Women demand role in FTAA debate

by Marcela Valente

Buenos Aires, 5 Apr 2001 (IPS) - Women representing the broad scope of civil society in North and South America were in the Argentine capital to demand greater transparency and participation in the negotiations underway to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Their position was summed up by Brazilian activist Fatima Mello, who said, “the controversy about pushing up the timeline to implement the FTAA is a smokescreen that is hiding substantial issues, such as the lack of transparency in a process that will define the future of Latin America.”

Mello’s statement was the most loudly applauded by delegates from countries across the hemisphere that are in Buenos Aires for the seminar “Free Trade and Gender: The Impacts of the FTAA on Women.”

Mello, of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) ‘Fase,’ which operates in Brazil to promote economic and social rights, called attention to the debate provoked by the proposal of some countries to speed up talks to finalise continent-wide integration by 2003, instead of the original deadline of 2005.

“South America is not part of the geopolitical project of the United States,” affirmed economist Cecilia Lopez Montana, a former Minister of Planning for Colombia.

Lopez Montana stated that “the new ‘backyard’ (of the United States) is the area extending from Mexico to Panama, and the development of South America is of no importance” to Washington.

The seminar, which included the participation of government officials, lawmakers, economists, environmentalists, owners of small and medium businesses and representatives of NGOS, was organised in parallel with the negotiations - also in Buenos Aires - involving trade officials from the 34 member nations of the Organisation of American States (OAS).

The Trade Negotiations Committee of the Americas has been discussing an extensive draft text since Monday, a document that foreign trade ministers were expected to approve Friday or Saturday.

The text, which proposes the operational foundations for the FTAA, will go through its final assessment at the Third Summit of the Americas, slated for 20-22 April in Quebec City, Canada. The Western Hemisphere’s heads of state are expected to sign the document during the three-day event.

The organisers of the women’s seminar, including the Women’s Policy Monitoring, Research and Proposal Team (Equipo), the International Gender and Trade Network, and the ‘Alianza Social Continental,’ emitted a declaration in which they express their “deep concern” about the segregation of FTAA debates.

Women from the Americas agreed that poverty, unemployment, and lack of health and education services - which tend to bear the brunt of economic adjustment policies - have greater impacts on women than on men. The same would occur with the negative consequences of a hemispheric free trade zone, they charge.

Norma Sanchis, director of Equipo, stresses that it is essential to discuss the different impacts the FTAA would have on women.

She also criticised the trade negotiators for holding their discussions behind closed doors, excluding the points of view coming from civil society, while making an exception for big business - whose representatives are included in the debates.

Sanchis pointed to the Business Forum of the Americas, created by the FTAA and which met in Buenos Aires Thursday and Friday. Its delegates deliberated the bi-continental treaty alongside the trade ministers in a plenary session one day before the closing of discussions.

No other sector of society has been granted that privilege, she complained.

“We are well aware that (the FTAA) is an important initiative that will accentuate the already existing inequalities,” lamented Sanchis, warning in addition that “free trade and free competition are not equal for large and small economies, for large and small companies, or for men and women.”

The leader emphasised that the women’s movement is not necessarily against integration, but is protesting the current situation because they are excluded from the process, so there is no guarantee of gender equality in the trade agreement.

For her part, Coral Pey, the Chilean representative of the International Gender and Trade Network, said that despite the fact that each country has a vote in the negotiations, the discussion is dominated by the United States in each of the nine groups into which the trade officials are divided.

In addition, Pey said, 27 of the 34 countries have small economies and are therefore practically ignored.

Lopez Montana, who has also served as adviser to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), said that the delegates gathered at the seminar must be bold enough to propose “a new macroeconomic paradigm,” instead of continuing to focus on neoliberal reforms, “as most Latin American economists do.”

The Colombian expert commented that the era in which the larger economy was believed to have a neutral impact on society has ended, and it was a period that denied the specific gender-related differences.

In addition, she stated that it is essential to differentiate globalization, which is a cultural process, from economic liberalisation, which is only one option that has attached itself to the broader globalization process.

Lopez Montana sees the FTAA as an initiative of the United States, one followed by the rest of the countries in the hemisphere, but that is far from being an integration treaty in which all parties intervene in the discussion as equals.

In this sense, she remarked that there is an enormous gap between the countries of Central America, which have received direct investment and advanced technology to generate new economic activities, and South America, where foreign capital arrives only to purchase already existing companies, without increasing the region’s wealth.

“They did not help us with productive reconversion, and as a result, we continue to be limited to exports of agricultural and food products,” Lopez Montana said.

Argentine attorney Hayde Birgin, a specialist in public policy and gender, meanwhile told the seminar’s participants that the women’s movement must urgently “escape the coterie” in which they are debating in parallel to formal trade talks.

“We are operating in a way that makes us agents to those negotiations,” charged Birgin, who is also a member of Equipo, one of the seminar’s organisers.

The head of the Alianza Social Continental, Hector de la Cueva, of Mexico, pointed to the supposed benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), of which his country is a member alongside Canada and the United States.

De la Cueva said that NAFTA, which is serving as the model for the FTAA, “is not advisable for any country,” because the jobs it creates are low-paying and unstable, and compliance with labour laws or workers’ health regulations is spotty.

He added that the treaty is much worse for women, who represent the majority of workers in Mexico’s ‘maquiladoras’ (factories set up in free zones and dedicated to producing exports), which often require them to undergo a pregnancy test before being hired.

But many economists and officials continue to believe that Mexico is doing well because its economy is growing at an annual rate of seven or eight percent, De la Cueva explained.

The Mexican NGO leader asserted that the FTAA negotiations are closed, anti-democratic, and that “even the region’s parliaments are excluded.”

This lack of transparency, he said, fits the essence of a project that “will deepen social exclusion,” as occurred in his country as a result of NAFTA.

Brazilian activist Mello agreed that the only national legislature that has any influence on the hemispheric trade talks is the US Congress, which is threatening to withhold “fast-track” authorisation from President George W. Bush - powers that would allow him to negotiate and finalise trade accords.

Mello maintained that in Brazil, the foreign ministers say unabashedly that the comparative advantages of their country under the FTAA are the low salaries and limited environmental protection laws.

“Our democracies are very fragile and the FTAA will only increase this fragility,” she said. “Our parliaments exist only to ratify what is agreed behind closed doors, and the so-called ‘national interests’ are really those of the elite business executives, represented in the government ministries.”

Mello supported De la Cueva’s assessment that the FTAA is an extension of NAFTA, a project which, in her opinion, is much more than a trade agreement, and demonstrates US hegemony over the region through all the power entrusted to its transnational corporations.

“We don’t just want transparent negotiations in order to keep informed, we want to actively take part in the substance of the talks in order to transform the system, and to truly bring our governments’ gender equity commitments into the heart of the FTAA,” she stated.

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