Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Hugo Chávez and free trade

I do think the following argument reaches an entirely new level of absurdity in U.S.-Latin American relations, which is no easy accomplishment. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns says a free trade agreement must be ratified with Colombia. Why? For the sole reason that if it doesn't happen, Hugo Chávez will get a "public relations benefit."

"If it doesn't pass, someone like Chavez if not Chavez himself is undoubtedly going to make the argument that the United States doesn't take care of its friends," said Burns, "and we wish not to give that argument to our adversaries in the region."

So the entire issue of free trade now is based on how it affects Hugo Chávez? Debating the actual merits of the policy is, it seems, passé these days.


boz 12:31 PM  

I wrote this in July 2005 prior to the passage of CAFTA. I think it still applies today.

If we're thinking about the political outcomes, there are reasons to believe the fight over and passage of free trade deals actually provide short term benefits to leaders like Chavez, who can take advantage of the economic and political situation to expand their support.

We'd be much better debating the economic benefits (and being realistic about the downsides) than the short term political effects. These deals will far outlast Bush, Uribe, Chavez and others.

Greg Weeks 12:35 PM  

I just think the matter of whether it might provide a PR boost to Chavez is irrelevant. Or, at least, *should* be irrelevant.

boz 1:15 PM  

From my perspective, it's still worth thinking about from a public diplomacy/strategic communications point of view. But I agree with you. It is irrelevant in terms of whether or not the deal should be passed.

Justin Delacour 1:28 PM  

I agree with Greg on this one. The issue ought to be whether or not the trade policy is socially optimal (for both Americans and Colombians), not whether its defeat would boost Chavez politically.

But this is par for the course for U.S. administrations. If all else fails, pull out the "national security" card. Clinton did it in the NAFTA debate (warning that the Europeans and the Japanese were going to kick our butts if we didn't pass NAFTA). And the Republicans did the same in the 2002 Fast Track debate. I remember that one Republican congressman got up and stated that he didn't even like free trade but was compelled to vote for Fast Track because the president needed support in the face of terrorism (!).

The "national security" card is a time-tested tool of deception. It was used by Otto von Bismark and Kaiser Wilhelm against German socialists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was used by Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt to crack down on free speech and organized labor during World War I. And it's used by Bush today to against the Global Justice movement.

No matter the era or the country, the political potency of the "national security" card is hard to match.

Greg Weeks 2:45 PM  

But what struck me is that the administration didn't even use national security. It was more "a leader we don't like will get a PR boost." There was a vague reference to "crisis" but that's it.

So the national security card is indeed a time-honored strategy, but this is even more pathetic.

Justin Delacour 9:07 PM  

So the national security card is indeed a time-honored strategy, but this is even more pathetic.

Yeah, probably. Maybe I should have called it the "bogeyman" card.

Anonymous,  6:34 PM  

Great post. Keep it up.

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