military conduct in Fallujah, murdering civilians, closing hospitals and
deliberately targeting ambulances, is the latest example of the barbarism of
United States official culture. The bluff flow of US government propaganda
about promoting economic progress, democracy and human rights still gushes
confidently. But US government and corporate abuse of vulnerable communities
and peoples in Latin America has plenty of history to gainsay official
protestations of goodwill.
The US is extending its military presence in Latin America at the same time as it strips away national sovereignty on basic issues of economic and environmental management through coercive bilateral “free trade” deals. Other channels of intervention, apart from the well-documented interventions of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, are multilateral integration programs like Plan Puebla Panama and the South American Regional Infrastructure Integration initiative -– run by US-dominated development banks. It's worth looking at some realities about US corporate and government behavior to see how bankrupt the public discourse about “democracy” and “free markets” really is.
US Cynicism on Trade -- Zoellick Spells it Out
The US Trade Representative's reports to Congress are a great reality check for anyone who believes treaties like the Central American Free Trade Agreement offer a fair deal. Try this apparently innocuous quote, “Over 99% of Central American agricultural exports (on a trade-weighted basis) enter the United States duty free already under MFN tariffs and CBI preferences. The United States imported over $2 billion from Central America in 2002. The vast majority of these imports constitute non-competitive crops, such as coffee and tropical fruits.” 
Central America's economies are overwhelmingly agricultural. The US Trade Representative tells us that 99% of their exports already entered the US duty free. So what have the peoples of Central America gained from CAFTA?
Their agricultural economies will be dominated by US agribusinesses, themselves the beneficiaries of huge US farm subsidies. Central America will be a wide open play area for US corporate investors. Meanwhile, Central America's own small and medium farmers are going out of business. They lack government support and commercial credit to cope with low prices and high input costs.
The US Trade Representative's reports to Congress are graphic testimony to US government cynicism in these “free trade” deals. While they are good for US agribusiness corporations, what they really mean for ordinary people in the US is another story. US corporations want to invest in Latin America because in the US they still cannot get away with abuse of labor rights, public health norms and the environment as readily and extensively as they might in Latin America under a “free trade” regime.
From Nemagon to GM Round-up Ready Soya
The US government and multinational corporations are indifferent to the well-being of peoples. Only dollars on the bottom line hold their attention. The long saga of tens of thousands of Central American banana workers and their families in Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica affected during the 1960s and 1970s by the lethal insecticide Nemagon produced by Dow and other unscrupulous chemical companies is a well-known example of corporate deceit, bullying and foot dragging.  Now other US agribusiness multinationals like Monsanto and Dupont are using their huge economic power to market GM crops as the panacea for world hunger.
Experience in Argentina reveals these companies have learnt little since the Nemagon scandal. Monsanto's Roundup Ready soya seed which resists the herbicide glyphosate was adopted wholesale in the late 1990s by Argentinean farmers desperate for a lucrative cash crop. GM soya has since been Argentina's biggest export earner –- it goes to feed cattle in Europe and Asia.
The predictable results of monocultivation using a crop dependent on massive overuse of herbicide are now apparent. Glyphosate resistant weeds have appeared, herbicide is being applied in ever greater quantities and soils are being denatured and made sterile. Communities are reporting widespread health problems related to excessive herbicide use. Desertification is just a question of time. Sustainability seems practically to have been abandoned. 
Chemical Cocktail Deja Vu
Central America offers another environmental warning coincidental with the use of Nemagon. The desertification steadily spreading outwards east and south of the Gulf of Fonseca has its origins in the intensive cultivation of cotton in the 1960s and 1970s. That cash crop too depended on the use of huge quantities of pesticides and herbicides produced by multinational US agribusinesses.
In all these cases, the big multinational corporations cut and run with the money. Behind them they leave formerly fertile farming land rendered into desert and populations battling to cope with the terrible public health effects of indiscriminate chemical poisoning. “Corporate responsibility” is as much a bankrupt PR slogan for these companies as “democracy” or “peacekeeping” is for the US military in Iraq. Experience in Central America and Argentina and elsewhere across the continent clearly shows what “free trade” will mean in practice for the impoverished majority.
But, but, but – the legal protections....the environmental rules....!
Promoters of bilateral “free trade” deals point to the legal protections for labor rights and the environment built into the agreements. But these legal protections, far from being precise niceties are more like wishes to the Tooth Fairy. Vaguely framed and subject to differences in translation, they are wide open to varied interpretation. In practice, big multinational companies will have a free hand to do what they like.
These agreements implicitly sideline environmental protection. Definitions of what constitutes investment, and thus what is privileged and what is not, are left unclear. Procedures are stipulated that put rule-making on a multilateral rather than a national basis. Rules on investment and on privatization are frozen, making further national legislation impossible in those areas. 
Terms like “expropriation” and “discrimination” appear with minimal definition. So multinational companies like Monsanto or Occidental Petroleum, backed up by the US government, will be able to bend the rules to their interpretation in any legal action against a foreign government. The Costa Rican government's current conflict with US oil company Harken Energy is an excellent example of the dilemmas facing countries foolish enough to fall for the “free trade” hard sell. 
The deliberate lack of detail derives from negotiations rushed through against the clock behind closed doors to a timetable dictated by the US Trade Representative. But the deals will last for decades to come, affecting almost everything basic in people's lives – from water, mineral and energy resources and food to flora and fauna. National governments are selling out their peoples in exchange for corporate foreign investment with a track record of unbridled rapacity.
Scene change. Enter Same-Old-World Order (stage far right )......
A look at Nicaragua or Argentina should put people in Latin America on guard when the US Trade Representative offers his Scheherezade tales of abracadabra trade deals. These countries have already tried neo-Ali Baba-ism for over a decade. Now country after country is in economic crisis with levels of external debt and poverty worse even than in the 1970s.
As people realize they are being coerced into signing up for another debilitating dose of the same failed medicine, popular resistance is growing across the continent. That is why the developing network of US military bases and FOLs (Forward Operating Locations) in the Andean region shadows the progress of the pending US “free trade” deals with Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. As its options for global economic pre-eminence narrow, the US will resort more and more to its habitual interventionist barbarism, vividly evident in Iraq, against the peoples of Latin America.
Toni Solo is an activist based in Central America. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Other Articles by Toni Solo
Terrorist Snipers, their Media Allies and Defense of Democracy
1) CAFTA - AGRICULTURE
Overview Fact Sheet, Office of the US Trade Representative, 6 February 2004