During the commemorations this month of the life of South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, only occasionally did the media touch on the unfulfilled dreams of economic equality for black South Africans. And when they did, they almost never explored the role global trade deals are playing as dream-killers on the African continent and around the globe.
That is why Nicole Lee, the president of TransAfrica – the organization founded in 1977 to champion the human rights and economic concerns of African people around the world – is engaged in the fight against fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership through Congress in 2014, and wants other civil rights and economic justice organizations – “unlikely suspects” who don’t see trade issues as part of their core mandate – in the fight with her.
“The biggest issue with trade that I can see is that people in the United States don't understand the impact that these trade agreements have, and we need to be able to provide a level of attention to the issue,” she said in an interview. “The unions are doing everything they can, and the economic organizations are doing all that they can. I think that other organizations that represent vulnerable people need to step up to the plate.”
What Lee is calling these organizations to step up against is what she calls “this global apartheid phenomenon” in which “international elites, some of whom don't have a allegiance to any country,” are creating conditions that are worsening economic inequality and racial inequities around the world, including the United States.
“Instead of blaming internal South African politics for what's going on, we have to look at what's going on in Detroit, what's going on in Brazil, what's going on all over the world, and try to figure out ways to impact the lives of people in the international community in a much more positive way,” she said.
Lee cites as an example what she calls “vulture funds,” international investors who buy up debts of African and Latin American countries and then use their ownership of the debt to insert themselves into the financial governance of those countries. Often, these funds will sue countries for several times the value of the debt if the government doesn’t comply with the funds’ dictates.
Lee recalled how TransAfrica worked several years ago with health organizations in Zambia, which found that money the government had planned to set aside for health programs were instead diverted to firms that had purchased the nation’s debt and then sued the government. Other countries in Africa and Latin America have faced similar problems, she said.
“It makes for a very difficult situation, because anything that we're trying to do in the continent of Africa is completely undercut by that sort of cowboy lawlessness,” Lee said.
TransAfrica was an opponent of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement that passed in 2011, in part because people of African descent in Colombia – almost 30 percent of the population – were disproportionately affected by the state-sanctioned violence against labor activists, and disproportionately suffered from low wages and poor working conditions that would not be effectively addressed by the agreement.
The agreement with Colombia has ”given aid and comfort to a government that is completely discriminatory,” Lee said. Bolstering her assessment, The Nation magazine earlier this year published a scathing report of how in the wake of the Colombia agreement rural poverty and the country’s refugee problem has gotten worse. And OurFuture.org’s Dave Johnson in August highlighted media reports of strikes prompted by the worsening conditions brought on by the trade agreement.
Meanwhile, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a law signed in 2000 that was presented by its authors as a tool for fostering trade with African countries in a way that would boost their economies and create jobs –– has ended up becoming a conduit for rank forms of economic exploitation, Lee said.
“A lot of the problems and loopholes with AGOA is that it allows corporations to, frankly, import and export people,” Lee said, knowing that the phrase “import and export people” provocatively evokes memories of the African slave trade.
The people being imported into Africa, she said, “are oftentimes people coming in from Asian countries like China.” These Asian laborers have no worker rights, and they displace native Africans who need jobs, she said.
“The loopholes have really provided for China and other countries that we know have a terrible labor and terrible human rights records to kind of run roughshod over the continent,” she said.
The fear is that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a treaty with 15 Western Hemisphere, Asian and Pacific Rim countries will be another vehicle for the same kind of roughshod treatment of struggling economies, including those which large numbers of people of African descent.
To prevent that from happening, the first step is to persuade a majority in Congress to oppose “fast-track” authorization of the trade deal. “Fast track” approval would mean that Congress would have no say in the content of the trade agreement, which is being finalized behind the closed doors of trade negotiators with significant input from corporate lobbyists; it could only give it an up-or-down vote.
That’s why more people need to be aware of what’s at stake.
“There needs to be a mass consciousness about this, just as there was around the free South Africa movement,” Lee said, “where we understand that the American dream will not be fulfilled by allowing corporations to do whatever they want.”