Referendum On Free Trade Would Help To Ensure Fair Trade

27 April 2001

By Stentor Danielson

China has taken center stage in American foreign policy lately, as first the detainment of 24 service men and women involved in a crash between American and Chinese aircraft, then the sale of 4 Kidd-class destroyers to Taiwan, captured the nation's attention. Behind the shadow of China policy, President Bush has remained true to his campaign promise to make relations with Latin America a priority. This past weekend, Bush joined leaders of other Western-hemisphere nations in Quebec City to negotiate an agreement on a proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Another 25,000 (police estimate) to 68,000 (organizers' estimate) people, including some Colgate students, journeyed to Quebec for precisely the opposite reason. Protesters filled the streets, most peacefully voicing their concerns about the injustices that have been linked to free trade. Others attacked the fence erected to keep the talks from being halted, the way the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle in 1999 fell apart, or the "S11" protests in Melbourne this fall nearly killed a meeting of the World Economic Forum.

The extensive preparations made by Quebec authorities allowed the Summit of the Americas to go forward, and on Sunday the participating nations signed a pact to slash trade barriers throughout the hemisphere by 2005. Though the agreement is still thoroughly an act of free trade, the participants -- even Bush -- acknowledged the concerns of members of the growing anti-globalization movement. They promised to release the documents for public perusal, and be attentive to social and environmental justice concerns in negotiating the specific tariff reductions that will comprise the final shape of the FTAA.

The most widely hailed provision of the FTAA agreement is the democracy clause, which pledges to allow only democratically elected governments to participate in the free trade area. This would ideally be an incentive for oppressive governments (that can trade as freely as anyone else) to allow more democratization as well as ensuring that participation in the FTAA is not pushed against the will of the people. But a public referendum on free trade would be a stronger way of ensuring that the people who feel the impact of globalization have a say in the matter.

In Quebec, both sides painted themselves as representatives of what was good for the hemisphere, particularly the poorest people - those living in Latin America who are either threatened by sweatshop conditions or boosted by increased employment in industry. Protesters claimed that the governments at the meeting were in the pockets of big business, and took it upon themselves to champion the concerns of the downtrodden (who were obviously not rich enough to come to Quebec and protest on their own behalf) and resist the hegemonic power of the upper classes. The fact that business leaders could, for a fee, schmooze with government leaders at the summit, while labor and environmental leaders were excluded, added ammunition to this charge.

The governments countered that they were the legitimate elected representatives of the people. The protesters were self-appointed, and proposed mob rule in place of negotiation. The protesters, and especially their leadership, were disproportionately Americans and Canadians. The impoverished Mexican farmers, the residents of the pueblos jvenes (shantytowns) of Lima and others were too poor to come or send truly democratic representation. The fact that some individuals tore down a section of the fence protecting the conference was all the proof that free trade supporters needed that the protesters were taking on a doctrine of might makes right.

Decisions about free trade should not be made by whoever happens to be able to make it to the meeting. The Quebec authorities were therefore right in taking precautions to ensure that the meeting was not derailed like the WTO get-together in Seattle. I was not in Quebec this past weekend, so I will not venture into a "he started it" argument over whether the protesters or law enforcement personnel overstepped the boundaries. But, in principle, meetings of this sort should be protected from being disrupted by self-appointed vigilantes. Peaceful protest is fine, but protest that prevents diplomats from convening is not.

At the same time, we cannot necessarily trust governments to make the best choices for their people. There is, of course, the issue of corruption. Even in the United States - the supposed bastion of democracy - a significant sector of the population believes the nation's leadership is beholden to corporate interests. It seems doubtful that this would be less of an issue in the more fragile democracies of Latin America.

But even assuming that our government is not significantly corrupt, the views of our elected government may not necessarily coincide with those of the populace on any given issue. Our recent election demonstrates this. The electorate was so evenly divided -- a difference of less than a percentage point -- that neither Bush nor Al Gore could be said to truly represent the will of the people. Each candidate was backed by a coalition of groups whose views did not agree on all issues -- unions and environmentalists on the one side, big business and social conservatives on the other. Further, globalization was hardly an issue in an election dominated by talk of social security, education, taxes and prescription drugs. So it is a big jump to say that, because Bush squeaked into the White House, Americans support free trade.

Of course, a similar argument could be made for any issue. A republican government accepts these occasional incongruities in order to keep us from spending our lives at the polls. However, globalization on the order proposed by FTAA requires more stringent safeguards against imposition of policy on unwilling people. This can be achieved by putting participation in the FTAA to a popular referendum in each nation.

A referendum would avoid the question of whether rich liberals or corrupt governments speak for the poor people, because those people would be able to speak for themselves. Globalization has touched nearly every corner of the planet, so people throughout the Americas should be able to make an informed decision about whether they want to invite global industry into their nation.

The host of problems associated with free trade -- the growth of sweatshops, a "race to the bottom" in environmental standards and the decline of unions -- are largely due to a difference in power between the corporations and the poor. Putting the fate of free trade in the hands of the people would begin the process of empowering these people. It would give them an important bargaining chip in promoting the passage of the labor laws and environmental standards that many would like to tie to trade deals.

Finally, the referendum itself would be a test of the democracy of the nation. International monitors would unquestionably be all over a plebiscite of such significance. Voter fraud would soon be brought to light. The government would take pains to ensure that this vote of all votes was fair (which could have an impact on any other election being voted on at the same time).

The poorest people in our world have been at the heart of the debate over globalizing measures like the FTAA. Rather than relying on governments or well-meaning protesters to represent their interests, we should ensure that their voice is heard directly. Putting FTAA to a popular referendum would ensure that the citizens of a nation have control over whether their nation will reap the benefits and burdens of free trade.

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