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The fifth annual North American leaders’ summit has just wrapped up in Guadalajara and it’s hard to tell what, if anything, was accomplished.

The Mexican visa controversy was top of mind for President Calderón but Prime Minister Harper had few reassuring words. He was preoccupied with Buy American policies in the U.S. but Obama shut him down, telling the Canadians not to worry about it during the final press conference. And Obama wanted to announce increased funding for the Merida Initiative — a joint U.S.-Mexico military and security cooperation plan hatched at previous summits to militarize the ‘war on drugs’ — but U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy held the money back last week in order to consider the 600 per cent increase in human rights complaints against the Mexican army and police.

Searching the leaders’ final statement for anything new is also a chore, which can be interpreted as a good or bad thing for the growing tri-national opposition to these summits. Leaders paid lip service to the Copenhagen climate talks while weakly committing to developing clean energy. They talked up the supposed success of trilateral pandemic preparedness initiatives but avoided the ugly truth that H1N1 was a product of horrendous food safety loopholes in Mexico exploited by American meat processing companies. And they committed to throwing more money and police at a war on drugs and organized crime that neither has been able to curb.

So it’s not the annual meetings in themselves that civil society, environmental, labour, human rights, campesino and other groups have a problem with. It is that the three governments have been and still are blind to the obvious failures of the NAFTA model and the need to fundamentally rethink it.

Instead, on the economy, they have sought the exclusive advice of large multinational corporations, which benefit most from NAFTA but only at the expense of jobs, public services, environmental protection legislation and health and food safety standards. On security, our leaders have perpetuated a “war on terror” model that criminalizes migration and legitimate dissent, while increasing human rights violations, arbitrary detention and, in a few high profile Canadian cases, rendition to torture.

Since 2005, annual closed-door gatherings of North American politicians and civil servants have sought ways to deepen and expand the NAFTA trading model through the “Security and Prosperity Partnership” dialogue. Priorities included energy integration, regulatory harmonization, and cross-border and perimeter security initiatives such as the already mentioned Merida Initiative, joint citizenship cards (enhanced driver’s licenses) for crossing the Canada-U.S. border, and common risk assessments for perceived human threats to North America.

On Sunday, over 1,000 people marched through downtown Guadalajara to protest this continental vision and to demand the immediate renegotiation of NAFTA with full societal inclusion in all three countries. Canadian and American civil society organizations, including the Council of Canadians and Common Frontiers, joined the march and participated in a tri-national panel discussion during a subsequent public forum. It was similar to protest events in Ottawa and Montebello during the 2007 SPP summit at which Prime Minister Harper belittled opposition by saying the leaders were just talking about jellybeans.

Organizers in Mexico, including members of Red Mexicana de Acción Frente al Libre Comercio (RMALC), had suspected that a violent police crackdown on a 2004 rally against the European Union-Latin America summit would discourage people from joining the march this week and they were probably right. But those who came were passionate and loud, with a healthy dose of anger toward the Canadian government for imposing visa restrictions on Mexican travellers, and for standing by as Canadian mining companies exploit water and workers while shipping the profits back home.

During the public forum I focused on three ways that NAFTA has been successfully renegotiated since the SPP dialogue began in 2005, but always in the interests of big business. Regulatory harmonization of food safety policies (i.e. recent approval of SmartStax corn from Monsanto) is putting corporate profits ahead of public health.

Security policy integration is creating a trade deficit in personal information heading into U.S. security databases with little information coming out on how that information is used, while real security and punishment is distributed unevenly along racial and class lines. And “Buy American” hysteria in Canada is leading to a renegotiation of NAFTA to include municipal and provincial procurement, further restricting what subnational governments can do to boost local economies, protect the environment and create jobs.

Frequently highlighted before and during the counter-summit and march was President Obama’s promise from February 2008 that if elected he would do these North American summits differently. He would “seek the active and open involvement of citizens, labour, the private sector and non-governmental organizations in setting the agenda and making progress.”

That clearly didn’t happen this year, with leaders hidden away behind waves of soldiers, state and local police. But the final statement from Guadalajara did amazingly enshrine the original promise as official trilateral policy.

“We recognize and embrace citizen participation as an integral part of our work together in North America,” says the statement. “We welcome the contributions of businesses, both large and small, and those of civil society groups, non-governmental organizations, academics, experts, and others. We have asked our Ministers to engage in such consultations as they work to realize the goals we have set for ourselves here in Guadalajara.”

While Obama has shown some good faith recently by holding a review of how the government negotiates bilateral investment treaties, including views from civil society organizations skeptical of free trade, the Harper government has tended to treat public consultation on any issue like political poison.

It will be up to all of us to hold North American leaders, particularly our Prime Minister, to their joint promise leading up to the planned 2010 summit in Canada. That’s unless the trilateral dialogue unravels by itself in the meantime. Which, judging from this year’s summit, is not an unlikely possibility.


Stuart Trew is the Trade Campaigner with the Council of Canadians.

Stuart Trew

Stuart Trew is trade campaigner for the Council of Canadians.