US-Colombia "free trade" talks
The US trade representative Robert Zoellick began moves to open talks on a bilateral trade deal with Colombia in August 2003. Then after the failure of last year's Cancun world trade summit last year, he had to face resistance from participant countries at the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting in Miami in November. At that time the US announced plans to start bilateral trade talks with Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Panama. 
The US government portrays this as a natural development of the Andean Trade Preferences Act which expires in 2006. They plan to have bilateral "free trade" deals in place by then so as to greatly enhance US power in the region. As Emilio Sardi notes in his article, these "free trade" deals cut at the roots of national sovereignty and self-determination.
Moving on after Cancun and Miami
After bagging the five Central American countries with the CAFTA trade deal, Zoellick now seeks to take out the rest of Latin America systematically, country by country. The US trade representative gets his imperial way by behind-closed-doors arm-twisting and public doublespeak. He can depend on his colleagues in the State Department and the CIA to intimidate waverers by destabilising uncooperative potential partners, as they are currently doing in Venezuela.
In February this year, the State Department's Bureau of Information added the Dominican Republic to the list of countries on the US "free trade" shopping list.  The relevant statement deployed this fine specimen of Bush administration mendacity from the latest White House budget, "These agreements combine intellectual property and investment protections for U.S. companies with commitments for strong environmental and labor protections by our partners..." But it is precisely those environmental and labor protections, among other social protections, that Zoellick's secretly negotiated trade deals consign to virtual oblivion.
The view from Colombia
Like many well-informed business people throughout Latin America, Emilio Sardi sees this with absolute clarity. His article was published in Colombia's Portafolio magazine earlier this year in response to an article by a Colombian government adviser attacking his views.  Sardi writes:
"I should stress I am no enemy of trade agreements. They can be dreadful if badly negotiated or fine if negotiated well. But I am opposed to the imposition of a treaty on Colombia that could be extremely damaging, as studies on the issue by the National Planning office and Fedesarrollo have shown. And I am opposed to signing the treaty in a hurry to a timetable imposed by a few government trade officials without debate and without the due intervention of public bodies.
Not long ago I wrote, "Colombia has named a small team made up of people with academic qualifications but with no experience of serious negotiation. Although the lead negotiator is capable, this team bears no comparison with the North American team. There is no hope of this negotiation working out in our favour. The worst feature is that this team from within the Trade Ministry will decide the positions of Colombia in the negotiation. It's stupid that the people who define our position should be the ones who also defend it. The conflict of interest is obvious. The tendency is and has been to seek to make the job easy, defining positions to please the other side but which damage the country."
All that remains true. And it's not my two degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology or 40 years of business experience that qualify me to assert that, rather it's that I am a Colombian who loves my country and also it's my concern at the way people want to slip in by the back door a treaty that will cause huge damage to many national interests.
If it were just international trade that was at stake, it's possible that only the government might deal with it. In that case, the position to negotiate - which should be sought after and agreed - ought to be formulated by the Ministries of Social Protection and Agriculture, responsible for the health and employment of people in Colombia, not by the Ministry of Trade. The role of the Ministry of Trade should be just to negotiate.
But this is not a treaty only on trade matters. This treaty will impose legislation on all Colombia's economic life. Measures on matters like foreign investment, public sector procurement, health and phytosanitary measures, intellectual property, competition and legal arbitration could cause great damage to the country. In these areas, an attempt is being made to impose rules far beyond what the World Trade Organization has established and which Colombia fully abides by.
What's being attempted is a legal framework to restrict local competition and not just reduce our competitive export ability but also to affect our internal markets by means of restrictive practices that will massively increase the cost of living. Behind the screen of a hypothetical liberation of external trade lurks this attempt to tie up internal markets to the detriment of domestic consumers.
These rules could finish off the nation's food security and put at risk access to health for the majority of Colombians. If they are accepted they will have a supra-constitutional character - coercive and irreversible - and they will prevent Colombia from changing or influencing its future development strategies, which will remain limited by the parameters of the agreement. This treaty will seriously limit our sovereignty and so Congress, as well as the controlling bodies has, beyond the right, the obligation to take part in the whole process, beneath the watchful gaze of public opinion.
Mexico's former foreign minister Jorge Castaneda, the lead negotiator of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the private business representative in that negotiation, Juan Gallardo, have advised Colombia to negotiate without haste, with a great deal of preparation and with all those affected taking part. In the United States, the rules demand that its Congress approve negotiating positions before negotiations start, along with continual approvals throughout the process.
We cannot remain silent. Nor will it be possible to prevent Congress and the controlling bodies playing their due part to protect the common good and defend our national autonomy. What's at stake is our national sovereignty."
This article puts eloquently and concisely the fundamental objections to these so-called "free trade" deals. In particular, Sardi reminds us that the US position is monitored and subject to approval by the US Congress. In stark contrast, Zoellick's team insists on negotiating in secret beyond the reach of scrutiny by the legislatures of the affected countries. That was a fundamental reason behind the huge but unsuccessful resistance in Costa Rica to the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
More profoundly, Sardi reminds us that our societies are seamless entities whose social, political and economic needs and interests interact indivisibly. He is well aware of the deeply cynical political sleight of hand that Robert Zoellick and his team are trying to pull. When they talk about "free trade" in countries like Colombia, they seek to conceal their real intent, which is to dominate that country's energy and other resources to serve the needs of the United States. The same is true for every country they sit down to negotiate with.
In the current state of international affairs with one superpower ready to use all its political, economic and military might to get what it wants, talk of "free trade" is deeply misleading and disingenuous. Right now, nothing approaching anything like "free trade" prevails, nor will any time soon. Corporate multinational monopoly capitalism dominates the international economy across the globe. "Free trade" doesn't exist. It is a cant term taken over for contemporary purposes from 19th Century British imperialist propaganda.
It may make sense to talk about more or less regulated trade. But who makes the rules? The failure of the World Trade Organization summit at Cancun last year indicates that this is what the United States, Japan and Europe really mean by "free trade": a global deal to guarantee their interests and dominance according to rules they impose. Robert Zoellick and his team know very well that people in the majority world are well aware of this. That is why they insist on negotiating in secret. Sardi's article confirms that prominent business people in Latin America understand US intentions all too well.
Toni Solo is an activist based in Central America. Contact:
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