Times of crisis require bold leadership and innovative solutions. They are a sign of the need to break out of failed paradigms and unite people to create new ones.

Harper, Calderon, and Obama at the North American Leaders Summit. Photo: EFE.

Exactly the opposite happened when the leaders of Canada, Mexico, and the United States met at the North American Leaders Summit in Guadalajara on August 9-10. Instead of leadership, Presidents Calderon and Obama and Prime Minister Harper showed a penchant for generalities, conflict avoidance, and the formulaic proposals of a discredited past.

Faced with profound economic, environmental, health, and security crises, our heads of state proved once again that North America doesn’t exist as a united bloc by punting on the shared issues. U.S. and Canadian leaders used the forum to reaffirm their priority on national policies, while beleaguered Mexico received little more than declarations of support for Calderon’s faltering drug war. The lack of regional proposals and agreements raised doubts about the purpose of NAFTA’s Security and Prosperity Agreement (SPP)—the leaders didn’t even mention the executive pact that launched these summits.

Summit meetings like this are often a symbolic show of unity while the real work goes on at lower levels, below the public radar. They don’t tend to produce many "deliverables." However, this is no excuse for the shallowness and contradictions of the Guadalajara Summit. Given the critical situation in the region, this one should have taken the bull by its horns. The populations of all three countries need deliverables from their governments—and fast.

Civil society organizations in all three nations have long protested that the NAFTA-SPP proceedings don’t represent their interests. These protests tend to flare and fade depending on the Summit calendar.
By looking at four major issues, how the leaders responded, and how they could have responded, we can get a better idea of what went wrong and what a more sustained civil society agenda for regional integration could include.

1. The Crisis and NAFTA Renegotiation

The economic crisis that began in the U.S. economy has deeply affected its neighbors. The Mexican government calls it the worst crisis in 30 years: Mexico faces a 7% contraction in its economy this year; 600,000 workers lost jobs in the formal sector, real wages fell, social programs have been cut back, and the foreign debt rose. The combination of lower oil income, reduced U.S. demand, and other factors has hit the poor the hardest, resulting in a spike in poverty.

The Summit’s joint statement only pays lip service to the volatile situation in Mexico, affirming, "By working together, we will accelerate recovery and job creation, and build a strong base for long-term prosperity." It shunts the issue off to the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, dominated by wealthy nations, and ignores regional obligations. Its calls for a stronger role of international financial institutions, especially the Inter-American Development Bank, and ignores demands for reforms in those institutions to provide greater representation of developing countries and more sustainable and unconditioned loaning in the crisis.

Instead, the three leaders emphasize further deregulation of business and reject "protectionism," with no stated role for governments, as the United States injects unprecedented amounts of public funds into the private sector. The declaration calls for stronger intellectual property protection, confirming Mexico’s role as net payer as its government imposes crisis-induced cutbacks in education and research.

A responsible trilateral strategy for the crisis could have included the following points:

  • A full review carried out by each country with input from civil society on the integral impact of NAFTA, to prepare for renegotiation. Obama stated before the Summit that renegotiation would not be on the agenda, despite his campaign promises to renegotiate. While political timing is important and understandable in the United States, a review can begin immediately to provide information for a future commitment to renegotiate. The minimal reviews to date have focused only on investment and trade flows, ignoring the social and environmental impacts, with no civil society participation. The effect of the agricultural chapter on Mexican farmers must be a central point of the review.
  • Establishment of a trilateral crisis-response fund. This fund could be directed at sectors and regions where the crisis has hit the hardest and Mexico where the government has little budgetary capacity to restore its economy. Funds could be transferred from scandalously security-heavy aid currently flowing primarily to U.S. defense contractors and private security firms, and concentrate on Mexican regions of out-migration, as well as long-term solutions of capacity building in education and research.

2. The Drug War

The Mexican war on drugs is in its third year and the U.S. Merida Initiative is up for its last year of appropriations under the three-year package proposed by the Bush administration and authorized by Congress. Obama used the Summit to announce his continued support of the Initiative and express his "great confidence in President Calderon’s administration applying the law enforcement techniques that are necessary to curb the power of the cartels, but doing so in a way that’s consistent with human rights." Canada also pledged support.

His statements respond to concerns about human rights violations in the Mexican drug war that led to a refusal from Sen. Leahy’s office to accept a report from the State Department to approve 15% on part of the Merida Initiative funds held up by human rights conditioning.

This isn’t lack of initiative—it’s an irresponsible repetition of past errors. The results of the Calderon war on drugs and U.S. Merida Initiative include: the presence of 45,000 Mexican Army troops in the streets of Mexican communities; a six-fold increase in reported human rights violations by the army; 12,300 drug-related homicides; and no measurable decrease in the flow of illicit drugs to the U.S. market. Drug cartels have entered into violent turf wars and a process of reorganization as a result of arrests, but interdiction actually fell by about half between 2007 and 2008, according to the 2009 U.S. Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Polls show Mexican citizens losing faith in the strategy, which has no end in sight.

Tri-national commitments should have included:

  • A critical review of the results of the Merida Initiative and a commitment to build a more integral and peace-oriented approach to aid to Mexico that places a high priority on human rights in the fight against organized crime. No more funds from the United States or Canada should be authorized until this is carried out.
  • A full examination of alternatives including a health-oriented approach to addiction treatment and reduction of consumption, selective legalization and regulation to remove economic incentives for organized crime, and focused intelligence cooperation on financial structures and criminal activities. Although Obama emphasized co-responsibility, reduction of demand in the United States has suffered a proportional decrease in funding under his administration.

3. The Swine Flu Pandemic

North America has a responsibility to the world to get to the bottom of what happened with the swine flu pandemic. The H1N1 virus first broke out in a community called La Gloria in Mexico and was quickly dubbed the NAFTA Flu because the community is located next to a Smithfield hog farm that moved down after NAFTA, and the virus spread due to the movement of pigs and labor within the region. No independent investigations have been carried out on this relationship.

The Summit "Declaration on H1N1" repeated platitudes about cooperation and a commitment to "inform future public health decisions, including the use of vaccine, antiviral, and non-pharmaceutical interventions"—mostly end solutions that enrich pharmaceutical companies. It did not report any specific funding for research or prevention, nor discuss the heightened risk for poor populations and women.

The three governments touted the response to the swine flu as a "success story" of the SPP. In fact, nearly a week was lost in responding to the crisis. The SPP never provided the most vulnerable partner, Mexico, with the capacity to analyze viruses. Instead samples were sent to the Center for Disease Control for analysis where the process was delayed, adding to the delay by Mexican authorities in reporting the outbreak in La Gloria.

By emphasizing "the flow of people, services, and cargo across the borders during a severe pandemic while striving to protect our citizens," the SPP mistakenly prioritized trade and investment over the needed technology transfer and prevention. The press reported that Mexican officials admitted that the trilateral strategy to confront the flu pandemic includes no obligations on the part of the United States and Canada to assist Mexico, despite being ground zero and suffering from a seriously deficient health system.

The response of strong leaders to the swine flu epidemic should have included the following measures:

  • Create a trilateral scientific commission to investigate the origins of the outbreak, with a focus on the "ground zero" discovery of the virus in La Gloria. This commission would demand independent analysis of pigs at the farm and hygiene conditions found there. Although the NAFTA countries purposely missed the opportunity to do this when the disease first broke out and so may not be able to establish a cause and effect relationship after the fact, the Commission should include a scientific assessment of the possibilities for factory farms of this sort to incubate new and even more lethal viruses.
  • Request NAFTA’s Commission on Environmental Cooperation to do a fact-finding report on environmental conditions at the Smithfield-Carroll and other industrial feedlots, and the relationship between NAFTA and increased environmental risks stemming from the location of these operations in Mexico where environmental laws and enforcement are weaker.
  • Announce a commitment to establish a fully funded and equipped Virus Analysis Center in Mexico, including open technology transfer and licensing for public production of needed antivirals and vaccines in a public health emergency, expected in the winter flu season.

4. Migrants

At the Summit, President Obama told the press that his administration will draft legislation at the end of the year under the leadership of Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano, to present in early 2010. He said "I have a lot on my plate right now," listing the priorities of healthcare and energy reforms.

Political timing is understandable, but Obama’s emphasis on building up the existing broken system while awaiting reform is not. Today, issues of immigrant detention, raids, human rights violations, the wall, Canadian visa requirement for all Mexicans, and the enforcement crackdown on the U.S.-Mexico border have become as much a part of the immigration problem as the reform. Calderon did not publicly bring up these issues, nor did Obama. No mention was made of NAFTA’s contribution to soaring migration from Mexico over the past 15 years, or the effect of the economic crisis on migration and remittances.

Calderon maintained that U.S. and Canadian investment are the key to providing jobs and keeping migrants at home, as if the last 15 years of record investment and record out-migration had taught us nothing about the perils of leaving labor flows to market forces.

Canadian Prime Minister Harper reaffirmed the fact that when it comes to free movement of people, NAFTA integration stops short. He said that he would not eliminate the new visa requirement for Mexicans, and dumped responsibility on Parliament for failing to reform a refugee system that has received "too many" requests from Mexicans.

Real proposals should have included:

  • The U.S. and Canadian governments pledge to finance a fund for job generation in sending communities to stem the flow of out-migration and contribute to local development. This would cost a fraction of what the United States spends on immigration enforcement, and again could be transferred out of financing for the disastrous drug war strategy.
  • Canada announces a deadline for elimination of the visa requirement for Mexican citizens. While the leaders claim a commitment to more complete integration, imposing an onerous visa requirement on all Mexican citizens to filter asylum requests contradicts the commitment. Canada must develop screening processes within the refugee system and address the legitimate reasons behind increased Mexican requests, which include threats of violent reprisals from organized crime, economic refugees due to job displacement caused by NAFTA, domestic violence against women, and refugees from environmental disasters.

Organizations from these three nations have long complained that the Bush administration carefully designed the SPP as a forum for a renewed corporate offensive on national laws and interests and a staging ground for U.S. military and intelligence expansion, with no citizen input and a lack of transparency.

Integrated Risks

After 15 years, rather than a united region with common interests, NAFTA-SPP has created a region of integrated risks rather than risk management. Regional cooperation must find ways to resolve increasingly conflicting national and domestic interests by incorporating all stakeholders. NAFTA and the SPP as they stand now formally exclude all but security and commercial interests. As Obama has noted repeatedly, the subordinated labor and side agreements do not mitigate that central fact.

If North America really functioned as a bloc in the international market, or even as a region of shared challenges, the three leaders would have tackled the issues above, instead of assuaging them with rhetoric.

If the three leaders are unwilling to produce publicly announced, substantive results in the SPP process—or whatever they currently choose to call the summits—then U.S., Canadian, and Mexican taxpayers should demand a halt to the costly summits until a new structure is in place that takes into account citizens’ diverse interests and grapples with issues firmly, fairly, and openly.