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May 22, 2009

New trade directions explored at Trinidad summit



Published in Northumberland Today, May 21, 2009

Silent ProtestThe V Summit of the Americas, held last month in Trinidad and Tobago, had two points of representation from Northumberland -- Horizons of Friendship Latin America specialist Bill Fairbairn and Common Frontiers hemispheric integration specialist Rick Arnold.

Arnold attended in person, while Horizons was represented as one of the 40 member organizations of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation.

Meeting in advance of the summit to prepare its position paper, council members agreed that the high regard in which Canada was once held in the Americas has crumbled, Fairbairn said, in spite of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's announcement that this would be a focus of his foreign policy. The council called for a focus on human rights and support of a civil society in what he called the region in the world with the greatest number of social inequities.

"There is reason for concern around free-trade agreements with countries which have a horrendous human-rights record," Fairbairn said in a recent interview.

"This can be seen in investments to countries like Colombia. They are not necessarily going to trickle down to the people who really need the money."

Fair trade, Arnold said, is based on giving first consideration to the people as opposed to the corporations.

"This summit in Trinidad provided the opportunity for civil-society organizations to get together and look at what we are facing now with the economic and financial crisis that has come upon us in the last six to nine months, but also recognize to some extent the Americas have been in crisis for longer than that," Arnold said.

Along with the inequities and poverty, however, some opportunities exist -- "to say, if it didn't work before, if the recipes of tightening up and don't run a deficit that the International Monetary Fund would put on developing countries didn't work, and the IMF was part of the problem, not the solution, why would we go back to that same thing again. We have to look at new financial structures."

One thing was different going into this summit, Arnold pointed out -- the first Indigenous president of a country, Evo Morales of Bolivia.

"He has turned all the logic on its head," Arnold said.

"We in Canada under NAFTA would figure out we have to compete with the U. S., so let's see how we can outdo them and get part of their market. In Bolivia, the Indigenous thinking throughout history has been to look at how everybody in the community can progress together.

"If I specialize in producing some particular thing, why not acknowledge that in your trade with me, rather than try to produce it as well and beat me at it, or sub-produce it in China and sell it to me.

"If one country is poor and another one is rich, the trade dealings between those two countries should be to the advantage of the poor country. If you are in agreement with that, then we will sit down at the table and talk to you."

It calls upon Canada to change its way of thinking, Fairbairn concluded.

"Instead of saying, 'We won't work with these, we will only work with those who follow the same direction as in the past and the ones marching to a different drummer will be marginalized,' it's, 'Let's broaden our concept and look at some of the creative ideas that are coming from the region and see how we can help to make them work to the benefit of everyone.'"

One creative idea Arnold cited was Venezuela's response to the high oil prices of last year. They asked their trading partners to pay 60% up front and keep the other 40% to invest over a 20-year period at 1% interest.

The partner countries had that money in hand during that time to put into alternative energy-source development.

It was to the benefit of all, and even was a factor in fighting climate change.

At the 2001 Quebec summit, Venezuela declared the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas was not the way to go. The only dissenting country at the time, Arnold said, it now has perhaps a dozen like-minded trading partners.

"The question is, where is Canada? Are we with this new reality, when a majority of people living in the Americas are under a government going in a different direction from Canada? Do you just ignore them and pick friends from the other countries like Colombia?" Arnold wondered.

"We have the most exciting continent in the world right now. What is going on in various countries, particular in South and Central America and some Caribbean nations, is really extraordinary. And as far as I know, it's not happening in any large way in Africa or Asia.

"Canadians by and large don't know much about it. We run the risk of being not invited to some of the structures being set up in the future."

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