More Latin, Less America? Creating a Free Trade Area of the Americas

Article excerpt

SHORTLY AFTER becoming president, George W. Bush embarked on a campaign to expand the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) to encompass 34 nations in the Western Hemisphere, spanning from Canada in the north to Argentina and Chile in the south. The new trade bloc--the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)--would include over 800 million consumers and a total economy of some $13 trillion. Bush repeatedly stated that the free trade area would strengthen democracy, promote economic integration and bring peace and prosperity to Latin America, all of which the President, speaking at the Third Summit of the Americas in April 2001 in Quebec City, described as vital to U.S. national interests.

Though grand plans of uniting the Americas have been around for some time (Simon Bolivar was the first to come up with the idea), negotiations always faltered on fears that stronger, more economically diverse nations would take control and subvert the sovereignty and national identity of smaller countries. This concern, the old core-periphery argument, was a standard part of all talks on integration issues and was generally invoked against the United States whenever Washington touched on the subject (as the elder President Bush did in 1990). Those countries in favor of free trade with the United States, like Chile, preferred tailored bilateral accords anyway and therefore had no pressing desire to advance regional pan-American integration.

After taking office, George W. Bush was able to allay these fears and rally support for the FTAA. At the Third Summit of the Americas, delegates from 34 countries (every Western Hemisphere country except Cuba) agreed to set January 2005 as the deadline for finalizing negotiations. Heralded as an unprecedented agreement, the FTAA was to be the answer to the region's economic woes. The free movement of goods, technology and labor was proposed as the solution to Latin America's increasing levels of poverty, unemployment and economic stagnation. And to sweeten the deal, the United States was offering up a bevy of substantial perks, including a promise to put on the table all issues, such as those U.S. policies that are viewed negatively in Latin America and the eventual elimination of all tariffs (though this would not have to take place until 2015). Even so, getting all 34 countries to agree, despite very vocal critics, was a miraculous feat.

So what happened? Since April 2001, talks have stalled, and the core-periphery arguments have returned in a new light and with a new slant--and returned with a vengeance. The old cries to close off trade avenues and implement import substitution policies have been left behind. The region today is rallying for free trade, but without relying on the United States to be the sponsor of such initiatives.

The defining moment in U.S.-Latin American relations came on September 11, 2001, after which the United States opted to devote all its energies to the Middle East while essentially turning its back on its closest neighbors. (1) Though the state of affairs following the terrorist attacks could perhaps not have been anticipated, the effects of the U.S. response were eminently predictable. It pulled all attention away from Latin America and polarized the region rather than building a solid coalition grounded in a common purpose. Coupled with a series of unforgivable mistakes--the Treasury Department's diplomatic gaffes with regard to Argentina's economic crisis (which many insist only exacerbated Argentina's problems), the State Department's failure to condemn the coup that briefly ousted Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and the Bush Administration's disparaging remarks about Brazil's 2002 presidential elections--America's policy shift cast the United States in an increasingly negative light.

Spurned countries decided they did not need the United States to help them out of their troubles (Argentina and Brazil), nor did they need to support the United States in its overseas adventures (Chile and Mexico). …