Stopping the FTAA: Venezuela

Those who want to stop the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), should support Venezuela's government because it is one of the governments with the strongest opposition to the FTAA.

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If social movements are to repeat the recent victory against the WTO in the upcoming FTAA, we must be able to recreate the two key aspects of the winning anti-WTO strategy.

The first is the popular protests against the WTO that took place on the streets of Cancún, led by the global federation of farmers’ organizations, Via Campesina.

The second was the emergence of strong developing-country alliances. The “Group of 21” emerged as a powerful new coalition. Of the 21 countries in the Group in Cancún, 13 were from Latin America. This represents a significant shift in the number of progressive governments in the region. As more Latin Americans reject the corporate globalization promoted by elites, they are electing governments whose policies more closely represent the interests of the majority—poor people. But representing the poor in Latin America often means being subjected to opposition from the U.S. government. If we are to successfully derail the proposed FTAA, we must ensure that our own government is not subverting democracy in our hemisphere.

Strengthening Regional Alliances

“Lula” da Silva in Brazil is the most well-known of these new leaders, and the most important in terms of Brazil’s economic strength. Kirschner in Argentina, Gutierrez in Ecuador, and Chávez in Venezuela have all started taking a stronger stand in FTAA negotiations, and in promoting regional alliances, such as that between the MercoSur countries and the Andean Community. This is a direct counterweight to the U.S. strategy of using bilaterals (like the U.S.-Chile agreement and CAFTA) and military aid (such as Plan Colombia) to keep countries aligned with U.S. economic interests.

Of all of these, Venezuela’s negotiating position in the FTAA most closely resembles the priorities of the social movements. And they are engaging in a massive project of wealth redistribution—in a country that is has the largest reserves of oil outside of the Middle East. In doing so Venezuela has raised the ire of the U.S. government, which has been supporting opposition elements that were responsible for the failed military-business coup of April 2002 against the democratically-elected government. That failed coup was outright praised by Washington—but was reversed by a massive outpouring of hundreds of thousands of citizens in the streets.

Stopping the FTAA: Defending Latin American Democracy

If we are to achieve our goal of stopping the proposed FTAA, we must work together with our partners in Latin America to strengthen regional alliances. And as U.S. citizens, we must defend democracy in those countries where our own government seeks to destabilize it—precisely because of their governments’ pro-poor economic policies. Most importantly, we must ensure that democracy is defended in the social movements’ key ally at the FTAA negotiating table—Venezuela—against the efforts of the U.S. government to covertly or overtly destabilize the democratically-elected government.

Venezuelan Position on the FTAA

In 1998, Venezuelans elected the Indian- Black son of schoolteachers, President Hugo Chávez. They then voted to elect a Constituent Assembly to write a new Constitution, which was approved in 1999 by over 71% of the vote. Their negotiating position in the FTAA is based on this Constitution. Venezuela’s FTAA position mirrors several key aspects of the social movements’ critiques; that the negotiating process is undemocratic and untransparent; that the agreement would give rights to corporations at the expense of sovereignty and democracy; and that the privatization of services is a death knell for poor people across the region.

The Negotiations Process: Undemocratic, Untransparent

Venezuela has charged that the process of negotiations has been undemocratic and lacking in transparency and public participation, and has called for an extension of the January 1, 2005 deadline. “Only if the negotiation process is truly transparent for society as a whole; for business sectors; workers; indigenous, cultural, and environmental groups; political parties; parliament, and the press will we be able to assert that we are moving toward an integration that can be considered to be a democratic process.” (FTAA-Trade Negotiations Committee Memo, Venezuela, 8-11 April 2003.)

Popular Vote: the People Decide

According to article 73 of the Constitution, the government would have to hold a popular referendum on the FTAA so that citizens could decide to approve or not approve it. This commitment to citizens directly voting on the FTAA is exactly the primary strategy of the social movements in the hemisphere.

More Equality between Countries

In addition, they have argued that the proposed FTAA cannot truly be a fair agreement until the member countries are more economically equal. They have put forward a detailed proposal for the creation of Funds for Structural Convergence. This fund, which has now gained the support of 24 nations, would involve a massive shifting of wealth from the rich countries to the smaller, more vulnerable nations, to ensure that inequalities among countries are reduced.

National Sovereignty: the Right to Develop and to Create Jobs

A basic premise of the FTAA is to reduce the role of the state in domestic policymaking and increase the control of foreign capital over local economies. Venezuela has argued that the state must maintain a role in promoting domestic economic development through use of national resources and state contracts, including tools as technology transfer and performance requirements. They are opposed to opening up investment and government procurement. They were original members of the coalition against introducing these issues into the WTO.

For example, oil is the primary source of Venezuela’s income. The national oil company is the largest company in Latin America; its purchasing power as an engine for economic growth is enormous. The amount of jobs created by purchasing domestically—and from small and medium-sized businesses—cannot be overestimated, and is a direct strategy of the administration for job growth. Yet the proposed government procurement chapter of the FTAA would prohibit countries from favoring local industries for state purchasing needs. This is a tool that governments around the world—including the U.S.—have used for decades to help promote local economic growth and create local jobs. Yet now the U.S. wants to prohibit developing countries from employing the same strategies we used to develop and create jobs.

People’s Right to Education: No to Privatization

Three of the key demands of any social movement of poor people focus on the right to health care, the right to free education, and the right to food security.

Privatization of education is prohibited by the Constitution, which guarantees full and free access to education to all citizens. Venezuela is currently carrying out a massively ambitious literacy program, Mision Robinson, to educate the over one million adults who are illiterate. They have built thousands of new elementary schools for the poor, and created a new free university for those high school graduates for whom there was no space in the exclusive universities. These programs exemplify the commitment to the right to education, and are incompatible with privatized education.

People’s Right to Health Care, Not Corporate Patent Rights

The Constitution assures Venezuelans the right to health care. One of the Venezuelan programs to implement this right is called Barrio Adentro, or the placing of Cuban doctors in poor neighborhoods throughout Caracas. In addition, on the crucial health issue of access to medicines, their WTO position states that “Venezuela recognizes the supremacy of international agreements in the areas of human rights, health, food security, and biodiversity over the intellectual property rights of the transnational corporations. Therefore, it is necessary to defend and preserve the right to grant compulsory licenses to national companies so that they can produce generic versions of patented medicines and foods…” (WTO position)

Right to Food Security: No to Biopiracy

Agriculture is a key sector for moving the country out of dependence on oil exports and moving towards Food Sovereignty through sustainable agriculture, a priority outlined in Article 305 of the Constitution. As founding members of the G21 in Cancún, Venezuela called for the reduction of protectionist export subsidies of rich countries, and the right of countries to support their agricultural sectors to preserve food sovereignty, cultural diversity, and traditional rural livelihoods. Regarding biopiracy and seed patenting, Venezuela “also supports the right of indigenous peoples and peasants to protect their traditional knowledge, and the right of farmers to protect and utilize the seeds that they themselves produce.” (WTO position)

The Bolivarian Alternative: Building People’s Regionalism

Social movements in the hemisphere have learned that we must promote our own vision of an alternative to the proposed FTAA—the Alternative Agreement for the Americas. Venezuela has also produced a model vision of how nations in the region could work towards regional integration, based on shared concern for the environment, health, education, food security, and human rights. They developed the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas—ALBA, in Spanish—as a counterweight to the argument that the only path towards regional integration is economic subservience to the corporate elite in the north. ALBA is the only national proposal that closely mirrors the vision of the social movements in the hemisphere, and is an important step towards imagining that alternative can be created; that Another World Is Possible.

Stopping the FTAA: Defending Democracy in Venezuela

If we are to achieve our goal, which we must, of stopping the proposed FTAA, we must strengthen our alliances across the continent. We must work together with social movements to assure that governments are held accountable to the demands of the people. And we must ensure that our own government does not, in our name, help destabilize the most committed ally of the social movements at the negotiating table—Venezuela.

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Source: Global Exchange