NAFTA, Obama and Clinton

Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have issued statements criticizing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and calling for its renegotiation.

This produced uproar. The Mexican government, which told its people that renegotiation was impossible because of U.S. opposition, is embarrassed. The Canadian government reacted with consternation, and someone in Prime Minister Harper’s right-wing government started a smear campaign against Obama on the subject. Corporate-controlled media outlets and their pundits went ballistic.

Unfortunately, too many people in the United States see NAFTA only in terms of “U.S. jobs being taken by Mexican cheap labor.” When NAFTA was being negotiated in the early 1990s, third-party candidate H. Ross Perot attacked NAFTA from a nationalistic standpoint, claiming that if it were implemented we would hear a “giant sucking sound” of U.S. industrial jobs going to Mexico.

In the minds of many, NAFTA became a zero-sum game between nations, with American workers’ job losses being Mexican workers’ gains. This was an easy pattern of thought to fall into, because often in our history foreign workers have been seen as “cheap labor” unfairly undercutting U.S. wages. In the current battle over immigration, this was doubly unfortunate because it reinforced the racist idea of Mexicans being inveterate job thieves: they steal your job by sucking it down to Mexico, or by coming up here “illegally” and grabbing it.

Although it is true that the U.S. and Canada have lost a lot of industrial jobs since NAFTA was implemented, the “zero-sum game between nations” paradigm ignores some important facts:

• There is strong opposition to NAFTA in all three NAFTA countries, not just the U.S. In Mexico, this takes the form of protests by farmers and workers who rightly believe that their ability to support their families has been seriously compromised. Surveys show that people in Mexico are down on NAFTA by a 2 to 1 margin. Canadian workers are also critical of NAFTA. There is coordination among NAFTA opponents from labor and other people’s organizations in all three countries. This month, a new task force to study the possibility of renegotiating NAFTA was announced by U.S., Canadian and Mexican legislators, with the involvement of U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and others.

• Since NAFTA began in 1994, Mexico has been flooded by cheap, taxpayer-subsidized grain imports from the U.S., leading to a vast exodus of Mexican farmers from the countryside as multinational corporations such as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland and Wal-Mart take over Mexican food production and distribution.

• Mexico expected that people displaced by U.S. corn and wheat imports would find jobs in foreign industrial operations attracted by low labor costs, but this did not work out, as there are many countries where labor is even cheaper than in Mexico. The difference in wealth between the people of Mexico and the people of the U.S. and Canada has been growing under NAFTA. Mexican workers would love to earn what U.S. workers do, but the trend is the opposite under NAFTA’s conditions.

• To meet the conditions of the 1994 Clinton loan bailout, Mexico was forced to implement NAFTA tariff reductions more rapidly and to slash its social safety net. Who really benefited was Wall Street, not the Mexican people — Wall Street’s investments were rescued on the backs of Mexican farmers and workers.

• In the U.S., opposition to free trade agreements is often phrased in terms of demanding labor and environmental guarantees from U.S. trading partners. But this is not the whole story. The U.S. just signed a free trade agreement with Peru. Many Democrats voted for it, on the grounds that the labor and environmental guarantees are much better than those in NAFTA. Nevertheless, there is a big uprising in the Peruvian countryside against this deal, with farmers and the left complaining that Peru will now be inundated with cheap subsidized U.S. farm products, ruining Peruvian farmers.

What is needed is a basic change in how we see NAFTA and similar pacts. Instead of seeing NAFTA as a zero sum game in which Mexican workers benefit at the expense of U.S. workers, we should see it as an attack by international monopoly capital on workers and farmers in all three countries, aimed at driving down the cost of labor and raw materials while increasing control of international markets, thereby vastly increasing profits.

The NAFTA-CAFTA-FTAA model of trade is not “free” trade; it is trade rigged to favor the outrageously wealthy over the rest of us, irrespective of nationality. The best response for workers and farmers everywhere is solidarity in struggle against monopoly capital and imperialism.

Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist.