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Summit of the Americas short on trade talk (and mum on solutions to the global economic crisis)

Thomas Walkom probably came closest to describing the sad reality of Prime Minister Harper’s recent trip to Trinidad for the 5th Summit of the Americas. The Toronto Star columnist noted that since the mid-1980s, deep economic integration with the United States has been the be all and end all of Canadian foreign and international trade policy. That extended into Latin America during the Bush years as Harper’s deals with Colombia and Peru aimed to encourage similar deals between those countries and the United States.

“But now the world is moving on,” writes Walkom. “Prime Minister Stephen Harper – a firm believer in free trade orthodoxy – is at the Summit of the Americas conference in Trinidad this weekend to push trade liberalization. It seems he will be in a minority.”

And a minority he was. Before the summit had even begun he was complaining that the historic rapprochement between the United States and Cuba was diverting attention from what Harper thought should be the focus: more trade liberalization in the hemisphere. Following the summit, Harper could barely declare the same victory as after the G20 – when nations committed to fighting protectionist trade policies – because the message was more about a new era of hemispheric cooperation.

But he tried.

“We sought to keep the focus on the global economic crisis and I am pleased with the substantive discussions I had with my counterparts on ways we could work together as part of the global response,” said the Prime Minister. “I am also pleased that, for the most part, leaders were in agreement that maintaining open markets is critical to a regional and a global recovery.”

Even if Harper is right and there was modest agreement on open markets as the panacea of human development, you wouldn’t know it from reading the final statement, which barely mentions trade. Instead, it focuses on human rights promotion, security, food policy and development issues. The only reason Venezuela and Bolivia gave for not signing, at least in the English media, was that the statement included a paragraph on biofuels that the two countries fundamentally oppose.

Further proof that free trade was limited to a cameo appearance at the summit comes from the Washington Journal. Columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady called the weekend a “missed opportunity” in an op-ed criticizing Obama for not declaring he would be moving ahead on a U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement that has been shelved because Colombia’s atrocious human rights record.

Our Prime Minister is not so queasy about government-sponsored repression of union and civil society opposition to the economic and political aims of President Alvaro Uribe. The Canada-Colombia free trade agreement is currently being debated in Parliament and mass movements in both countries are hoping the opposition Liberals will muster the moral guts to vote against it when it comes for a vote in the House of Commons.

Harper’s also taking over, to some extent, the traditional U.S. roll of bankrolling “democratic” reforms in Latin America, committing $4 billion to the Inter-American Development Bank – one of several international financing groups who pulled money out of Haiti with the effect of further destabilizing the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was removed in a Canada-backed coup in 2004. We should be watchful of where our money is going if this is what democracy building looks like.

“In addition, the Prime Minister announced a five-year technical assistance program to help countries that have signed or are about to sign trade agreements with Canada,” according to the PM’s website.

The Hemispheric Social Alliance, which organized a People’s Summit in Trinidad to coincide with the official gathering, declared on April 18 that “The Summit of the Americas continues to be marked by exclusion and lack of democracy.” The statement continues:

“For the majority of countries in the hemisphere, we also condemn the near complete lack of channels for democratic participation and consultation on decisions that are made in the official Summit, decisions which will affect the destinies of our nations. This exclusion is one of the reasons for which we are here meeting in the Peoples’ Summit. In this same vein, we want to raise the most energetic protest to the official treatment of our summit, which has included every conceivable obstacle, direct hostility and arbitrary actions that we have had to overcome to make the Summit possible. This has included detentions, deportations, interrogations, mistreatment, spying, denying us the use of facilities and retracting guarantees.”

On the absence of real trade or economic talk, the group noted, “with alarm that this ‘project’ chooses to ignore the significance of a crisis with such historic dimensions. It is as if by doing this, one could ‘disappear’ the [economic] crisis. The official declaration covers with rhetoric, ambiguity, and meaningless good intentions its lack of an urgently needed turnaround in hemispheric policies.”

And on what real solutions would look like: “We, the social movements and organizations from the hemisphere, affirm that another solution to the crisis is possible and necessary. The solutions will not be found by reactivating the same economic model or establishing an even more perverse one. The solution will not be found in continuing to convert everything – including life itself – into mere commodities. Instead, the solution must be one that puts ‘Living Well’ for all people above the profits of a few. It is not a question of resolving a financial crisis, but rather overcoming all of the dimensions of the crisis – which include the food, climate and energy crises. This requires guaranteeing the people’s food sovereignty, putting an end to the pillaging of the South’s natural resources, paying the ecological debt that is owed to the South and developing sustainable energy strategies.”

The Canadian government is guilty of living in the past by perpetuating violence against the peoples of Colombia for the sake of boosting profits for Canadian mining, resource and financial companies. Many Latin American countries are trying to turn a new leaf. We should be helping them search out alternative economic models, not forcing open markets as a favour to a retired U.S. President.

A blog entry from the Alliance for Responsible Trade also warns that Obama’s message of change for U.S.-Latin American relations hides a continuation of old imperialist attitudes from Wilson through Reagan:

“Obama’s message to the Summit reveals that the permanent program of empire continues full speed ahead writes ART. Obama repeatedly stated: ‘And by working together, we can take important steps forward to advance prosperity and security and liberty. That is the 21st century agenda that we come together to enact. That’s the new direction that we can pursue.’ This ‘new direction’ is nothing more that the hemispheric wide expansion of NAFTA, called the Security and Prosperity Partnership. Under this program, the U.S. security and economic agendas for the hemisphere are merged and policy making has been placed in the hands of transnational corporations, not subject to congressional rule.”

For a statement from the Four Networks on the SPP and the Summit of the Americas: http://www.commonfrontiers.ca/IVpeoplessummit/SummitNews/Apr17_09_message.html