Free trade fiascos

In one month, we will witness the 11th anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Last Thursday, Thanksgiving, was also Dia Internacional por la No Violencia Contra la Mujer, or, roughly translated, International Day to End Violence Against Women. What do these three events have in common?

The answer can be found by looking at the disaster that exists on the Mexican-American border and in the lives of Mexican farmers since NAFTA came into effect.

Since 1993, nearly 400 women, mostly teenagers, have been murdered in Juarez and Chihuahua and somewhere around 4000 women are missing.

Media coverage and activism have caused an increase of international pressure for something to be done to stop these murders, but still they continue, and seem to be spreading to other communities.

Around one third of the murdered women were workers at the many maquiladoras, factories established in the region after the first U.S.-Mexico free trade agreement was established in the 1960’s.

According to Mexican Solidarity Network activist Jason Wallach, before NAFTA, the women (and the workers are practically all women, as the men occupy management positions) received living and family wages. After NAFTA, these companies closed up shop only to move sometimes only an hour away from the original sites, hiring new employees at vastly decreased wages.

This is representative of these companies’ attitudes towards their workers. The lives and livelihood of their employees mean nothing to these huge corporations, just money, and under NAFTA, they have legal means to protect their profits, whatever the cost.

When citizens of Juarez got together to develop an initiative to get the owners of the maquiladoras to fund street lamps around the factories, a local judge struck it down on the grounds that it would be in violation of Chapter 11 of NAFTA.

Unfortunately, the judge was right. Chapter 11 of NAFTA allows a company to sue for cash compensation when its investors think government policy or legislation will hurt their profits.

Though this is disgusting behavior for U.S. and other first-world corporations that make billions of dollars exploiting workers, the murders cannot be blamed completely on them.

An intensely religious climate is partially responsible for victim blaming, extreme sexism, police corruption, and a possible connection to the vast drug underworld provide a societal framework for impunity.

NAFTA may not be completely responsible, but as Wallach notes, "The Free Trade Agreement created the possibility for corporations to set up shop in such a predatory manner."

In addition to being el Dia Internacional por la No Violencia Contra la Mujer, last Thursday was Thanksgiving. According to the traditional, albeit racist and fraudulent story, the Native Americans saved the lives of colonists by teaching them to grow corn.

Now farmers in Mexico and other countries that have enacted free-trade agreements are unable to sell their corn. This is because, under NAFTA, the U.S. can sell its corn to Mexicans for cheaper than Mexican farmers can produce it.

Agriculture is not only a huge industry in the U.S.; it’s also a government-subsidized one. These subsidies are what allow U.S. companies to sell their (mostly genetically-modified) corn at such low prices, ruining business for farmers in their own countries.

This has quite literally led to the deaths of farmers around the world. Lee Kyung-Hae, leader of the Korean Federation of Advanced Farmers Association, brought attention to these deaths when he committed suicide in protest outside the WTO in Cancun in 2003.

The situation with U.S.-imported rice in Korea is the same as with corn in Mexico.

Despite the outrage of human rights and labor organizations, as well as constant protests staged by the people of the world against trade agreements that sacrifice human lives to the monster machine of money and corporations, the U.S. government is still pursuing agreements that would expand NAFTA.

Though the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which would include all of North and South America except Cuba, has been stalled, countless smaller agreements are being pursued.

Support workers, support women, support human life on earth: call your representatives and tell them not to support the FTAA, CAFTA, AFTA, or any exploitative trade agreements.

Michelle Howa can be reached at [email protected].