All Around the Neighborhood

A quick look at our amigos from Toronto to Tierra del Fuego

•Civil Strife Index ****

When will Aristide's corrupt government fall? It's only a matter of time. The real question is, who or what will take its place?

•Life Expectancy51 years (est.)

•Reefer Quality Index

Transshipment only.

•Literacy Rate 49% (est.)

•Foreign Debt Index $1 billion

Kiss it goodbye.

•Trade Power Index**

•Poverty Rate 73% (est.)

•Corruption Index ******

Corruption is a different animal in Haiti, where there is almost no governmental infrastructure left to manipulate. Humanitarian aid -- from other governments, the World Bank, or nongovernmental organizations -- generally winds up in the coffers of whoever has the guns and manpower to keep it. Businessmen and travelers wishing to remain safe are wise to pay up.

Mexico

In 1994 Mexico, Canada, and the United States created the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which now serves as a model for the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. So far it appears NAFTA has bolstered the profit margins of large U.S. companies while doing virtually nothing beneficial for the average Mexican. Since the implementation of NAFTA, American corporations have opened nearly 3000 factories (maquiladoras) where more than 1.3 million Mexicans, mostly young women, earn wages that average 50 cents per hour and provide no benefits. Meanwhile the cost of living in Mexico has steadily risen, along with environmental degradation. In addition, independent farmers and small companies have lost ground trying to compete with NAFTA-induced corporate consolidations. By some estimates, 1.4 million Mexican jobs have been lost in the past nine years as a result of NAFTA. Yet Mexico's president, Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive, is championing the FTAA.

•Civil Strife Index ***

Mexico is beginning to experience levels of drug violence and corruption comparable to Colombia in the late Eighties.

•Life Expectancy 72 years

•Reefer Quality Index*****

•Literacy Rate 91%

•Foreign Debt Index $341 billion

Our southern neighbor feels the ups and downs of our own economic cycles, meaning that within Latin America it's relatively steady and strong. Once the U.S. economy picks up, president Vicente Fox will be in a better position to attend to the debt.

•Trade Power Index **

•Poverty Rate 42%

•Corruption Index ***1/2

Narcotraficantes control huge amounts of money in a country where dinero is scarce. It's no wonder police and politicians are on the take from Tijuana to Tapachula.

Panama

If you want to understand the Free Trade Area of the Americas circa 2003, you might look back exactly 100 years, when Teddy Roosevelt effectively annexed this area (roughly the size of South Carolina) so the U.S. could control shipping throughout the hemisphere. (Oh, yes, and Panama "won" its independence from Colombia.) Over the ensuing century, Panama has been little more than a U.S. guard dog, banking center, and zona franca. Even after the U.S. handed over administrative control of the canal at the end of 1999, this country (with a population of three million, just a little larger than Miami-Dade County) plays but a minor role in regional affairs, despite hosting several FTAA meetings. With Manuel "Pineapple Face" Noriega in a Miami federal lockup, Panamanians need few reminders of what will happen if they get out of line.

•Civil Strife Index **

A volatile place under very close watch. (See "Pineapple Face.")

•Life Expectancy 74 years

•Reefer Quality Index****

•Literacy Rate 92%

•Foreign Debt Index $6 billion

A debt-restructuring agreement with the IMF, signed in 1996, suggested that Panama was determined to reduce its debt, but seven years later there's been no decrease whatsoever in the numbers.

•Trade Power Index **

•Poverty Rate 31%

•Corruption Index ****

Graft and general corruption among political and business elites threaten democracy in a country that already has one of the most unequal distributions of income in the hemisphere. Panama's large banking sector has been cited for numerous instances of industrial-strength money-laundering by drug cartels and other criminal enterprises.

United States

Poor United States -- so far from God, so close to Brazilian citrus groves. While comparing the U.S. economy with any other in the hemisphere is like comparing oranges with space stations (its GDP of about $10 trillion is more than all the other countries combined), the 800-pound gorilla is nervous about agriculture. So nervous, in fact, that talks over removing our own agricultural subsidies, as Brazil is demanding, could sink the whole proverbial trading ship, which we're supposedly piloting. With a highly skilled labor force of about 142 million, a whopping per capita GDP of $37,000 (Brazil's is $7600), the largest and most technically advanced economy in the world, and complete dominance of the stock market, to name just a few advantages, the U.S. has overwhelming negotiating power. In the past it has used this might in trade talks to press for openness, openness, and more openness. Most of the provisions in the FTAA will help this country's huge multinational companies, which utterly dominate the hemispheric marketplace. Beefing up legal systems and intellectual property rights, loosening barriers to privatization, and boosting transparency will be a win-win for those corporations. But most likely U.S. agriculture will lose. Only about two percent of the U.S. economy belongs to agriculture, yet certain key farm states, plus Big Sugar and Big Citrus, are part of that percentage. And yes, the last two sit in our own, politically critical state. Who knew a pound of oranges could be so heavy?

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