The Second Hemispheric Meeting in Struggle against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) was held in Havana from 25-28 November, with nearly 1,000 delegates from all of Latin America, the US and Canada, and several European observers. In plenary sessions and workshops there were intense discussions of the negative effects of existing free trade agreements, the way governments negotiate these agreements without public discussion, and how to struggle against the FTAA.
In contrast to the first such meeting held two years previously, the emphasis this time was less on denouncing the harmful impact of free trade than on analysing its modes of operation and developing specific proposals for resistance. Workshops debated the different issues raised by free trade for women, labour, native peoples, farmers and students, and reported on actions taken in different countries to defend public services and traditional community rights against the impositions of foreign corporations. Delegates stressed the need to study international commercial law and to maintain constant vigilance, since independently of the FTAA or the WTO (World Trade Organisation), clauses favourable to transnational corporations are constantly being inserted in bilateral agreements without any reference to national parliaments, let alone public debate.
A startling example of this was given by Bolivian delegates, who explained how when the water supply
in Cochabamba was privatised and sold to a US company, massive popular protests forced the Bolivian government to revoke the concession. But since the company had negotiated the concession through its Dutch subsidiary, and Bolivia had recently secretly negotiated a bilateral investment agreement with the Netherlands, the company was able to appeal to Dutch courts and win a settlement of $25 million compensation for lost profits, although it had only invested half a million dollars!
There was a general consensus that the FTAA is an instrument for, as the Cubans put it, for “the annexation of Latin America by the United States”. Several delegations also pointed out that the threat is not only economic but political and military: the aggressive foreign policy of the Bush administration is only too apparent in Latin America, what with the renewed threats to Cuba, the interventionist “Plan Colombia” and “Andean Initiative” to guarantee US control of the region, and the short-lived coup against the progressive Chavez government in Venezuela in April.
The large Colombian delegation, which included labour leader and former presidential candidate Lucho Garzon, insisted on that country’s key role in US plans for the whole of South America. The genocide of union activists, teachers, journalists and human rights workers by the military and paramilitary in that country is being intensified by the extreme right government of President Alvaro Uribe, and the so-called “war on drugs”, now rebaptised as the “war on terrorism” in Colombia, is the main pretext for the creation of new US military bases in Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Argentina and for attempts to destabilise Cuba and Venezuela.
The high points of the Meeting were addresses by Bolivian peasant leader Evo Morales, Argentinian human rights champion Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Chilean journalist Manuel Cabieses Donoso, the speaker of the Cuban Parliament Ricardo Alarcon, and of course Fidel Castro who spoke for only three and a half hours! But as always, Fidel held the delegates’ attention with a trenchant and ironic analysis of the origins and implications of the FTAA, a project which – he pointed out – was first presented in 1991 by George Bush senior and which is designed to guarantee perpetual US control of Latin American resources. The positive conclusion to be drawn is that with Chavez in Venezuela and now Lula in Brazil, Cuba is no longer alone in Latin America: but this means more work, not less, for solidarity activists in Britain and elsewhere!