Boosters of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) were clearly on the defensive as the latest SPP Leaders’ Summit wrapped up in New Orleans April 22. The Leaders’ Summit (this year dubbed the “North American Leaders’ Summit”) is an annual meeting between the U.S. and Mexican Presidents and Canadian Prime Minister with top corporate executives from the three countries.

The driving force of the SPP is the North American Competitiveness Council (NACC) which is made up of 30 CEOs from some of the biggest corporations in North America (like ExxonMobil, Lockheed Martin, Suncor, Chevron, SNC-Lavalin and Royal Bank). Each year, the NACC presents a report to the political leaders of the U.S., Canada and Mexico that is a corporate policy menu that is then quickly implemented by the executive branch of each country.

This year’s NACC report has a defensive tone, reflecting the widespread unpopularity of NAFTA and increasing resistance to the SPP around the continent. With classic understatement, the report notes that the benefits of NAFTA are not “universally understood.” It then goes on to observe that: “Unless we work together to turn around public misperceptions, other specific recommendations to improve North American competitiveness will become largely irrelevant. To the extent that NAFTA itself continues to be a target, efforts to ‘deepen the NAFTA’ will be largely unsuccessful.”

That gloomy corporate spirit was echoed in the leaders’ news conference at the conclusion of the Summit. U.S. President George Bush showed his exasperation at the strong opposition in the U.S. Congress to the proposed Columbia/U.S. trade agreement and to the promises of Democratic candidates to renegotiate NAFTA. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper floated the idle threat that Canada may somehow restrict oil and gas exports to the U.S. if NAFTA is renegotiated. And Mexican President Felipe Calderon faced tough questions about the blockade under way in the Mexican Congress to prevent the privatization of Mexican state oil company Pemex and about vicious business sponsored TV ads which compare Mexican opposition leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to Hitler and Mussolini.

All in all, not the framing that conservative spin doctors might have hoped for from the New Orleans summit!

Some in the corporate world are starting to suggest that trilateral mechanisms like the SPP may not be worth the trouble. Increasingly, corporate spokespeople like former Mulroney Chief of Staff Derek Burney and conservative think tanks like the C.D. Howe Institute are suggesting that bilateral arrangements between Canada and the U.S. are the way to go to achieve ever deeper integration. For Canadian activists, this shift to deeper bilateral integration with the U.S. is a challenge that needs to be pushed back quickly.

The decision by George W. Bush to hold the SPP meeting in New Orleans had always been particularly insensitive and arrogant. Three years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans remains a devastated community with some 200,000 former residents still unable to return home.

Bush administration policies after the collapse of the levee system in 2005 have caused many to dub New Orleans a laboratory for the type of investor rights vision which is at the heart of the SPP. Whether it’s privatization of the New Orleans school system, the use of the military to force out low income residents, or widespread demolitions of public housing, the Bush administration has taken advantage of the hurricane to radically remake New Orleans. As in Baghdad, the disaster that befell New Orleans has been viewed as a business and ideological opportunity by the corporate sector.

In the face of the SPP Leaders’ Summit, social movement activists from New Orleans worked with the Alliance for Responsible Trade and the networks that form part of the Hemispheric Social Alliance to sponsor a People’s Summit during the time Bush, Harper and Calderon were in town. The People’s Summit was a convergence to examine the connections between NAFTA/SPP and the ongoing crisis faced by communities throughout the Gulf Coast. The intention was to build a stronger social movement in the Gulf Coast region.

As part of the People’s Summit, visitors were hosted on a tour of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward. The overwhelming impression was of government missing in action as courageous community members work with volunteer organizations like ACORN and Common Ground Relief to restore their neighborhoods with only minimal public sector support.

In addition to the People’s Summit, energy workers from across North America also gathered in New Orleans on April 20. This Second North American Meeting of Energy Sector Organizations from the U.S., Canada and Mexico brought together over 60 energy workers from a variety of unions and related organizations to build on the first such gathering which was held in Montreal in August 2007. The Montreal meeting agreed on a vision for more democratic and sustainable development of North American energy resources, so the New Orleans meeting focused on how to work more closely together across the continent to assert the fundamental human right to energy.

The energy workers also discussed ways to concretely support the Mexican people in their struggle to defend Pemex against privatization. The energy workers meeting was coordinated by the four national networks which are the North American members of the Hemispheric Social Alliance, including Common Frontiers and RQIC from Canada and Quebec.

The energy workers meeting and the People’s Summit both worked on alternatives to the investor rights model for integration of North America. In the same way, activists from various social movement sectors are increasingly thinking through options for a more positive and democratic vision for our continent.

Especially given the possibility of a renegotiation of NAFTA, it is the right time to organize for the elimination of the most egregious parts of the deal, such as Chapter 11, which permits businesses to sue governments for their policies, the clause in Chapter 6 which requires proportional sharing of Canada’s energy, Chapter 15 which constrains public enterprises like Crown corporations and Chapter 10, which reduces the ability of government to use procurement to promote economic development.

We also need to organize around specific national and continental proposals for more local democracy, better public services, stronger human rights, an end to poverty and for policies that help reverse global warming, to name just a few. NAFTA is already unpopular. We need to build on that so we replace investor rights with democratic rights.


Blair Redlin

Blair Redlin is a researcher with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, based in Burnaby. In addition to bargaining support for CUPE’s municipal sector in B.C., his research priorities include...