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Lack of North American Leadership

by Laura Carlsen
Times of crisis require bold leadership and innovative solutions. Crises demand the casting aside of old, failed paradigms and the mobilization of people to create new ones.

Exactly the opposite happened when the leaders of Canada, Mexico, and the United States met in Guadalajara from August 9-10. Presidents Calderon and Obama and Prime Minister Harper spoke in generalities, avoided conflict and controversy through evasion, and repeated the formulaic proposals of a discredited past.

Faced with profound economic, environmental, health, and security crises in the region, the leaders proved once again that North America doesn't exist as a united bloc by punting on the big issues. They also called into question NAFTA's Security and Prosperity Agreement (SPP) that launched the summits in 2005 by refusing to even talk about it. U.S. and Canadian leaders used the forum to reaffirm their priority on national policies, while beleaguered Mexico received little more than declarations of support for Calderon's faltering drug war.

Summit meetings like this are often a symbolic show of unity, while the real work goes on at lower levels below the public radar. They don't tend to produce many "deliverables." However, this is no excuse for the shallowness and contradictions of the Summit in Guadalajara. More than any previous North American summit meeting, this one should have taken the bull by its horns. The populations of all three countries need deliverables from their governments — and fast.

Civil society organizations in all three nations have long protested against the NAFTA-SPP. These protests tend to flare and fade, depending on the summit calendar. An analysis of how the leaders responded to three issues at the summit provides an idea of what a more sustained civil society agenda for regional integration could include.

The Crisis and NAFTA Renegotiation

The economic crisis that began in the U.S. economy has deeply affected its neighbors in the region. The Mexican government calls it the worst crisis in 30 years. Mexico faces a 7% contraction in its economy this year. More than half a million workers lost jobs in the formal sector. Real wages fell, the government has cut back on social programs, and the foreign debt has gone up. The combination of lower oil income, reduced U.S. demand, and other factors has hit the poor hardest, resulting in a spike in poverty.

The summit's joint statement pays only lip service to the volatile situation in Mexico with its statement that "by working together, we will accelerate recovery and job creation, and build a strong base for long-term prosperity." It shunts the issue to the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh, dominated by wealthy nations, and ignores regional obligations. It also calls for a stronger role for international financial institutions, especially the Inter-American Development Bank, and drops all calls for reforms in those institutions to provide greater representation of developing countries, and more sustainable and unconditioned loaning.

The three leaders emphasize further deregulation of business and reject "protectionism," with no stated role for governments, even at a time when the U.S. government is injecting unprecedented amounts of public funds into the private sector. The declaration calls for stronger intellectual property protection, as Mexico confirms its position as net payer by further cutting back on education and research.

On Drugs

If Congress approves the 2010 appropriations for the Merida Initiative, it will wrap up the three-year package proposed by the Bush administration and authorized by Congress. Obama used the summit to announce his continued support of the initiative, and to express his "great confidence in President Calderón's administration applying the law enforcement techniques that are necessary to curb the power of the cartels, but doing so in a way that's consistent with human rights." 
His statements respond to concerns about human rights violations in the Mexican drug war that led to a refusal from Senator Leahy (D-VT) to accept a report from the State Department approving 15% on part of the Merida Initiative funds held up by human rights conditioning.

This is not a lack of initiative but an irresponsible repetition of past errors. The Calderon war on drugs and the Merida Initiative have resulted in the presence of 45,000 Mexican Army troops in the streets of Mexican communities. There has been a six-fold increase in reported human rights violations by the army, 12,300 drug-related homicides, and no measurable decrease in the flow of illicit drugs to the U.S. market. Drug cartels have entered into violent turf wars and a process of reorganization as a result of arrests, but interdiction actually fell by about half between 2007 and 2008, according to the 2009 U.S. Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Polls show Mexican citizens losing faith in the strategy, which has no end in sight.

Swine Flu

North America has a responsibility to the world to get to the bottom of what happened with the swine flu pandemic. The H1N1 virus first broke out in a community called La Gloria in Mexico. It was quickly dubbed the NAFTA flu because the community is next to a Smithfield hog farm that relocated to Mexico after NAFTA. The virus spread because of the movement of pigs and labor within the region. No independent investigations have been carried out on this relationship.

The summit's Declaration on H1N1 repeated platitudes about cooperation and a commitment to "inform future public health decisions, including the use of vaccine, antiviral, and non-pharmaceutical interventions" — mostly end solutions that enrich pharmaceutical companies. It did not report any specific funding for research or prevention, nor discuss the heightened risk for poor populations and women.

The three governments have touted their response to the swine flu as a "success story" of the SPP. In fact, nearly a week was lost in responding to the crisis. The SPP never provided its most vulnerable partner, Mexico, with the capacity to analyze viruses. Instead, Mexican authorities sent samples for analysis to the Center for Disease Control, which lost valuable time and added to the delays of the Mexican authorities in reporting the outbreak in La Gloria.

By emphasizing the importance of assuring "the flow of people, services, and cargo across the borders during a severe pandemic while striving to protect our citizens," the SPP mistakenly prioritized commerce over technology transfer and prevention. The press reported that Mexican officials admitted that the trilateral strategy to confront the flu pandemic includes no obligations on the part of the United States and Canada to assist Mexico, despite being ground zero and suffering from a seriously deficient health system.

What They Should Have Done

The three North American leaders missed an opportunity to take real leadership on these issues of NAFTA, drugs, and swine flu. On NAFTA, the summit should have announced a full review of the impact of NAFTA carried out by each country, with input from civil society to prepare for renegotiation. Obama stated before the summit that renegotiation would not be on the agenda, despite his campaign promises to renegotiate. While political timing is important and understandable in the United States, a review can begin immediately to provide information for a future commitment to renegotiate. The minimal reviews to date have focused only on investment and trade flows, ignoring the social and environmental impact. There has also been no civil society participation. The effect of the agricultural chapter on Mexican farmers must be a central point of the review.

In addition, the summit should have established a trilateral crisis-response fund. The three governments could direct money from such a fund at sectors and regions where the crisis has hit the hardest. Mexico would receive special attention since the government has little budgetary capacity to restore its economy. As such, the fund would redirect money away from scandalously security-heavy aid, currently flowing primarily to U.S. defense contractors and private security firms, and toward Mexican regions with high rates of emigration. The fund could also support long-term capacity-building in education and research.

Part of this redirection of aid must follow from a critical review of the results of the Merida Initiative. A more peace-oriented approach to U.S. aid to Mexico should place a high priority on human rights in the fight against organized crime. No more funds from the United States or Canada should be authorized until such a review is carried out. Alternatives to the "drug war" approach include a health-oriented approach to addiction treatment and reduction of consumption, selective legalization and regulation to remove economic incentives for organized crime, and focused intelligence cooperation on financial structures and criminal activities. Although Obama emphasized co-responsibility, reduction demand suffered a proportional decrease in funding under his administration.

On the issue of swine flu, the summit should have created a trilateral scientific commission to investigate the origins of the outbreak, with a focus on the "ground zero" discovery of the virus in La Gloria. This commission would demand independent analysis of pigs at the farm and hygiene conditions found there. The NAFTA countries missed an opportunity to do this when the disease first broke out and so may not be able to establish a cause-and-effect relationship after the fact. Nevertheless, this commission should include a scientific assessment of the possibilities for factory farms of this sort to incubate new and even more lethal viruses.

The NAFTA leaders should now request NAFTA's Commission on Environmental Cooperation to do a fact-finding report on environmental conditions at Smithfield-Carroll and other industrial feedlots, and investigate the relationship between NAFTA and increased environmental risks stemming from the location of these operations in Mexico where environmental laws and enforcement are weaker. Finally, the leaders should establish a fully funded and equipped Virus Analysis Center in Mexico, including open technology transfer and licensing for public production of needed antivirals and vaccines during any public health emergency.

Integrated Risks

After 15 years, rather than a united region with common interests, NAFTA-SPP has created a region of integrated risks rather than risk management. Regional cooperation must find ways to resolve the increasingly conflicting national and domestic interests by incorporating all stakeholders. NAFTA and the SPP as they stand now formally exclude all but security and commercial interests. As Obama has noted repeatedly, the subordinated labor and side agreements do not mitigate that central fact.

If North America really functioned as a bloc in the international market, or even as a region of shared challenges, the three leaders would have tackled the above issues — as well the issues they didn't address, such as migration — instead of covering them up with rhetoric.

If the three leaders are unwilling to produce substantive results in the SPP process, or whatever they currently choose to call these summits, then U.S., Canadian, and Mexican taxpayers should demand a stop to these costly summits until a new structure is in place that takes civil society's diverse interests into account in grappling with issues firmly, fairly, and openly.

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