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Three NAFTA Leaders Sit In for the Last Time

Bad Jazz in New Orleans

by JOHN ROSS

New Orleans.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon was not having a good day. His plan to arrive in New Orleans for the NAFTA Summit April 21-22 with a freshly minted law privatizing Mexico’s oil industry in his pocket had been foiled by the opposition’s takeover of congress.  Now after repeatedly  promising his U.S. backers that privatizing was a done deal, he was flying up the Gulf empty-handed.  Moreover, the Mexican Congress had waited until the last minute to grant him permission to travel to New Orleans.  He practically had to beg for the permission, an acute embarrassment to Calderon, more than half of whose compatriots do not think he was legitimately elected president. 

Just to add to the bad juju, the mariachis who were selected to welcome Felipe Calderon at Louis Armstrong International Airport had been stopped by Homeland Security and stripped of their instruments.  The six members of the Mariachi Mexico Tipico who had motored over from Houston for the occasion in their wide sequined sombreros and tight silver-studded pants, waited disconsolately outside of the barricaded terminal for the return of their violins, guitars, and guitarones. 

In their stead, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, that venerable posse of oldsters, were assembled on the tarmac to tootle "When The Saints Go Marching In" when the Mexican president’s plane touched down – it wasn’t "Caminos de Michoacan", Calderon’s favorite mariachi tune, but it would have to do.

Although still seriously scarred three years after Hurricane Katrina struck home, the cradle of jazz was chosen to play host to the fourth Summit of North American Leaders and the last one with Bush on board.  Indeed, the U.S. president was returning to the scene of his greatest disaster (arguably – there have been so many) hauling a wagonload of bad baggage.  Bush’s ratings have plummeted to the lowest ever for an outgoing U.S. head of state and over 62% of the American public consider his presidency a catastrophe, according to a consensus of the polls.

The Great Slide had, in fact, begun right here in the Big Easy August 29, 2005 with his government’s failure to respond to the devastation wrought by Katrina.  Still, George Bush was back in town hell bent on defending NAFTA from its many detractors and even if the huddle with Calderon and Canada’s Stephen Harper was going to be more protocol than substance, at least he’d get a chance to practice his bad Spanish on Felipe. 

NAFTA is back in the news after a 14-year absence in which no one paid any attention whatsoever to the millions of workers and farmers on both sides of the border decrying the deprivations that the trade treaty has dumped upon them.  But in recent weeks, the dueling Dem frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been barnstorming rust belt states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana where NAFTA impacts are poignant – during the Pennsylvania campaign, the Hershey Corporation, the nation’s most emblematic chocolate maker, announced it was moving hundreds of production jobs from its Hershey Pennsylvania plant to Mexico – and renegotiating the trade treaty has become a hot button campaign issue.

Both Obama and Hillary are vying to show who hates NAFTA the most.  Hillary harps on how Mexico, where the average wage is 13  per cent that of the U.S. average wage, has been cheating on environmental and labor standards, thus putting American workers at an unfair disadvantage, and promises to renegotiate the trade agreement within her first hundred days as president, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was her spouse who had, in fact, drawn up the labor and environmental side agreements that nudged NAFTA through the U.S. Congress in the first place. 

Actually, Hillary and Bill Clinton owe their years in the White House to the North American Free Trade Agreement – if Texas tycoon H. Ross Perot had not tossed his cap into the ring back in ’92 running against the trade treaty and its "giant sucking sound" and rustling 19 per cent of the vote from the first Bush, the Clintons would never have gotten to sleep in the White House.

Obama too has committed  [unless you take seriously what his top economic advisor told  Canadian diplomats, Eds] to renegotiate NAFTA at the earliest opportunity.  On the other side of the aisle, presumptive Republican candidate John McCain is as big a NAFTA booster as Bush.

Mexico’s Calderon is also plagued by demands to renegotiate the TLCAN (its Spanish initials) with particular focus on the agricultural chapters.  With the elimination of all tariffs on 200 key agricultural products, including corn, beans, and sugar this past January 1, Mexico’s farmers are facing a desperate future and tens of thousands of protesters marched up to Mexico City this winter, driving their tractors and their cattle through the capital’s streets. 

Calderon responds by defending the TLCAN and stonewalling the scoffers.  NAFTA has brought boom times, the president counters, commerce has multiplied 25 times since 1994 (the U.S. economy is 25 times bigger than Mexico’s.)  But the bald truth is that only a handful of transnationals have harvested the benefits of increased trade and the income divide south of the border is now wider than what it was 14 years ago.  Despite promises that increased job opportunities would end out migration to the U.S., 10 per cent fewer  manufacturing workers are employed in Mexico in 2008 than when the treaty kicked in and the escalating displacement of Mexico’s small farmers, pushed off the land by NAFTA corn imports, has increased migration to El Norte. 

Yet, despite the negatives, Bush and Calderon and their northern neighbor Harper insist now is not the time to tamper with the trade treaty.  What they mean is that there will never be a time to renegotiate NAFTA.

Although the North American Free Trade Agreement has made rich men richer, the poor are about to get much poorer thanks to the TLCAN.  As the dark night of recession descends over the United States, NAFTA serves as a transmitter of the bad news.  The sinking economy means canceled inventories and orders and what manufacturing – read, "maquiladora" – jobs that haven’t already fled to China in this no-win race to the bottom, are about to dry up.  As employment sags north of the border, remittances from El Norte, Mexico’s second source of dollars raking in $20 billion USD a year, could be reduced by as much as a third, according to Inter-American Development Bank (BID) estimates.  With 90 per cent  of its exports destined for U.S. markets, Mexico’s immediate future is dimming every day.  Predicted growth hovers around an anemic 2 per cent, a rate that doesn’t keep pace with population growth.  Not unsurprisingly, the fall-out from the U.S. nose-dive softens the further south the money goes.  While Mexico is paralyzed, thrumming Latin American economies like Venezuela and Brazil will shrug off the recession.

Technically speaking, the New Orleans jamboree was mounted under the banner of NAFTA Plus – the so-called Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America, better known by its Spanish language acronym ASPAN. The ASPAN looks past free trade to the integration of security apparati and energy resources amongst the three "North American" nations. High-level cabinet ministers accompanied their bosses to New Orleans for a series of hush-hush bi-lateral head knockings.  ASPAN negotiations are not open to public scrutiny or congressional oversight. 

The Calderon party had hardly landed when Homeland Security chieftain Michael Chertoff whisked Felipe’s Interior Minister Juan Camilo Mourino off to hash out Mexico’s role in the Bush terror war.  Agreement was announced on setting up a biometric database of all travelers, visa applicants, and passport holders entering the U.S. from Mexico.  Moneys for the database will be drawn down from the White House’s $1.4 billion USD Plan Mexico (AKA the Merida Initiative), a clone of Plan Colombia, that would equip and train repressive Mexican security forces cited by international human rights organizations as responsible for myriad human rights violations.  Plan Mexico transfers, funding for which has not yet cleared the U.S. Congress, include dozens of second-hand helicopters and used transportation carriers plus cutting edge technological tools to eavesdrop on every Mexican’s telephone and e-mail communications. 

Plan Mexico is the latest White House strategy to annex Mexico’s security apparatus, the so-called "third link" first proposed during the Reagan years.  Mexico is regarded as the U.S.’s southern security perimeter under the purview of the North Command, the Colorado-based command center charged with protecting U.S. mainland from potential terrorist threats.  One goal of the Security and Prosperity Partnership is to legitimatize U.S. troop deployment on Mexican soil to combat hypothetical threats to the United States. 

On the energy front, NAFTA Plus integration translates to "what’s yours is mine" but the Bush White House’s vision of a privatized Mexican oil industry to guarantee continued supply (1.5 million barrels a day) and even bigger profits for Big Oil has temporarily been blunted by a Mexican opposition led by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. 

The future of Washington’s troubled bi-lateral Free Trade Agreement with Colombia was much on Bush’s mind down in New Orleans.  Accusing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of "killing" the deal (Pelosi has offered to bring the FTA to the floor if Bush yields on a new stimulus package and extending unemployment benefits for recession ravaged U.S. workers), the outgoing U.S. president enlisted Harper and Calderon’s condemnation of his Democratic rivals. 

Charging the Dems with encouraging narco-terror and building up Hugo Chavez’s evil empire, Bush exalted Colombian president Alvaro Uribe as a paragon of democracy.  Ironically, at the very hour the lame duck U.S. president held forth in the Big Easy, Bogotá police were rounding up Uribe’s cousin, Mario, the former president of the Colombian senate, for conspiring with paramilitary death squads in 1997 to massacre peasants.  Alvaro Uribe himself is under investigation for his role in the killings. 

Licking Bush’s boots and glad-handing the big business bigwigs (Ford, Wal-mart, Campbell Soup, the North American Competiveness Council) who always converge on these klatches, Felipe Calderon couldn’t even spare a second for the obligatory stroll through the French Quarter. Indeed, outside of the tourist-infested Quarter, there isn’t much to see in New Orleans three years after Katrina ripped it apart. 

Population is down to 200,000 from a half million on the morning the storm struck.  The forced exodus of black workers has not been compensated by the invasion of profit-driven Caucasians.  Thousands are still living in Formaldehyde filled FEMA trailers (they have a May 31st eviction date) and 10,000 units of usable public housing are being demolished to make way for global real estate moguls like Donald Trump.  Row after row of rotting, abandoned homes are mute testimony to the national disgrace that is the Lower Ninth Ward.  National Guard Humvees still patrol the streets.          

In contrast, since Katrina, the Mexican community in New Orleans has more than doubled to 83,000 (27,000 in neighboring Mississippi.)  Many were trucked in by subcontractors paying bottom line wages (if the workers got paid at all) for shoddy reconstruction scams.  Now the indocumentados line up mornings in the Home Depot parking lots waiting for day work and undercutting black workers in the local job market, which has ratcheted up racial tensions.  "The Mexs work for less than the niggers,"  Steve Jennings, a cab driver, comments to his passenger. 

New Orleans has been the destination for displaced Mexicans for a couple of centuries.  Mexican brass bands are said to be an inspiration for New Orleans marching bands.  Mexico opened its first consulate here in 1824, just three years after liberation from Spain.  In fact, Calderon took advantage of his visit to re-inaugurate the New Orleans consulate closed down in 2002 because of budget cuts.

The Mexican president’s sojourn here suffered one final embarrassment when a Calderon travel official with the same name as the most celebrated drug lord in Mexico, Rafael Quintero, was charged with the theft of a half dozen cell phones and Blackberries that U.S. officials had left outside a closed door tete a tete with their NAFTA Plus counterparts.  Captured in flagrante on video, the U.S. Secret Service chased Quintero all the way to the New Orleans airport where he claimed diplomatic immunity.  Whether the cell phones contained information that compromised either Calderon or Bush has yet to be revealed.

The Security and Prosperity Partnership junta was countered by the New Orleans Peoples’ Summit, which sought to draw attention to the city’s woeful situation.  Demonstrators could not get near the Windsor Court Hotel where the junta was held but a Bush downtown drive-through drew heavy jeers from disgruntled ironworkers on a nearby construction site, according to a report in the Baton Rouge Observer.

Unlike previous North American leadership summits, no triumphal announcements or high-flying hype topped off the New Orleans soiree which seemingly was designed more to enhance Bush’s legacy in the last months of his regime than to produce tangible agreements. 

Or was the Summit itself a pretext for another agenda?  For months, right-wing talk show mouthpieces and conspiracy-minded bloggers have been ballyhooing the Security and Prosperity Partnership meet as setting the table for a North American Union, akin to the European Union, with one currency and one flag and no borders – Mexico would get back the U.S. southwest under this fanciful plot. 

Although the White House took great pains to debunk the hypothesis as an extremist pipedream, who knows what exactly was being negotiated behind locked doors or over the prawn etouffee at the pricey Commander’s Palace?  Given the duplicity of the leaders of North America a denial invariably means that a deal is in the works.

Do you have connections in the publishing industry? Would they like to read JOHN ROSS’s riveting unpublished short novel "The History of Latin America, A Novella"? Contact johnross@igc.org for further instructions.