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7 November 2002 Edition

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Latin America resists US-led trade agreement

On 1 November 2001, in Quito, Ecuador, the two faces of the American continent met again: on one side political leaders ready to sell off whatever is left of the countries they run, and pitted against them the social movements that are fighting against a future America of the Corporations.

We hear of Latin America and twhat comes to mind? Drugs, soccer, poverty, dictatorships, economic crisis... But there is another Latin America emerging: the land of social movements, resistance and real people power. After battling against dictatorships and US interference since the beginning of the 20th century, the full potential of Latin American politics is now coming into being. This is a time when in some Latin American countries military coups are against the rich and for the poor; where coca farmers run as presidential candidates, where a trade-unionist of humble origins can get elected president of the biggest and richest country of the subcontinent.

The change can be personalised in names like Hugo Chavez, onetime coup leader democratically elected Venezuela's president by the poor; Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the shoe-shine boy turned trade unionist, voted in as Brazil's president last month; Evo Morales, a farmer who ran in Bolivia's presidential election with the support of indigenous people and coca farmers; and Lucio Gutierrez, a middle ranking army officer who joined indigenous peoples to overthrow a corrupt government in Ecuador and who now appears to be the favourite for that nation's presidential election run-off on 24 November.

However, behind the names, there are the people, the millions of poor, illiterate, unemployed, who have finally said enough is enough and have decided to take over their destinies against all odds and in defiance of US government intervention.

Remember the coup attempt against Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez? The US claimed it had no responsibility for the recent ousting attempt against the former paratrooper who dares to be a friend of Fidel Castro and sell oil to Cuba and who opposes US foreign policy and economic plans for the area. However, many of the leaders of the failed coup visited the US embassy in the days beforehand and US Navy warships were spotted waiting just outside Venezuelan territorial waters. The US and the Spanish administrations were first to congratulate coup leader Carmona when he took over the presidency of the country. But just when we all thought we were back to the dictatorships of the '70s, the Venezuelan poor took to the streets and with the support of the paratroopers, rescued Chavez.

Most of Brazil's population voted for Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as president. Lula is a worry for the US administration because of his left-wing politics - he is a founding member of Brazil's Workers' Party. Nevertheless, the US administration has been quickl to assure that its relationship with Brazil will not undergo major changes after he is sworn in as this country's first elected leftist president. "We are Brazil's essential partner and Brazil is our essential partner," explained American Ambassador Donna Hrinak.

However, Brazilian-US relations will initially be marked by opposing views on the US-sponsored Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA or ALCA) - a hemisphere-wide free trade zone scheduled to begin in 2005 - which is also opposed by Chavez and many social and indigenous movements in Latin America. During his presidential campaign, Silva branded US President George W Bush's top trade priority for Latin America as "an annexation of Latin America to the United States".

Other regional leaders have voiced similar concerns, warning that such a zone would largely benefit US companies, who some worry will abuse market access at the expense of Latin American competition. The FTAA agreement will force Latin American economies to open their markets to US and Canadian products, while both North American countries will maintain their tariff over certain Latin American products to protect their industries. Furthermore, the FTAA is a trade agreement that will not open borders to immigrations or improve the situation of "illegal" Latin American migrants already working in the US.

US hopes to keep talks FTAA on track

Facing escalating resistance by some Latin American countries to a hemisphere-wide free-trade zone, US trade officials sat down in Quito on Friday 1 November with trade ministers and representatives from 34 nations to try to shore up support from allies in the region.

The FTAA aims to establish a single market, stretching from Alaska to Argentina, by 2005, and officials are hoping the meeting will help establish a timeframe to begin lowering trade tariffs among the countries.

The one-day talks were held under heightened security, as authorities braced for demonstrations by indigenous, labour and left-wing groups from across the region. Some 5,000 police officers were deployed.

Organisations involved in the resistance demonstrations also met with the representatives of the 34 American countries in Quito, who they presented with a "Mobilisation Message from the American people". The message explains: "the FTAA is not legal as you (leaders) are negotiating it in secrecy, in an undemocratic manner, surrounded by offensive cordons of police and army. Only a small elite of big business can access the negotiations, which carry on without consulting the populations or national parliaments."

In their statement, the protesting groups described the FTAA as "a supranational economic constitution that will give away our nations' sovereignty to US interests' hegemony".

The president of South American NGO Environment Action dismissed the FTAA as "a mechanism to secure US corporations access to strategic resources - in terms of biodiversity, water, minerals and fossil oil - in the south of the American continent".

Latin America has 23% of the world's forest and 40% of its fauna and flora species, and because of its biodiversity, pharmaceutical companies are interested in open access to the natural richness of the subcontinent. The FTAA's patent policy threatens food security worldwide.

"What we've done until now is cede our national markets in exchange for absolutely nothing," said Evo Morales, a Bolivian congressman and leader of the country's coca farmers. "We can't export anything (to the United States) and they export everything to us."

Those who oppose the FTAA see it not just as a trade agreement, as the governments have tried to sell it, but rather as a plan responding to the economic needs of the US. In Colin Powell's own words: "Our objective with the FTAA is to guarantee control for North American businesses over a territory which stretches from the Arctic to the Antarctic, free access, over the entire hemisphere, without any difficulty or obstacle, for our products, services, technology and capital."

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