Beginning October 12, Mexican citizens have had the opportunity to voice their opinion about the controversial Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Mexican social organizations are organizing a five-month-long plebiscite, called the "People's Consultation," in response to the lack of civil society participation in FTAA negotiations.
Since 1994, government trade representatives and business leaders from all over the Americas (except Cuba) have been meeting behind closed doors to negotiate the extension to the entire hemisphere of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed in 1994 among the United States, Canada and Mexico. For eight years negotiators have met with the private sector, but have excluded virtually all of the hemisphere's social organizations.
If signed into law, the FTAA would eventually eliminate all trade barriers, and in theory, create equal market access for all signing countries. Proponents claim that open markets will help developing countries attract needed foreign investment, provide jobs and earn hard cash through increased exports.
However, NAFTA has clearly demonstrated in Mexico that the benefits of free trade extend to a relatively small number of persons and corporations, and can have the unintended consequences of hurting the environment and widening the gap between wealthy and poor citizens.
During NAFTA negotiations in the early '90s, civil society participation from the three member countries was very limited in a debate that has affected millions of people and the natural resources they depend on. Labor, environmental, small agriculture, and other citizens' groups vied for the tiny amount of space available to air their concerns about the process. Meanwhile, those with a seat at the negotiating table, or those with a great deal of money were able to exert significant influence over the negotiations.
In the case with NAFTA, the winners and losers are clear: Those with the influence (power and money) at the time of negotiation and ratification have benefited greatly. Those without (labor, small farmers and the environment) have suffered greatly.
The FTAA debate elevates this problem to an unprecedented level. Over 1 billion stakeholders in the Americas have no input into trade negotiations that could change the socio-economic landscape of the hemisphere for decades to come. Instead of having a central role in the negotiations, civil society participation is officially limited to submitting suggestions to a Committee of Government Representatives of Civil Society. Suggestions made seem to disappear, as there appears to be no powerful advocate for these concerns within the negotiating structure. Consequently, there are no official FTAA working groups on crucial areas such as the environment, labor, migration or gender.
Should this be the model of transparent and democratic integration for the hemisphere?
The "People's Consultation" in Mexico is just part of a hemispheric grassroots effort to include civil society's voice in the FTAA debate. Citizens in all of the Americas, including in the United States, are organizing similar informal referendums. For instance, in September, 10 million Brazilians voted against the signing of the FTAA in a widely circulated plebiscite.
All "Americans," everyone in the Western Hemisphere, deserve a democratic process in this high-stakes negotiation. All citizens, be they Mexican, Nicaraguan or from the United States, deserve to be heard in momentous decisions about their country's economic and political future.
A failure by governments to supply their citizenry with equal and open channels of participation concerning international trade agreements like the FTAA is a failure of democracy.