Clinton and Obama seem to debate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) constantly, not the merits of free trade; but instead, they bicker over who hates NAFTA the most. In Ohio, where jobs have been lost to NAFTA, it's a bad deal. In farm country corn is king, exports and subsidies matter, there free trade is a good deal. Talk is cheap.
While both claim to have been critical of NAFTA from the get go, neither were very vocal in their criticism. During the early 1990's, when NAFTA was hotly debated in Congress and the general public, Obama was in Chicago heading up Project Vote! While Obama was largely responsible for this extremely successful voter registration drive, where were his protestations against NAFTA, a free trade deal that would later come back to put those same black voters he registered out of work.
Hillary Clinton was part of her husband's administration when he made passage of NAFTA a legislative priority in 1993. She claims to "have been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning", but as First Lady she had no public opinion on it. Funny, plenty of union members, farmers and social justice advocates had an opinion and they were not afraid to express it.
Clinton has called NAFTA "good for America" and Obama doesn't think it's "realistic for us to repeal NAFTA". In December, both voted for the Peru free trade deal (an extension of NAFTA) despite the demands of millions in the U.S. and the bitter protests of Peruvian farmers against it. So, how sincere are Clinton and Obama?
What is at stake, why question NAFTA now, fifteen years later? As Ross Perot predicted, NAFTA did create a giant "sucking sound." Despite claims to the contrary, Ohio, like many Midwestern states, lost jobs to Mexico and Canada. It was cheaper to produce outside the U.S., so corporations chose to follow the spiral to the bottom of the wage scale.
Farmers believed NAFTA and other free trade deals would raise their profit margins, however, they were misled. Multi-national grain traders made huge profits dumping subsidized US corn on Mexico, but US farmers, and certainly Mexican farmers, never cashed in. To his credit, Senator Obama recognized that free trade deals help corporations not citizens, but apparently, he plans to do little to change it. Talk is, after all, cheap.
U.S. workers and farmers have lost millions of jobs and dollars through the failure of NAFTA yet in the North; we have seen nothing that compares to the tragedy NAFTA has brought to Mexico. A mid-January statement of the Mexican Catholic Bishops said that NAFTA was leading to the "cultural death" of their nation.
Mexico embraced Food Sovereignty as the right of the people to determine what they will eat and how it will be grown. Farmers, who produced and marketed locally, were undercut by US corn imports and driven off the land, pushing Mexico further into food dependence. The importation of genetically modified seeds threatens the native crop species of Mexico that have sustained the indigenous for thousands of years.
Demand for biofuels has now pushed corn prices to record levels. With their farmers already driven off the land, Mexicans, in all likelihood, may not be able to feed themselves. Unable to make a living, unable to feed themselves, is it any wonder that immigration to the U.S. seems to be their only option?
While Clinton and Obama refuse to take a stand on ending NAFTA, they have no problem calling for immigration reform. Might they consider how their lack of action on free trade is causing the immigration problem they say must be addressed? Initially supporting construction of a fence on the Mexican border, they now support a hold on construction. Still, as stated in a recent article of mine, they need to recognize the cause of the immigration problem before they can argue the solutions.
Clinton and Obama must listen to the workers, the farmers, the labor unions and to the people of the South. Rather than arguing about who hates NAFTA more, how about a commitment to end it? How about taking food out of trade agreements? Food is different; Food Sovereignty is a human right.
While in the White House, Senator Clinton worked for better education, better health care and the empowerment of women. Senator Obama likewise worked for social change, social justice and racial empowerment. So, can't they bring those topics into the discussion now? Why not propose or support an agenda for social change, commitments for fair trade, Food Sovereignty, local production and fair wages. No matter who wins the nomination, Clinton or Obama, both should agree on those principles.
Jim Goodman is a farmer from Wonewoc WI and a policy fellow for the Food and Society Fellows Program