Free trade isn’t free

Picture this. Normal, IL, 1988. While walking my dog, I stopped to chat with a neighbor. When I told her I was moving to New Hampshire she wished me luck and said I’d like it there because there were no Mexicans. I finished my walk and went home wondering what the hell she was talking about.

Fast forward. Salem, OR, 1997. As a community college administrator with Latino students making up 15% of the student population, I attended many joyful celebrations with upbeat music, great food and lots of families blending into each other’s lives. I noticed how the older children ran after the younger ones making sure they didn’t get hurt or in trouble. It was not uncommon for the oldest daughter in a family to have to miss a college class if one of her younger siblings was home sick from school. Both parents worked, and the kids looked out for each other. They seemed genuinely happy when someone they knew got an award or new job or achieved some long term goal.

A Mexican adjunct instructor told me about a conversation he overheard in a restaurant filled with non-Latinos. One of the parents was thrilled that her son had finally moved out and gone to college. My Latino colleague was saddened to think parents would celebrate their children leaving the nest. He said “his people” grieved when a family member moved away. A spiritual bond connected them, but being separated physically was very painful.

I was thinking about these Mexican families and how much I learned from them when I attended a forum on climate change in St. Louis on February 16, 2013. I figured I would learn more about global warming, coal ash, pollution, etc., but I hadn’t expected a lesson on the destruction of families due to “free” trade.

One of the speakers from the Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America distributed a map of North America with arrows spinning in a clockwise direction. I remember when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was being debated in Congress and all the warnings about bad things that would happen. But I was busy and didn’t pay much attention.  Then there was the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA,) and I continued to ignore what my union friends were telling me.

What I learned at the Forward on Climate “teach in”  was that “free” trade is not free except for the corporations that benefit from monopolizing markets, receiving tax subsidies and wining lawsuits against the governments of poor countries who dare to stand up to them. “Injustice” is such an empty word when it comes to this kind of treachery. Countries are forced to join these agreements or risk boycotts of their products. Once they’ve joined, they must step aside and allow the businesses that want to set up shop, usually in extractive industries, to destroy their land and people.  In ancient times, when armies conquered the land of their enemies, we said they resorted to raping and pillaging the citizens and their means of support. But now the same result is called “globalization.”

NAFTA required Mexico to change its Constitution and stop agricultural subsidies to their farmers while the U.S. continued subsidizing food products which go primarily to corporate agribusiness interests.  So when U.S. corn exports tripled, the price of Mexican corn dropped 50%-70%.  The loss of income for Mexican farm families plunged 70% of the rural population in southern Mexico into extreme poverty. Of course those family members had to leave to find employment elsewhere. Millions of them ended up in the U.S. being exploited by agricultural and meat packing corporations.

Remembering what I learned about the importance of family togetherness from my Mexican friends in Oregon, my heart breaks knowing what I had been ignoring all these years.

The next trade travesty is called TPP and is being negotiated in secret right now. As if NAFTA and CAFTA weren’t bad enough, the Trans-Pacific Partnership is even worse. It is a massive new international trade agreement being pushed by the U.S. on behalf of transnational corporations. Countries that will take part include US, Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. All the usual suspects are involved – Big Oil, Big Ag and Wall Street Brokers. As with the other trade agreements, manufacturers are looking for cheap labor, cheap natural resources and little or no environmental regulations.

Some of you may have been following the controversy about the Doe Run lead mining and smelting plant in Peru. We were shown a large photograph of the plant and the devastated landscape surrounding it. Of course there is no life in the river, and the mountain in the background is gray instead of green. The company says it is planting trees to replace the ones they’ve killed. But what they don’t say is that no trees can survive in such toxic soil. You can imagine the lead content in the children’s blood near that plant.
What was most shocking to me, although I guess it shouldn’t have been, is that companies doing business in the “partner” countries can sue the government of those countries for loss of revenue if the people there insist on some environmental protections. So these megacorporations suck billions of dollars every year out of extremely poor countries like Peru and El Salvador as payment for “harming” their investments and lowering their profit margins if the countries don’t play ball. And they can’t just drop out of the trade pacts because they will be hit with boycotts of their own goods for export.

So what can we do? Not much. About all we have for leverage is putting pressure on Senators who have to approve the TPP and ask that they:

  • create good jobs in the US and stop offshoring them
  • protect the environment and our climate
  • defend the sovereignty of nations against attacks by corporations.

Given the real power behind the scenes in Washington, I doubt Congress will require any of the above stipulations. I’ve realized recently that all the national opinion polls in support of President Obama’s proposals don’t matter much, because the members of Congress who represent the interests of multinational corporations have gerrymandered the district lines in their states so they are not at risk of losing their seats. In fact, they are more concerned about a primary challenge from someone even more in favor of “free trade” than they are. They can bankrupt the U.S. treasury while protecting the massive profits of corporations.  When I received the invitation to the climate change forum a few weeks ago, I thought the name of the meeting was kind of silly. It was called “Greedtopia.”   Now I don’t think it was silly at all. Actually, “greedy” is too bland a word for those who rape, pillage and plunder Mother Earth and her children.

About Susan Cunningham:
Susan Cunningham is a retired teacher of American history. She lives near St. Louis, Missouri.