Balance of Trade

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Bill Moyers examines the recent Central and South American trade bills before Congress and questions whether free trade means fair trade.


BILL MOYERS: When President Bush came into office in 2001 the U.S. had trade agreements in force with three countries. Now the number is fourteen. Like Bill Clinton before him this president is an evangelist for the gospel of free trade. A true believer.

But the congregation is growing restless. Increasing numbers of Americans have come to believe that free trade is not fair trade. So the President’s having to make many more pitches to try to sell some trade agreements he wants with Latin American countries. He’s been out like a Methodist circuit rider trying to win new converts.

He was in Miami last week making the case.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Members of both parties in Congress should view these trade agreements for what they are: an historic opportunity to strengthen our economy at home and advance democracy and prosperity through out our hemisphere.

BILL MOYERS: On Saturday he followed up in his weekly radio broadcast.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Congress now has an opportunity to increase America’s access to markets in our hemisphere by passing three more free trade agreements in Latin America with Peru, Colombia, and Panama. I know many Americans feel uneasy about new competition and worry that trade will cost jobs. So the federal government is providing substantial funding for trade adjustment assistance that helps Americans make the transition from one job to the next.

BILL MOYERS: Critics say that reference to federal funding for worker displacement was a tacit admission by the President that free trade indeed robs many Americans of their jobs. These critics also say free trade is driving down the American standard of living. One of those critics is head of the teamsters union James Hoffa.

BILL MOYERS: Quote: “When President Bush says the economy benefits from trade deals he must mean the part of the economy he cares about-the top one percent. The purpose of trade deals is to make Wall Street richer and to make the average working man and woman poorer.”

Hoffa pointed to a decline in average income between 2000 and 2005, as the President has multiplied the number of trade agreements. Studies show that the richest Americans now have the biggest share of income since the roaring twenties.

But labor leaders are also troubled for other reasons by the Latin American trade agreements being pushed by the President. For one they consider Colombia the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. Death squads there have long targeted union organizers killing thousands of them over the years.

Some of their remains were uncovered as a result of investigations by the crusading Colombian television journalist Hollman Morris.

Death, drugs and violence have become a way of life in the largest supplier of cocaine in the world. The United States has poured billions of dollars into trying to wipe out the crops, but cocaine is cheaper and purer than ever. To win support for the free trade deal, Colombia’s president Alvaro Uribe has been trying to crack down on drug trafficking and violence. Supporters say he’s making progress. Critics scoff, predicting that once the free trade agreement passes, it will be business as usual all over again.

That agreement has its critics in Colombia as well. When indigenous peasants organized against it, Uribe insinuated they were terrorists. But instead of blowing up the place the people went to the polls and voted 98% against the free trade agreement. In one country after another you’ll hear local citizens make similar arguments against these treaties their governments have negotiated with the Bush Administration. They argue the agreements give too much power over their laws, environment and economy to corporations. That’s one of the grievances against the proposed trade agreement with Peru. The President is pushing it through Congress on the fast track, meaning members of congress will have to vote it up or down…no amendments allowed.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The free trade agreement would immediately eliminate most of Peru’s industrial tariffs, as well as many of its barriers to U.S. agriculture exports, and make American products more affordable and more competitive in that country.

BILL MOYERS: But critics say the agreement favors big corporations like Citibank. The multinational financial giant is a powerhouse in Peru, where it invested heavily in the country’s privatized social security. But privatization is souring, and should Peru decide once again to nationalize the system the trade agreement would give Citibank the right to sue the country for profits it has yet to earn from privatization

In Costa Rica opposition to the Bush trade proposal brought over one hundred thousand people to the streets in a single day in September as the country prepared to vote on it. The Bush administration pushed hard for the agreement, prompting allegations of media manipulation, intimidation and undue interference on the part of the American ambassador. In the end the Costa Ricans approved the agreement by a narrow margin, but the vote is being contested. Then there’s Panama.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: This agreement will immediately eliminate tariffs on 88 percent of our industrial and consumer goods exports to Panama. It will increase access for American farmers and ranchers. And it will open opportunities for American businesses to participate in the multi-billion dollar project to expand the Panama Canal.

BILL MOYERS: So cut and dry was the argument in Washington that the treaty with Panama was expected to sail through Congress. But the newly elected president of Panama’s national assembly is wanted by the FBI for the killing of a U.S. soldier. So Congress is having second thoughts.

Now the watchdog group Tax Justice Network has released a study showing that most American goods already flow into Panama with low tariffs, and that Panama’s manufacturing zone is already tax and tariff free. So what’s the big deal? The big deal is Panama is a corporate tax haven. Companies can hide their books to avoid paying taxes – no questions asked; they don’t even have to disclose who really owns the company. The watchdog group is asking Congress : “…what U.S. interests are being served by agreeing to a free trade agreement with a country that harbors tax cheats, refuses to cooperate with international tax authorities, and encourages u.s. corporations to move profits offshore?”

For certain more and more Americans doubt that free trade is fair trade. According to the Pew Research Center, five years ago 78 percent of the public thought trade good for America. That’s now down to 59 percent. And THE WASHINGTON POST reported last week public opinion polls showing rising bipartisan discontent with globalization in general. Remember Democrats won back control of Congress last fall in no small part because many of their constituents were fed up with so-called free trade. Democratic leaders have been saying they won’t approve the three Latin American agreements unless they include safeguards for the environment and organized labor.

REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI: Free trade must be fair trade; for that reason, we could only go forward because of the inclusion of basic internationally-recognized labor and environmental standards in our trade agreements that have been a long-standing democratic priority.

BILL MOYERS: Now look what’s happening to Republican voters. The Wall Street Journal reports that by a margin of nearly two to one they think free-trade is hurting the country. Maybe it’s the loss of those millions of manufacturing jobs that has hit home…or the stagnation of real wages that the teamster’s Hoffa and others have been talking about. So some Republicans seem to be channeling Teddy Roosevelt, the greatest Republican this side of Abraham Lincoln. The old Bull Moose said: “Thank god I am not a free trader. In this country pernicious indulgence in the doctrine of free trade seems inevitably to produce fatty degeneration of the moral fibre.”

In this recent Republican debate in economically stricken Michigan, the spirit of T.R. seemed to have found a voice:

DUNCAN HUNTER: So this is also a security issue. You know, in Willow Run, just a couple of miles away, we made a bomber every 60 minutes during World War II. We made tens of thousands of tanks in Michigan. Today, we could not do that because we’ve fractured the great industrial base of this country and we pushed it offshore with bad trade deals.

BILL MOYERS: But the front runners weren’t listening.

RUDY GIULIANI: We can’t say, because these agreements weren’t perfect, because they have problems, because they have issues, we’re going to turn our back on free trade.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Free trade has been the engine of our economy in the last half of this year; it will continue to be. And free trade should be the continuing principle that guides this nation’s economy.

BILL MOYERS: Even with voters growing dubious, the heart of the administration belongs not to Teddy Roosevelt but to Wall Street.

SECRETARY OF STATE CONDOLEEZA RICE: Our neighbors want to trade freely with us and this should focus our Congress on it’s responsibility to fulfill our promises to Peru to Colombia and to Panama.

BILL MOYERS: And there was the Secretary of State, ringing the bell to start another trading day on the New York Stock Exchange….making the case for……you guessed it…free trade.

That’s it for the Journal.

This transcript was entered on May 22, 2015.

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