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The Security and Prosperity Partnership Agreement: NAFTA Plus Homeland Security

Harsha Walia and Cynthia Oka
Date Published: 
April 00, 2008

As it quietly turns into official policy, the “Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America” (SPP) agreement mixes the neoliberalism of NAFTA with the repression of homeland security. Harsha Walia and Cynthia Oka outline the main features of this emerging framework and its consequences for people in the region.

The SPP was founded in March 2005 at a summit of the heads of state of Canada, the US, and Mexico with the backing of powerful lobby groups including the US Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE), and the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations. Robert Pastor, co-chairman of the CFR, wrote an influential book in 2001, Toward a North American Community, where he laid the foundations for the SPP through the idea of “North American institutions.” In January 2003, CCCE released its North American Security and Prosperity Initiative which essentially became the template for the SPP.

The SPP calls for maximization of North American economic competitiveness in the face of growing exports from India and China; expedited means of resource (oil, natural gas, water, forest products) extraction; secure borders against “organized crime, international terrorism, and illegal migration”; standardized regulatory regimes for health, food safety, and the environment; integrated energy supply through a comprehensive resource security pact (primarily about ensuring that the US receives guaranteed flows of the oil in light of “Middle East insecurity and hostile Latin American regimes”); and coordination amongst defense forces.

Unlike other continental free trade agreements, the SPP is not an official treaty. Rather, it is presented as a vague “dialogue based on shared values.” Made operational through nineteen working groups that are outside the legislative process, the SPP has escaped any public debate.

The North American Competitiveness Council (NACC) is the only formal advisory board to the SPP and is made up exclusively of corporate CEOs. A September 13, 2006 story in Maclean's magazine describes the NACC as a “cherrypicked group of executives who [are being] asked to come up with a plan for taking North American integration beyond NAFTA.” Members include the CEOs of Manulife Financial, Suncor Energy, Home Depot, Lockheed Martin, General Electric, and Wal-Mart. The NACC, representing private corporate interests, has been “institutionalized” as a policy-making body, thus formalizing the patterns of existing corporate influence.


Over 300 policies and agreements have been scheduled and/or implemented to realize these corporate priorities. Some examples of these agreements are the integration of military and police training exercises, cooperation on law enforcement, and the expansion of the North American Aerospace Defense Command into a joint naval and land defense command. This also includes redesign of armed forces for combat overseas and greater cooperation in global wars as part of the “external” defense strategy of the security perimeter.

Moves have also been made towards regional border militarization as part of the “internal” security perimeter. In 2001, Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister John Manley and US Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge signed the Smart Border Declaration, a 30-point plan which includes adoption of coordinated border surveillance technologies with major contracts provided to military suppliers. Other initiatives include flyovers of the border by US helicopters and a $101-million plan to arm Canadian border guards. The physical enforcement of such policies has been accompanied by the implementation of biometric programs, coordination of no-fly lists (the US no-fly list has grown to half a million names), a North American Border Pass, and increased tracking and intelligence-gathering on foreign nationals and “high risk” people. The Canadian Advance Technology Alliance Biometrics Group has estimated that the biometric market has risen to US $2.6 billion.

Legislation to restrict the movement of people has extended to the integration of refugee policies, including information sharing on asylum claimants through fingerprint records. In addition, the Safe Third Country Agreement, implemented in December 2004 between the US and Canada, has resulted in at least a 40% decrease in refugee applications in Canada. Notably, this agreement has recently been struck down by the Federal Court of Canada. Under the US-Mexico “Voluntary Repatriation Program” more than 35,000 persons have been deported with increased border enforcement against Mexican migrants. The SPP also calls for “sealing” of the southern Mexico border with Guatemala and Belize through Plan Sur.

This has led to huge profits for corporations involved in “Homeland Security” industries. Indeed, the role of the private sector in security initiatives was highlighted as one of the priorities at the NACC Trilateral Private Sector meeting, “As 85% of the United States’ critical infrastructure is owned or operated by the private sector, it is vital to our economic and national security that business is actively involved in the formulation of homeland security policies.” For example, on September 21, 2006, Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, announced that a consortium headed by Boeing had won a multi-billion dollar contract to install sensors and radars along the US border.

Meanwhile, to facilitate movement of extracted natural resources, goods, and “preferred citizens” around this new North American zone, initiatives such as the “Business Resumption and Partners in Protection Program” and the “Fast and Secure Trade Pass” have been designed. Infrastructural development includes the “NAFTA Superhighway,” a corridor that is several hundred miles long including rail lines and pipelines from Mexico to the Canadian border. Transportation companies such as CN Rail have much to gain; in Western Canada alone CN plans to invest nearly Cndn $350 million in track infrastructure. CN Rail and its expansion have been the targets of various blockades by indigenous communities opposed to the project of nation-building through infrastructure development that leads to further expropriation of indigenous lands.

The SPP also calls for rapid expansion of temporary guest worker programs that are required to ensure cheap labor in light of the repressive migration and security controls. Canada’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program is seen as the “model” to implement despite widespread documented abuse including being tied to the “importing” employer; facing deportation if workers assert their rights; and exploitative working conditions including low wages, long hours, substandard housing, and overt discrimination.

Militarization is needed to ensure the goal of privatizing natural resources, as is evident around the world. In this case the primary targets are Mexico’s nationalized oil sector and tar sands production in Alberta. The tar sands (“oil sands”) are one of the world’s largest petroleum resource basins. Oil sand operations currently produce around one million barrels a day; for Suncor—one the corporations on the NACC—that means gross daily revenue of $6 million. The SPP calls for a fivefold increase in tar sands production despite the fact that the tar sands have become the largest contributor to Canada's increase in greenhouse gas emissions and surrounding indigenous communities have documented high cancer rates. Carla Lewis of the Wet’suwet’en Nation writes, “Perhaps even a greater tragedy is occurring as our youth turn knives to their wrists and guns to their heads, as the loss of land and of cultural continuity lead to a devastating loss of hope.”

Finally, harmonization of health and environmental regulations to lower standards and a less stringent “North American alternative” to the Kyoto Protocol are core features of the SPP. Recently, for example, a new US Food and Drug Administration report claims that meat and milk from cloned animals is safe and it is expected that Canada and Mexico will follow suit under the SPP “food safety coordinating mechanism.” Similarly, in 2007, Canada raised its limits on pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables in order to harmonize levels with that of the US, despite the greater health risk.

NAFTA on steroids

The SPP is premised on a particular articulation of “neoliberal economic freedom,” which is constituted through practices such as biometric pre-clearance programs: the liberalization of rules-of-origins under NAFTA: and the development of trilateral policy frameworks to enhance freer movement of goods, capital, and electronic commerce. The exceptional freedom and mobility of corporations and businesspeople is dramatically contrasted with proliferating restrictions imposed on marginalized communities. Ironically, border controls are deployed against those whose very recourse to “illegal” migration was destroyed by the license afforded to corporations by free trade agreements to ravage entire economies and displace entire communities in the South. Similarly, the focus on resource extraction and development in the SPP will work to further dispossess and displace indigenous communities.

The SPP intensifies neoliberalism through an increased reliance on labor flexibility as a means of increasing profits. For example, the SPP undermines labor laws through employment of contract and part-time labor, as well as through the enforcement of exclusionary citizenship through Temporary Foreign Worker Programs. The expansion of guest worker programs allows for capital interests to increasingly access cheap labor that exists under precarious conditions, the most severe of which is the condition of being deportable. Given their unstable legal status, governments and businesses are able to hyper-exploit migrant workers by denying them basic rights afforded to citizens. They also maintain the sanctity of the fortified national security apparatus and the racist regime of border imperialism by legalizing the “foreign-ness” of migrant workers.

Homeland security plus

Pastor stated in an interview with Poder y Negocios, “The 9/11 crisis made Canada and the United States redefine the protection of their borders... What I'm saying is that a crisis is an event which can force democratic governments to make difficult decisions like those that will be required to create a North American Community.”

It is fundamental to understand this relationship between the SPP and notions of “Catastrophic Emergency,” to which security policies are tied. In 2006, as part of the SPP, the Department of Homeland Security awarded a $385 million dollar contract to KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary, to support “Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities in the event of an emergency,” including detention facilities in the event of an “immigration emergency.” In the post 911 climate, the construction of a constant imminent threat to North America is a critical condition for the SPP and for the justification for increased security measures; however, the implementation of these measures must not interfere with its economic hegemony.

Here we find the crucial relationship between security and prosperity. Not only does the SPP facilitate the exceptional mobility of economic goods including through “Resource Security” regimes (especially ensuring access to oil through the Energy Security Pact), it also subsidizes production through state-sanctioned indentured labor programs (i.e migrant workers). These initiatives are paralleled by security measures that demobilize and marginalize racialized populations. The actual “criminal” or “terroristic” deeds of “high-risk” individuals never have to be proven; their transgression of the white colonial boundaries are sufficient sources of insecurity, as such the SPP increases state militancy in deporting “illegals” as a means of social discipline.

Resisting the SPP

A radical contestation of the SPP requires us to think and act beyond the state to avoid calling for the expansion of state control as a means of counter-acting corporate expansion. Instead, we need to recognize the state itself, particularly in North America, as a fundamentally repressive, racist, and colonial site that remains indispensable for the perpetuation of capitalist exploitation. Despite the image that neoliberalism has constructed for itself as autonomous from the state, it is in fact heavily reliant on the state to regulate a deeply racialized and gendered labor market on behalf of corporations.

State power has been most markedly deployed in the policing of territorial borders and the project of imperialist occupation; in shaping the population’s productivity through the power to grant or withhold citizenship; in expropriating indigenous lands and resources for economic development; and finally, in protecting exploitative social and class relations. Therefore critics are mistaken in their assessment of declining state power; indeed, state power articulated strongly in the military adventures and societal securitization explicitly endorsed by the SPP.

While the SPP poses a formidable challenge, it also provides an opportunity to build a wider movement of resistance that can transcend the systemic exclusions produced by nationalism, Western imperialism, white supremacy, and global capitalism. Instead, an explicitly anti-colonial, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist resistance constitutes the possibility for re-imagining community beyond the bounds of citizenship, the political beyond the state, freedom beyond the market, and humanity beyond Whiteness.

Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist in a range of social movements. Cynthia Oka is a no-border activist and a Political Science student. They are both members of No One Is Illegal-Vancouver, Coast Salish territories.