This August 20th and 21st, President George Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderón will travel to the remote Canadian resort of Montebello, Quebec to confer with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper about the future of North America. Their agenda will be dominated by a little known "NAFTA plus" strategy they are calling the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP).
While we don’t know much about the specifics of the summit’s closely held agenda, it’s safe to say they won’t be designing democratic, locally controlled, and earth-friendly policies. That’s because instead of public meetings with representatives of the Mexican, American, and Canadian peoples, these right wing leaders will be huddling with the corporate elite club known as the North American Competitiveness Council, whose members include Wal-Mart and Lockheed Martin, among others.
Press releases from the summit will undoubtedly glow with proclamations about the wonders of trade and investment and the urgent need for infrastructure and security integration. And while we’ll hear how the free market will painlessly solve global warming and other crises, it’s unlikely there will be any acknowledgement of the disastrous human consequences of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The nearly-15-year-old treaty has spurred mass economic dislocation in Mexico, accompanied by drastically accelerated labor migration to the United States.
In fact, the principle reason that our tri-national leadership has taken to expanding NAFTA’s reach without the consultation of national legislatures and the general public is that they do not want to again confront the messy democratic opposition—from both the left and the right—to their notions of elite North American integration.
Remember that the NAFTA model was negotiated, ratified, and implemented with bi-partisan consensus among politicians. Al Gore carried water for the pro-NAFTA forces in the only national debate we had on the topic and Bill Clinton put the full weight of his early presidency behind the plan, which was developed and negotiated by the previous—George H.W. Bush—administration.
Given the support for NAFTA from business and Washington, it is not surprising that the mainstream media has rarely covered NAFTA’s failed promise to provide opportunities to the majority of Mexicans, or to lessen the income disparity between Mexico and the United States. The media’s blind spot on the failures of trade economics has become so reflexive that even in the heat of this year’s immigration debate it would have required great diligence to discover that the rate of immigration from Mexico has essentially doubled since the advent of NAFTA and that close to 60% of undocumented workers in the United States are Mexican born.
Despite the stunningly apparent connection between the failures of our trade policies and the breakdown of our immigration system, few if any journalists and commentators dared to examine the link. Recently, even some alternative media sources have joined the ruling consensus, using the flawed logic that the far right’s opposition to the SPP—for a whole host of reasons, including fears of "racial dilution" and imaginary Mexican plans for the re-conquest of the American southwest—must prove there is something positive about it.
Despite conservatives’ overwrought race-based and other imaginary fears, there is genuine reason for concern about the secret, undemocratic nature of the elite integration model. Indeed, the attempt to undemocratically extend NAFTA’s reach echoes with silence about its human toll: the broken families, disrupted communities, and ever-widening income inequalities within and between NAFTA partners. Even a minor adjustment like delaying the final removal of tariffs on white corn and beans from the United States to Mexico at the beginning of 2008—something that would provide some small protection to Mexico’s most vulnerable small farmers—has been declared off the table.
In the wake of the failed immigration reform efforts in the United States this year, it is clear that the success of any future reform will lie in addressing the desperate need for sustained community-level economic development in Mexico. This kind of development will not mint new millionaires the way NAFTA has, but it will provide opportunities for Mexicans to stay at home and reduce the pressures currently overwhelming the U.S. immigration system.
The policies promoted by Bush, Harper, and Calderón are sure to be more of the same and worse. We need to push for a Genuine Prosperity and Human Security agenda and for an urgently needed North American conversation on democratic integration from below.