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Once again, deck being stacked against the poor

The terms of the public debate on global economic issues urgently need redefning. For many who took to the streets in Seattle; Prague, Czech Republic; Quebec, Canada; and Genoa, Italy, the issue is not so much opposition to global trade, but to the inordinate power exercised by such groups as the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Group of 8. This new world order has no democratic mechanisms for representation, as nation-states do, no elections for accountability, no public forums for debate (see Page 11).

Those who want to protest take to the streets because that is the only effective form of expression available to them. The protesters are indeed united against the present form of capitalist globalization, against the globalization of wealth and the globalization of impoverishment.

But the vast majority of them are not against globalization as such. If anything, a large segment of the movement is pro-globalization, but it is an alternative globalization movement -- one that seeks to eliminate the outrageous inequalities between rich and poor and between the powerful and the powerless, convinced that a better future of self-determination is possible for the world’s poor.

President Bush continually repeats his mantra: “Trade creates jobs; jobs are new hope for the world’s poor; when we promote open trade, we promote political freedom.” And he sneers at the demonstrators in the streets: “They seek to shut down meetings because they want to shut down free trade. ... Make no mistake -- those who protest free trade are no friends of the poor. Those who protest free trade seek to deny them their best hope for escaping poverty.”

We can expect more of this befogging drumbeat as Congress tries to come to some compromise on Fast Track legislation in coming months, behind the mask of whatever new name is applied. But the issue is not “free” trade or “open” trade, which are indeed hardly possible today, given the power structures of the current international order. The issue is rather fair trade. And both the North American Free Trade Agreement and the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas are so fatally flawed in favor of corporate profits that there is no chance for anything like a fair shake for workers or consumers in anything called a free trade agreement.

U.S. voters will be shocked when the pending Chapter 11 cases begin to win in the secret tribunals, and their shock may well turn to anger. The Free Trade Area of the Americas is already of urgent concern to millions of Latin Americans. Brazil is the richest economy in South America and the ninth largest in the world. The head of its Workers’ Party and a leading presidential candidate, Luis Inacio da Silva, recently told some 40,000 social activists meeting in Porto Alegre, “The FTAA isn’t really a free trade pact. Rather, it’s a policy of annexation of Latin America by the United States.”

The difficulty in mobilizing action against the measure, however, lies in the fact that the material is dense, that the issues are difficult to pull down into the everyday run of political concerns and that the debate goes on largely out of earshot. The consequences, however, in the way we do business and in the way our governance and foreign policy is being reshaped, will be profound.

For all who care about economic and social justice for the whole human family, the struggle over the Free Trade Area of the Americas will be one of the defining political issues of the coming several years. Become informed, and let your legislators know that some have untangled the issues and see clearly that the deck once again is being stacked against the poor.

National Catholic Reporter, May 24, 2002