20 Years of NAFTA: Struggle, Resistance, and a New Foe

From the February 2014 PNL #831

by Aly Wane

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Corporate news outlets have mostly been touting its success. President Clinton used Fast Track authority in order to ram through this legislation on January 1, 1994. Not all people were blind to the potential negative consequences of this deal, however.

The same day NAFTA passed, aware of what it would do to indigenous communities in Mexico, the Zapatista army protested the agreement. In the end, this deal ended up hurting both US and Mexican workers, became one of the root causes of the migration crisis we have in this country, created new powers for multinational corporations, and deepened global inequality.


NAFTA, Workers’ Rights, and Migration

One of the most insidious things about NAFTA is that, despite the lofty rhetoric about how it would help all countries involved, it actually hurt the working class of the signatory countries (the US, Canada and Mexico). NAFTA allowed for the easier movement of factories (capital) across borders, but not of workers (labor).

This set up what some economists have called the “race to the bottom” where multinational corporations repeatedly move across borders to find cheaper, more exploitable, union-free labor (in industry-speak, they call these exploited workers “flexible labor”). The deal helped decimate the manufacturing industry in this country as many factories in the South of the US moved to Mexico in order to find cheaper labor.

This agreement allowed for US corn to be dumped on the Mexican market, putting many Mexican farmers out of business.  Desperate for work, these workers moved to Mexican cities to work in the newly created free trade zones, in factories with very little regulation. After a few years of this, as the wages in these areas started to rise, these factories moved once again to Southeast Asia in order to find even cheaper labor.

The Mexican workers who moved to the city couldn’t go back to working their lands as a source of income (many of these lands had actually been bought by large agribusinesses) and were forced to migrate North into the US to eke out a living.  This created a dilemma whereby US workers are made to feel that their “jobs are being stolen” by poor undocumented people here, when in fact workers in both countries have been impoverished by the same system.


The Zapatistas Call Out Neoliberal Capitalism

On the day of its passing, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation announced itself and its intentions to fight the Agreement with its revolutionary slogan “Ya Basta,” which means “Enough.” Based in the southern state of Chiapas, this group of indigenous peasants predicted that the forces unleashed by NAFTA would mean economic genocide for Mexican farmers and for indigenous communities, specifically.

In fact, three months prior to the signing of NAFTA, the Mexican government eliminated some of the few remaining barriers to foreign industry access to Mexican land. The Zapatistas correctly saw that NAFTA was an expression of neoliberal ideology, an economic project which calls for completely deregulated markets, the cutting of public spending (especially for social services) and total privatization.

The Zapatistas are currently focusing on protecting their lands and preaching their vision of a world free from the influence of neoliberal ideology. They control about a third of the state of Chiapas, which they organized into five autonomous regions. The power of the Zapatista revolution lies partly in the way Zapatismo (the political ideology of the Zapatistas) directly identified NAFTA as being an extension of the 500-year colonial exploitation of the indigenous people. They see neoliberal capitalism through the lens of a history of dehumanization, commodification and exploitation inherent in the neoliberal project.

They also explicitly condemn the cult of individualism that this ideology fosters, and their practice of wearing face masks and not having an individual leader comes from a deep commitment to the community as the ultimate decision maker. The Zapatistas have also stressed the importance of women and children being part of decisionmaking. The quote “another world is possible” is often used in activist circles, but the Zaptistas are already, in a way, living in that world, having liberated a space and freed it from neoliberal influence.


Doubling Down: Here Comes the TPP


Image: www.wepartypatriots.com

Sadly, despite NAFTA’s cost to the middle class and the working poor, the US is about to repeat the same mistake, as President Obama is seeking Fast Track authority to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has often been referred to as “NAFTA on Steroids.” This new deal would establish a so-called “Free Trade” zone that would stretch from Vietnam to Chile and would affect about 30% of the world’s agricultural exports alone. It has been largely negotiated behind closed doors (as NAFTA was), but much of the text of the draft has been released through Wikileaks.


Interestingly enough, this deal has even less to do with trade than previous such deals. It has 29 chapters and only five of them are about trade. Most of the deal involves limiting governments’ ability to regulate industries and establishes new powers for corporations. Public Citizen activist Lori Wallach called the deal a “corporate Trojan horse.” Some of the powers included are investor privileges that promote job offshoring to lower wage countries; increased freedom of corporations to cross borders and scoop up natural resources for mining, oil and gas; a ban on “buy local” procurements; and new internet copyright laws which aim to undermine net neutrality.

Basically, the deal is a cornucopia of things corporations have been trying to push for but have not been able to get through regular democratic processes. NAFTA pushed corporate personhood to such an extent that it allowed corporations to sue governments for loss of profits through instruments like the World Trade Organization; the TPP aims to empower corporations to an even greater extent.

The way the TPP is being negotiated also indicates the weakness of our current democratic process. Members of Congress are supposed to have exclusive control over trade deals, but they were not able to see the text until June of this year, after a large group of them complained to the administration about the secrecy of the deal. Now, they have the right to request to see one chapter at a time and do not have the right to communicate what they’ve seen with the public. This amounts to a sort of economic coup d’état by corporations. After Congressman Alan Grayson read the text, he told activists: “I can tell you that it’s very bad for America. I just can’t tell you why.”

The good news is we still have some time. As stated previously, President Obama is seeking Fast Track authority to pass the deal and the first step in scuttling the TPP would be to push against Fast Track so that the public can have a debate about the TPP’s merits.  Websites such as www.flushthetpp.org and www.popularresistance.org are collecting signatures to petition individual congresspersons to strip the president of Fast Track authority.  Please consider checking out these sites and contributing to the resistance.