Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Obama, Latin AMerica and U.S. Trade Policy - A Change or Business as Usual?

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama posited himself as the "Fair Trade" candidate in opposition to Hillary Clinton, whose support of NAFTA during her husband's administration was seen as a liability. But as soon as Hillary was out of the picture, Obama began to backpedal on trade and told Fortune magazine that his anti-NAFTA stance was “overheated and amplified.”

Nevertheless, Obama won some points from grassroots human rights activists and trade union leaders when he also openly spoke out about what he called "bad trade deals" such as the Colombia-USA Free Trade Agreement, which was signed in 2006, but has been stalled ever since in the U.S. Congress over issues relating to human rights of Colombian trade unionists.

Now that he’s in the White House, what do we know about his trade policies?

For one, Obama is scheduled to meet with his Colombian counterpart, President Alvaro Uribe Vélez, on Monday, June 29, and all indications are that his tough stance as a candidate has evolved into one of friendly appeasement. Indeed, his spokesman said the President is eager to jump-starting talks on the US-Col FTA.

Furthermore, how does Obama's "tough" stance on Colombia compare to his open embrace of the US-Peru FTA, which he voted in favor of when he was still in the Senate, calling it "a better agreement?" Perhaps we should not be surprised about the deafening silence out of the White House a few weeks ago when Peruvian security forces opened fire on Indigenous protesters in the Amazon, communities that were specifically mobilizing against government-imposed measures designed to make the country safe for the FTA.

These are some of the issue we discussed yesterday on the independent cable and web-based talk show GRIT TV, which is hosted daily by journalist and author Laura Flanders. I sat in for her as guest host on Tuesday, and we had a round-table discussion on the issues relating to Obama's trade policies.

My guests included Lori Wallach, Executive Director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, Jose Schiffino, Chair of the Fair Trade Committee of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), Ana Maria Quispe, a human rights activist from Peru (photo, left), and Christy Thornton, Executive Director of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA; (photo below) on Obama and free trade.

Then, later in the program, I did an interview with Hamza Perez, a Puerto Rican rapper who gave up his life as a drug dealer 12 years ago and converted to Islam. He is the subject of the film New Muslim Cool, an exploration of Perez’s efforts to build a religious community in post 9/11 America, which premiered last night on PBS' award-winning documentary series POV.

To view the entire show, click here.