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Is There Really Much Difference Between McCain and Obama on Free Trade?

Fri 31st Oct 2008

In the final presidential debate, the South American country of Colombia briefly became a central theme in the US election campaign, not so much because of its infamous history of drug trafficking and civil conflict, but because of international economic policies. Last year, the Bush administration signed a free trade agreement with the Colombian government. However, its ratification in Congress has been stalled because many Democrats oppose the pact on human rights grounds. During the debate, Republican candidate John McCain decided to take the offensive against his opponent Barack Obama by attacking the Democratic candidate’s opposition to the US-Colombia free trade agreement. The arguments presented by each candidate are telling with regard to the degree of difference between the two of them on international economic issues.

In the debate, McCain repeatedly made Colombia a topic of discussion. In fact, as Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker put it, McCain appeared to have a “strange preoccupation” with the South American country. In actuality, McCain was preoccupied with suggesting that Obama’s opposition to the US-Colombia free trade agreement exemplified the Democratic senator’s protectionist tendencies and that such an economic approach would be bad for Americans. “I just recited to you the benefits of concluding that agreement, a billion dollars of American dollars that could have gone to creating jobs and businesses in the United States, opening up those markets,” McCain argued.

Obama responded by suggesting that the United States should ensure such agreements contain adequate human rights and environmental protections, particularly in the case of Colombia where more unionists are killed each year than in the rest of the world. “We have to stand for human rights and we have to make sure that violence isn’t being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights,” Obama declared, suggesting that human rights trump US trade interests.

Not surprisingly, McCain’s position on free trade agreements is consistent with that of President George W. Bush, who again urged Congress to ratify the US-Colombia pact the day after the debate. McCain, like the Bush administration and many other Republicans, advocates the expansion of the neoliberal, or “free market,” global economic order that has been established over the past quarter century. But is Obama’s position markedly different?

As Obama acknowledged in the debate, he is not opposed to free trade agreements in principle. In fact, he reminded McCain and the American people, “I supported the Peruvian Free Trade Agreement which was a well-structured agreement.” The Democratic candidate felt that the Peruvian pact contained sufficient human rights and environmental protections, thereby implying that he would also support a free trade agreement with Colombia if it contained equally adequate safeguards.

Obama suggests that his position in opposition to the US-Colombia free trade agreement is dictated by a desire to defend the human rights of Colombians, particularly workers. But most Colombians opposed to the free trade agreement, including many unionists, view the neoliberal economic model itself as inherently unjust from both a socio-economic and a human rights perspective.

This view was made evident only days after the US presidential debate when more than 12,000 indigenous demonstrators took to the streets in southern Colombia to protest, among other things, the US-Colombia free trade agreement. The Colombian government promptly responded by deploying riot police who proceeded to kill four demonstrators and injure more than 130 others. These indigenous protesters, like a majority of Latin Americans, have endured more than two decades of neoliberal policies that have only increased inequality and created massive job insecurity by forcing many workers to survive in the informal economy. As a result, millions of people in the region now view free market policies as the problem, not the solution. The anti-neoliberal sentiment evident among the majority of Latin Americans has been a significant contributor to the rise of anti-neoliberal leaders such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

Obama’s pro-free trade views—albeit with a slightly more nuanced human rights and environmental approach than McCain and the Republicans—fundamentally contradict the position held by many of the Colombians he claims to be concerned about. Colombians critical of the free trade pact are not merely seeking side agreements that provide certain human rights and environmental protections, but rather more far-reaching structural changes. In short, while Obama’s position on the US-Colombia pact—and NAFTA—implies a desire to tinker with the free trade model, they are seeking the abolition of the neoliberal paradigm altogether.

Other, more pragmatic, reasons for Obama’s opposition to the US-Colombia free trade agreement would be a desire to discredit the Bush administration’s foreign policy and to appease US organized labor during an election year. Nevertheless, regardless of the reasons, is it possible that the Democratic candidate’s opposition to the US-Colombia pact could signify a future shift in US foreign policy with regard to promoting the neoliberal model in Latin America and elsewhere if Obama should become president?

Sixteen years ago, a little-known governor from Arkansas was elected to the White House as a Washington outsider who represented youth, hope and change following 12 years of Reaganomics (i.e. neoliberalism). However, Democratic President Bill Clinton quickly proved himself to be a champion of neoliberalism, signing NAFTA and promoting free trade agreements (including the now-defunct Free Trade Area of the Americas proposal) throughout the world. Clinton was also responsible for the multi-billion dollar counternarcotics initiative called Plan Colombia, the economic component of which required Colombia to implement neoliberal economic reforms. Given the Democratic Party’s history of promoting neoliberalism over the past two decades, the crucial question we need to ask is: Will an Obama administration implement far-reaching changes in US foreign policy or will it, for the most part, simply oversee a continuation of business as usual, as occurred during the Clinton years?

Obama’s support for free trade agreements such as the one the Bush administration signed with Peru—and the fact that three of the top six financial contributors to Obama’s campaign are investment and banking firms (Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase) with a vested interest in maintaining the neoliberal world order—suggests that his election will not bring about any significant shift in the US policy. Sadly, as the final presidential debate made evident, there is little fundamental difference between, not only Obama and McCain, but also the Democrats and the Republicans when it comes to the economic policies that the United States promotes internationally.

This article first appeared on Colombia Journal.


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