The dream of free trade in the Western Hemisphere suffered yet another blow on November 6, 2005, as the Fourth Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina concluded with no progress for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a vocal opponent of the United States, proclaimed the agreement dead, and many of his colleagues in the region tacitly agreed. Even US President George W. Bush conceded that the FTAA had taken a backseat to the more pressing matter of the December 2005 World Trade Organization (WTO) talks in Hong Kong. Hostile public opinion, supported by government resistance to FTAA policies and US-led free trade policies in general, was the main reason behind the failure of the FTAA.

As early as June 1990, President Bush proposed the goal of ensuring hemispheric free trade by the year 2000. In pursuit of that vision, the FTAA began in 1994 with the first Summit of the Americas in Miami. The declaration that resulted from the summit called for the completion by 2005 of negotiations to implement a hemisphere-wide free-trade zone. In 1998 formal negotiations began in a second Summit of the Americas in Santiago, Chile. Though minister-level meetings moved the process along, progress did not come smoothly. At the third summit in Quebec City in 2001, the FTAA came to the forefront of media coverage amid massive protests against globalization and the practices of multinational corporations.

What changed between 1994 and 2005? The political climates within member nations have started to turn against free trade. In the United States, 11 years after the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, public opinion has shifted to a more protectionist stance. Interest groups such as labor unions and farm lobbies undertook tremendous efforts to block the passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which passed in July 2005 by only two votes in the US House of Representatives. Many Americans support free trade in principle but disapproved of the specific policies the US government was pursuing. A study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes polling 18,000 people across 19 countries showed that 56 percent of people supported the concept of increasing global trade but disagreed with the handling of specific consequences of trade, such as unemployment, the plight of the poor in other countries, and effects on the environment.

While increased hostility toward trade in the United States has made President Bush’s goals harder to attain, it has not scuttled the FTAA entirely. Latin American nations, many of which have resorted to outright protectionism, have affected the viability of the FTAA the most. Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia all have elected left-leaning presidents in the past six years. There is the ever-vocal Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has advocated regional cooperation within a framework of socialism. Venezuela, along with Cuba, has promoted a Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) as a rival to the FTAA. ALBA rejects lowered trade barriers and economic liberalization as the means to economic integration in Latin America. Instead, it advocates, among other initiatives, more state control of public utilities and self-sufficiency in the agricultural sector. Unfortunately for the United States and the FTAA, Venezuelan resistance to the FTAA is supported by substantial state revenue from oil exports. Chavez’s generosity with aid to fellow Latin American nations has earned him supporters among Latin American citizens and government officials alike.

The progress of the FTAA has also been impeded by the rise of smaller regional free trade organizations. In South America, two large trading blocs dominate: Mercosur, founded in March 1991, which includes Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, and Venezuela, and the Andean Community (CAN), which was established in 1969 and includes Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. In December 2004, Mercosur and CAN, along with Chile, signed a declaration of intent for the creation of a South American Community of Nations (CSN), based on an EU-style political confederation. All of these organizations and ideas serve as rivals to the FTAA. The popularity of the ALBA and the CSN indicate an increased level of assertiveness from South American nations vis-à-vis US hemispheric leadership. ALBA and CSN present concrete alternatives for South Americans who dislike the FTAA and US-led trade policies but are generally in favor of economic integration on the continent.

The long-term future of the FTAA is uncertain. Many of the differences that separate the United States and some South American countries are the same ones that held up the Doha round of WTO talks. The more developed nations seek to protect intellectual property rights and increase trade in services, while developing nations are more concerned with the elimination of agricultural subsidies. Until various nations in the hemisphere actually want to make free trade collaboration on a hemispheric scale work, it is unlikely that any of the future Summits of the Americas will end on a happier note.