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A Bill of Rights for NAFTA?
Former congressional leader David Bonior, in residence this week, proposes a parliament of the Americas

02 April 2003



David Bonior
Cathy Cockrell photo

Former Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) is on campus this week as a visiting scholar, sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies. He will deliver lectures on issues relating to Latin America and Iraq, and participate in a seminar on congressional involvement in Central America in the 1980s.

Bonior was elected to the House of Representatives in 1976. From 1991 to 2002 he served as Democratic Whip, the second in command in the House leadership. In that role he led the House fight, a decade ago, against passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — “one of the great battles in congressional history,” as he recalls it.

Bonior, currently a professor in the College of Urban, Labor & Metropolitan Affairs at Wayne State University, is working with allies in Canada and Mexico on a proposal to establish a parliamentary union for North and Central America along the lines of the European Parliament. Berkeleyan writer Cathy Cockrell spoke with him about this initiative.

Why are you proposing an international parliamentary body for the Americas?
A North American Parliamentary Union [NAPU] would be a regional structure devised to address issues that aren’t currently addressed by the U.S., Canada, and Mexico — that languish year after year. Borders, security, labor standards, environmental concerns, health issues — all of these are not priority items in our Congress. We need a forum in which small businesspeople, working people, the labor, environmental, and human-rights communities can speak to these issues.

The North American Free Trade Agreement provides citizenship just to multinational corporations, and that’s it. By citizenship I mean rights: the right to sue other governments, to move investments around without restriction … all of these things have been enmeshed in NAFTA, to the benefit of capital but with no responsibilities to labor.

It’s been a decade since the battle against NAFTA was lost. What have been its consequences? Have your worst fears come to pass?
It’s been a disaster. The Rio Grande has been turned into a cesspool from pollution and industrial wastewater. Drinking-water quality is marginal: If you go to towns along the [U.S.-Mexico] border, you find large numbers of children with hepatitis. In Juarez there’s very little wastewater treatment; raw sewage has been going directly into the Rio Grande. The farming situation, too, is a disaster in Mexico: 18 million people make their living off of the land, and they’re going under very quickly because they can’t compete with U.S. farmers. So they end up moving into the cities, which causes more crowding and more pressure.

And then you’ve got the whole immigration issue. Wages are still terribly low in Mexico; in the maquiladoras, they’ve lost about 250,000 jobs to other low-wage countries, such as Vietnam and China. In the U.S., we’ve lost an enormous number of good manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries as well— not only to Mexico, but to the Asian market. In the latter case it’s not attributable to NAFTA, but to so-called unrestricted, unfettered free trade. It’s been a bit of a nightmare.


David Bonior will speak at 4 p.m., Thursday, April 3, in 315 Wheeler Hall, on “The North American Parliamentary Union: What It Is and Why We Need It.” Bonior, who visited Iraq with a congressional delegation last October, will also speak at noon, Friday, April 4, in 575 McCone Hall, on “The U.S. and Iraq: Implications for the Americas.”

And so NAPU would be a corrective?
NAFTA has become an economic constitution for North America, and now it needs a broadening, a Bill of Rights, to include provisions that were left out of the original. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, but we’ve got to fix it.

Is there a model for the body you hope to create?
Compare the situation I just described to what the European Union and the European Parliament have done. In order to become a partner in the E.U. you have to meet certain standards — in the areas of health, education, environmental standards, civil liberties, wage and labor laws. You have to upgrade yourself or you can’t get the advantage of belonging to the Union. The E.U. spends roughly $35 billion a year to help their partners upgrade, out of a pot of money that member states contribute. Portugal and Spain and Greece wanted into the E.U.; they had to upgrade their standards a decade ago to get in. Eastern European countries are entering the union now, and they’re getting the same kind of assistance to get there.

In the U.S. we tried to do NAFTA on the cheap, without any resources at all. It was a neoliberal model based on the concept that the unassailable “invisible hand” would take care of things, that all boats would eventually rise. I think that this notion of free trade as an answer to these problems has been an absolute disaster for most people in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

What hurdles do you expect?
My guess is that the biggest hurdle to overcome is the sovereignty question — to get countries to see that such a union would not constitute challenge to their sovereignty. It’s a mechanism to get people to start to talk and to work together on a continual basis. We’ve had a very episodic and confrontational relationship with our neighbors to the south, and we need to do a better job with them. The Europeans have had animosities and hatreds for many more centuries than we have, and they’ve been able to come together and share their cultural and educational and economic values with each other. There’s no reason we can’t do that here. So NAPU is an effort to provide a structure to work that out.

Yet we’ve recently been witnessing just the opposite of what you’re talking about — the fraying or unraveling of U.S. diplomatic relationships with other nations. Does your proposal depend on there being a new administration in Washington?
A new administration would certainly be helpful, and eventually we’ll have one. But I’m not interested in pursing this from the perspective of the executive branch; this is a parliamentary effort. Most executives aren’t going to be crazy about this, because a parliamentarian’s job is to question and hedge the bets of the executives of their governments.

That said, I think that even this administration — despite the fact that it has opposed immigration reform, that it has refused to accept the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Accords, nuclear agreements with the Russians, despite all the multinational cooperative ventures that they’ve turned their backs to — will come to understand that one reason we’ve become so diplomatically isolated is because it was short-term-payback time at the United Nations. It was the world community’s reaction to our unwillingness to act cooperatively on these international agreements. They do have some people with brains over there who should be able to figure this out; they know they’re in a heap of trouble right now.