like the idea.

No all-encompassing agreement was reached, only a promise of several little deals. While Brazil gets gumption points for not conceding to U.S. demands, they didn’t win any major rewards. Instead, the U.S. bypassed Brazil and struck individual deals with Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Panama and the Dominican Republic. Robert Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative, told the press that the U.S. will work with countries ready to negotiate. “Some countries are willing to move at a faster pace [than Brazil…For those who are willing to do the most and accomplish the most, then we’re willing to move forward.”

The delegates took home promises of future deals and the protestors left Miami with bruises and bandages. Out of the 10,000 activists who converged on Miami, hundreds were arrested and at least 20 hospitalized after police encounters. The usual descriptions of police brutality and arrest support requests were posted on Indymedia, and while some protestor cheered the collapsed meetings, it’s not clear if their presence influenced the delegates. Some activists welcomed the announcement of the mini-FTAA agreement, but the major concerns regarding worker’s rights, the environment and the poor have yet to be addressed. As Phil Bloomer of the international aid organization Oxfam explained: “The final declaration simply papers over the irreconcilable difference between narrow self-interest on the one hand, and the urgent need to reduce poverty on the other.” More free-trade showdowns are sure to come.

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