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Trade tune is the same, but fewer are listening

By DAVID ADAMS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001


MIAMI -- Seeing President Bush in Quebec last weekend hailing the dawn of a new era in free trade at the Summit of the Americas may have left some viewers with a case of deja vu.

Wasn't it almost seven years ago that President Clinton made the same speech in 1994 in Miami?

Notice anything different? Don't be surprised if you didn't. The only real changes were the faces of most of the leaders. The content of the speeches and all the bonhomie in Quebec was just about a carbon copy of Miami.

There were some minor details. In Miami, Clinton was his usual smooth itself, inviting saxophonist Kenny G to serenade his hemispheric partners at a post-summit bash.

Bush put his mark on Quebec with a gaffe: He called Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien his "amigo."

But try to find any substantive difference in the free trade documents that were signed and you'll have a hard time.

Back in Miami it did all have a rather new feel. Clinton and his guests claimed to have reached a historic accord, setting themselves the goal of 2005 for the creation of the world's largest free trade area -- from the Canadian Arctic to Tierra del Fuego.

So it may have seemed a bit strange when Chretien and his guests in Quebec congratulated themselves after signing a document setting the exact same goal.

To be fair to Bush, his administration has already made it clear that it is far more serious about the idea than Clinton ever was. After signing the Free Trade Area of the Americas document in 1994, the Clinton administration quickly put it on the back burner.

But unfortunately for Bush, the prospects of an agreement ever happening -- let alone before 2005 -- are a good deal dimmer today they were in 1994.

Efforts by Bush to get the 2005 deadline moved forward to 2003 were politely rebuffed by the Latin American leaders. A number of countries -- especially Brazil, Latin America's biggest nation -- are more than a bit nervous about opening their own under-performing economies to the corporate giant of the United States.

Argentina is going through its worst recession in decades. Some economists think Latin America is years if not decades away from being ready to bear the kind of economic dislocations that free trade can bring.

The economic disparities between the United States and the rest of the hemisphere are, for example, far greater than those that confronted the European Union in its early days. Europe also created an economic grant mechanism to quickly bring the poorer, newly incorporated nations up to speed. The FTAA so far envisages nothing on that scale.

Of course none of this stops the Latin American presidents from signing documents saying how thrilled they are about free trade. They must also worry about falling out of favor with Washington should they not sign.

But it's not just in Latin America where the opposition resides.

Bush also faces a challenge in convincing Congress and the American public of the benefits of free trade.

Labor unions, environmentalists and other activists were noticeably more active in Quebec, blasting the FTAA as a sellout to greedy corporations.

According to proponents of the FTAA, free trade is a cure-all that promotes democracy, creates wealth and with it a bigger market for U.S. exports.

But the reality so far doesn't seem to bear out the theory. If anything Latin America is poorer today than it was in 1994. New studies in Mexico, which hitched itself to the globalization bandwagon via the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, show poverty rates have almost doubled in recent years.

Hemispheric growth rates are smaller than they were 40 years ago, according to the World Bank.

Democracy, too, isn't doing so well. Haiti, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela all face serious challenges to democratic order.

Whatever the merits or evils of globalization, it seems to be here to stay. Whether it gets beyond a piece of paper is another matter. So don't be surprised if in a few years time another group of hemispheric leaders takes the stage and their words seem oddly familiar.

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