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28 August 1999

Activists Slam "Slow Track" to NAFTA

By Gustavo Gonzalez

SANTIAGO, Aug 17 (IPS) - Environmental and other groups are opposed to the Chilean government's attempts to negotiate a bilateral trade deal with the United States, described as the ''slow track'' toward admission to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The Chilean Alliance for Fair and Responsible Trade criticised the proposal for trade negotiations that Foreign Minister Juan Gabriel Valdes set forth last week to U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The Alliance, an umbrella comprised of environmental and human rights groups, unions and academic bodies, said the proposal by the government of Eduardo Frei meant the abandonment of an integration project that gave priority to Latin America in order to push for membership in NAFTA at a later date.

At the first Summit of the Americas, held in Miami in December 1994, Chile was invited to join NAFTA, the free trade agreement created by Canada and the United States and later joined by Mexico. President Bill Clinton's failure to secure from Congress ''fast track'' authority to negotiate trade deals led Chile to shift its focus to the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) - Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay - which granted it associate status in October 1996.

Fast track authority would have allowed the Clinton administration to negotiate with Chile and put the resulting agreement up to a simple yes-or-no vote in Congress within 60 days after formal submission.

In 1997, the Frei administration negotiated a bilateral trade deal with Canada. An agreement with Mexico already existed since 1991. But in Washington, Clinton's chances of securing fast track authority became increasingly remote.

''Neither fast track nor slow track: fair trade,'' is the title of the statement released by the Alliance of non-governmental organisations, with links to groups in Canada, Mexico and the United States opposed to NAFTA. A ''fuller association'' with the rest of Latin America, a goal Chile is apparently prepared to renounce, would enable a search for ''more balanced negotiations with the top economic power on the continent and indeed the entire planet,'' says the statement. It adds that a bilateral agreement with Washington ''is another route toward NAFTA, given that Chile has already signed free trade deals with Mexico and Canada,'' in a ''new attitude by the Chilean government arising from the failure of fast track.''

Clinton's bid for fast track failed to prosper due to ''the campaign of opposition by labour and environmental organisations and the U.S. Congress,'' triggered by the ''veritable social disaster that NAFTA has signified for its member countries.''

A bilateral treaty with the United States would not contribute to bolstering trade, but to facilitating the movements of transnational corporations operating in Chile ''with no control or regulation whatsoever,'' the Alliance argues. A trade agreement with the United States ''would deepen economic relations based on profound assymetries, in which Chile exports raw materials and imports highly elaborated products.''

Not all branches of local industry or the economy are prepared to compete on an equal footing within the framework of a trade agreement, which means businesses would go under and unemployment would soar even higher, according to the Alliance. ''In the same sense, foreign investment, far from having contributed to generating new jobs, in many cases has meant a rise in unemployment, as in the case with our relations with the United States.

''On the eve of a more global accord like the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) - a virtual extension of NAFTA to the entire continent - studies of the environmental and social impact of future agreements are urgently needed,'' the communique adds.

The Alliance also advocates an ''opening of real channels for citizen participation on the issue (of trade), to ensure the legitimacy of the negotiations and the commitments assumed.''

[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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