Ho Chi Minute Rice

Congress debates trade with Vietnam, Little Saigon goes shopping

Photo by Jeanne RiceLittle Saigon made national news earlier this year when thousands protested outside the shop of a Westminster merchant who had posted a photo of Ho Chi Minh in his video store. But those protests appear to have distracted Little Saigon from a much more important fight in Washington, D.C., where Congress is debating the future of U.S. trade with Vietnam.

Depending on the outcome of that debate, Congress may bring Vietnam and the U.S. a step closer to fully normalized relations, something that could occur as early as mid-July.

President Bill Clinton has proposed extending last year's waiver of the so-called Jackson-Vannick amendment, which restricts trade with countries whose immigration policies prevent their own citizens from traveling abroad.

"Last year, we didn't have the power to stop the president," said one Little Saigon activist who asked not to be named. "We started organizing a year early—in 1997—and we still lost by about 100 votes. This year, I haven't heard anything about the vote at all on the radio or television. Nobody took any real action to campaign and lobby against this Jackson-Vannick waiver."

Leading the rhetorical charge in the halls of Congress against the waiver last week was U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), who introduced a House joint resolution aimed at blocking the waiver; Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), whose district partially encompasses Little Saigon, co-sponsored the resolution. Also testifying on Capitol Hill were members of the Coalition Against the Jackson-Vannick Waiver for Vietnam, which is composed of representatives of various Vietnamese communities in the U.S., all of which, coalition members testified to Congress, strongly oppose U.S. trade with Vietnam.

But such testimony is contradicted by the fact that Vietnam's increasing status as a U.S. trading partner is nowhere more evident than in neighborhoods such as Little Saigon.

"A lot of people here have gone to community colleges to study the import/export business," says Yen Do, publisher of the Westminster-based Nguoi Viet Daily News."There are also more and more foods from Vietnam on the shelves of stores—everything from rice and noodles to tobacco and beer."

For the first 15 years after the end of the Vietnam war, Do and other Vietnamese-American sources said, Vietnamese products were imported to America through third countries such as Thailand, where the goods were stamped "Made in Thailand." After Clinton lifted the trade embargo five years ago, the labels on those products were simply changed to read, "Made in Vietnam."

According to Do, the presence of Vietnamese products in Little Saigon is still an unspoken contradiction in the nation's largest Vietnamese exile community, home to some of the most virulent anti-Hanoi sentiments on the planet.

"Nobody wants to criticize one another because all the stores sell these products," Do explained. "Nobody wants their business competitors to inform on them to the Vietnamese community."

There are many explanations for the apparent contradiction, one of which exposes the ethnic rivalries that plague Vietnamese at home and in the U.S. A Vietnamese activist, who asked not to be identified, blamed the influx of Vietnamese goods into Little Saigon and other Vietnamese communities on LA-based import/export firms he alleged are run by Chinese-Vietnamese businessmen.

"Chinese-Vietnamese people don't give a shit about the Vietnamese people or communism," he complained. "They don't care about Vietnam; all they want to do is make money."

That said, the activist, who fled Vietnam when the war ended 24 years ago, admitted that he often buys Vietnamese products because they remind him of the flavors of his youth. "It's going to be very ironic if anybody comes to a supermarket to protest," he said. "I don't think anybody has ever tried to picket these supermarkets because there are so many of them in this area, and everybody has to buy groceries each weekend.

"Right now, you can get a 50-pound bag of Vietnamese rice for $15 at all Vietnamese stores in Little Saigon," the activist asserted. "If you go to Ralphs, you can buy a 50-pound bag of California rice for $30. Even though the Vietnamese here are angry at the communists, they won't go to Ralphs and buy a $30 bag of rice."

Dr. Co Pham, president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce in Orange County, is one of the rare Little Saigon voices calling for expanding trade with Vietnam. But Pham has been silent in recent weeks. In an interview with the Weekly, Pham said that most business leaders in Little Saigon support greater trade with Vietnam but are afraid to say anything because they feel threatened by extremist right-wing neighbors. "They still think they can stop [U.S. trade with Vietnam] by yelling and screaming," Pham said. "They won't give up."

Among those who haven't given up is Diem Do, an Orange County resident who belongs to the Coalition Against the Jackson-Vannick Waiver for Vietnam. On June 17, he testified against the waiver, accusing the Vietnamese government of widespread human rights abuses, including restrictive policies aimed at curtailing religious freedom for Vietnamese Buddhists and Catholics.

In a previous interview with the Weekly, Do acknowledged that fighting against trade with Vietnam remains an uphill battle for Little Saigon. "I think Congresswoman Sanchez has tried very hard to pressure the Vietnamese government for more concessions," Do said. "But to some extent, her hands have been tied. We've been giving away bargaining chips one after another. It's kind of hard for her to negotiate for something in return when we're giving away so much."

To Little Saigon activists like Do, those giveaways started in 1994, when Clinton lifted America's 20-year-old trade embargo against Vietnam. Soon after, a host of U.S.-based multinational corporations—including Proctor & Gamble, Nike, Ford, and General Motors—opened shop in Vietnam. The multinationals hoped to take advantage of Vietnam's ready supply of cheap labor and its potential market of almost 20 million consumers.

As those companies quickly realized, however, the Vietnamese government wasn't going to give them a free ride. For example, Vietnam allowed Nike to pay Vietnamese workers less than a dollar a day to sew shoes. But it also demanded that Nike—along with all foreign companies doing business in Vietnam—enter into a joint venture with Vietnam's government that gave it a controlling 51 percent share of Nike's operations there.

Signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1974, the Jackson-Vannick amendment denies favored trading status for any country whose immigration policies are deemed repressive against its own population. Initially used by Nixon to restrict trade with the Soviet Union, Jackson-Vannick expanded during the height of the Cold War to include dozens of nations around the world—most of them Soviet-bloc countries—including Vietnam.

Waiving the Jackson-Vannick amendment for Vietnam in 1998 was only supposed to broaden trade—part of what Clinton called his policy of "constructive engagement" with Vietnam. In fact, waiving Jackson-Vannick provides government subsidies to companies such as Nike. Without the waiver, U.S. companies doing business in Vietnam are prohibited from applying for any of the federal loans and other subsidies available to U.S. companies overseas, including the Export-Import Bank, the Trade Development Agency, and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), which insures U.S.-based companies abroad.

"The waiver really helps American business more than the Vietnamese authorities," said Van Thai Tran, an Orange County lawyer with the Coalition Against the Jackson-Vannick Waiver for Vietnam. "It doesn't help Little Saigon at all. From what we've seen, since the administration first sent out signals that it would waive Jackson-Vannick in 1997, there has been no sign that local business interests are at all a part of the dialogue. The waiver just benefits large U.S. companies."

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