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December 18, 2003

Costa Rica: No Trade-Driven Privatization

So when did "free trade" come to mean the US dictating to other countries whether they can have publicly-owned utilities?

That's what the US means by "free trade" now, and under the just negotiated Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the Central American countries must let US companies take over telecommunications, electricity and insurance companies that might now be public hands. Essentially, they must allow the price-gouging and potential chaos of the telecom meltdowns and California electricity blackouts as a condition of trade with the US.

And Costa Rica said no.

So only the four poorest of the five Central American countries have signed onto the new pact.

As for Costa Rica, as this article details, the voting public in the country is violently opposed to privatization:

Three years ago plans to privatise ICE, the telecoms and electricity company, were scrapped in the face of some of the largest and most violent protests in the largely peaceful history of Costa Rica. Public opinion remains opposed to change and President Abel Pacheco's centre-right government does not have the stomach to reopen a controversial issue it believed was safely buried until Mr Zoellick made his comments.

Alberto Trejos, the trade minister, says the government is ruling out even limited liberalisation that would, for example, let private operators compete in internet service provision - currently dominated by an ICE subsidiary. "We are agreed that we should not take steps that would weaken the status of public companies and generate the kind of political upheaval we saw three years ago," Mr Trejos told the Financial Times.

These aren't trade negotiations-- this is a US scheme to use trade deals as a weapon to violate democratic rights in small countries and imperialistically force them to turn over their industries to US-run multinationals.

On top of that, as other reports highlight, the nearly non-existent labor standards in these agreements mean they are a recipe for worker exploitation and environmental degredation in the name of "free trade":

unions want CAFTA trade partners to incorporate core right labor rights--including the right to organize and bargain collectively--into their laws and to enforce them. Just last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch published a lengthy report that found that worker rights went largely unrecognized and unenforced by the government of El Salvador which sometimes even helps private employers carry out abuses against workers, particularly union members...

Environmental groups, some of which supported NAFTA, appear increasingly inclined to oppose CAFTA. "The agreement will seriously undermine the citizens of Central America," said Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth. "Since multinational companies could challenge environmental and public interest protections before international tribunals (under CAFTA), demanding tens of millions of dollars in compensation, how many Central American countries will still take action to safeguard their citizens and environment?"

Even the increasingly powerful anti-AIDS movement is attacking the scheme, claiming that tougher patent rules Washington is pushing under the accord will make it more difficult for HIV/AIDS victims to obtain life-saving drugs at a time when the epidemic appears to spreading rapidly in the region. Several AIDS activists were arrested Tuesday after committing civil disobedience at the downtown Washington hotel in which the negotiations are taking place.

Oxfam America, the Washington Office on Latin America, World Vision and more than two dozen U.S. church groups, including the National Council of Churches in Christ, have also warned they will oppose CAFTA unless it includes provisions such as strong sanctions for violations of core labor rights and international environmental standards and restrictions on foreign takeovers of key sectors, such as family farms and essential public utilities.

This deal is the blueprint for other trade negotiations. All progressives need to organize like hell to defeat it.

Posted by Nathan at December 18, 2003 08:27 AM