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U.S. Congress passes three free trade deals after five-year feud

U.S. public opinion was mobilized against free trade. The facts prove that the U.S. trade deficit has grown with its free trade partners and would again under new deals with South Korea, Columbia and Panama. The latter two agreements would clearly help large corporations bypass human rights and environmental standards in developing countries as well as threatening the livelihood of farmers, workers and Indigenous communities there. Yet despite all this, last night the U.S. Congress passed these three Bush-era FTAs in what the New York Times calls “a rare moment of bipartisan accord at a time when Republicans and Democrats are bitterly divided over the role that government ought to play in reviving the sputtering economy.”

Though Obama had been pushing ratification of the deals as a way to increase U.S. exports and get the economy on track, the Times reports they had little economic value:

The passage of the trade deals is important primarily as a political achievement, and for its foreign policy value in solidifying relationships with strategic allies. The economic benefits are projected to be small. A federal agency estimated in 2007 that the impact on employment would be “negligible” and that the deals would increase gross domestic product by about $14.4 billion, or roughly 0.1 percent.

Not everyone in Congress was happy about the passage of the deal.

“What I am seeing firsthand is devastation that these free trade agreements can do to our communities,” Representative Mike Michaud, a Maine Democrat, says in the article, which explains that the revival of support for the deals begun by the Bush administration five years ago, “comes at a paradoxical political moment, when both conservative Republicans and the Occupy Wall Street protesters have taken antitrade positions, albeit for different reasons.”

Among groups fighting the FTAs, including the Citizens Trade Campaign (a very broad-based network of U.S. organizations), Public Citizen, the AFL-CIO and others, there was outrage.

“With 9 percent unemployment and Americans desperate for job creation, it is unconscionable that President Obama and House Republicans just shoved through a trio of NAFTA-style job-killing trade agreements that even the government’s own studies show will increase the U.S. trade deficit,” wrote Lory Wallach, head of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, in a Huffington Post blog entry today.

She writes how the vote was a victory for Wall Street and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and warns that based on polling showing widespread disdain for new free trade deals, those who voted “yes” to the Colombia, Panama and South Korea FTAs will face a rough ride getting re-elected.

By far the most controversial deal in the pack was with Colombia, as it was in Canada prior to Harper’s ratification in 2010. An AFL-CIO action alert urging Congress to vote down the agreements said:

Colombia remains the most deadly nation in the world for trade unionists, with 23 union leaders killed so far this year. Says Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.): “What do you get when you exercise your rights in Colombia today? You get death threats and death squad activities against you and your family.”

Also like the Canada-Colombia FTA, the U.S. deal was political not economic, with perhaps some gains for some agricultural exporters in the U.S. Harper will re-introduce his own Panama FTA into the House of Commons this fall, which will give us another opportunity to fight this backwards trade agenda that puts the rights of Canada’s mining and financial sectors ahead of the rights of workers, Indigenous peoples, peasants and the earth in Latin America.

Next week during the Trade Justice Network’s CETA Week of Action we’ll be sending a message to the government that so-called free trade is not the answer to today’s economic, social, environmental and food crises. Like Obama’s FTAs, the CETA deal is now estimated to be worth between 0.18 and 0.36 per cent of Canada’s GDP. Small potatoes. Consequently, CETA may only be about potatoes given how many times Trade Minister Ed Fast mentioned the pesticide-heavy crop during a hearing in Ottawa last week.