WASHINGTON -- As U.S. trade officials put the finishing touches on a new free trade agreement with five Central America countries, groups opposed to the deal expressed confidence that they could defeat it in Congress when it is submitted some time next year.
Noting that the proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, is unlikely to include tough sanctions against countries that deny workers the right to organize, Michigan Rep. Sander Levin warned the administration that the agreement will be defeated unless it guarantees basic labor rights.
"I'm here to say to the administration, 'Turn it around or it will be turned down,'" Levin told reporters at a news conference organized by labor, environmental, church, development, health, and human rights groups opposed to the pact.
The Bush administration is hoping to conclude negotiations with trade ministers from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua by the end of this week, although it reportedly plans to wait until it can reach a similar accord with the Dominican Republic early next year before submitting the entire package to Congress for approval under "fast-track" authority that was approved by the House of Representatives 215-214 last year.
The administration is expressing confidence that it can round up enough votes to pass CAFTA by July next year, although Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Regina Vargo admitted earlier this week that the vote is likely to be similarly close.
But opponents think approval will be much more difficult, if for no other reason than Democrats are more likely to vote together in an election year, while Republicans from states and districts whose economies are heavily dependent on textiles and beef, pork, poultry, dairy, and sugar production are likely to come under heavy pressure from local constituents to vote no.
CAFTA is designed to give Central American countries similar trade and investment preferences to those extended to Mexico and Canada under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and to Chile under the bilateral trade accord approved by Congress earlier this year.
While specific details of the proposed accord have not been officially released, the administration has rejected demands by labor unions regarding protection of worker's rights.
Specifically, unions want CAFTA trade partners to incorporate core right labor rights--including the right to organize and bargain collectively--into their laws and to enforce them. Just last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch published a lengthy report that found that worker rights went largely unrecognized and unenforced by the government of El Salvador which sometimes even helps private employers carry out abuses against workers, particularly union members.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, who leads the U.S. negotiating team this week, insists that the administration will not go further than the Chile free trade accord, which provides that nominal fines may be levied against a country if it fails to enforce its own labor and environmental laws in a "sustained or recurring" manner.
With such weak enforcement provisions, activists have sworn to defeat the proposed accord.
"What we see in CAFTA is a very inadequate model of asking countries to simply enforce their own labor laws whatever they might be," said Thea Lee, a trade specialist for the AFL-CIO labor confederation. "CAFTA is clearly based on NAFTA," she said, noting that NAFTA has caused significant job losses in the U.S., particularly in manufacturing, without lifting wages or living standards in Mexico.
Indeed, the similarity between CAFTA and NAFTA may prove a liability for the administration's efforts to get the new accord through Congress. While NAFTA failed to produce the "giant sucking sound" of U.S. jobs heading south predicted by 1992 independent presidential candidate Ross Perot, it has also largely failed to meet the optimistic predictions of its supporters.
"Ghost of NAFTA Haunts Future of Free Trade," was the way the respected Congressional Quarterly titled this week's feature article. It noted that "NAFTA was the high-water mark for bipartisan consensus (on trade), and even then the water was not very high. Since then, with few exceptions, trade battles have become more bitter and the vote margins have narrowed."
CAFTA will almost certainly be the most controversial yet, according to Lee who called it a "corporate boondoggle, disguised as free trade. It will accelerate U.S. job losses to corporate outsourcing and worsen the abuse of workers in both countries and undermine national, environmental and public health regulations while really doing nothing to lay a foundation for the kind of sustainable and equitable development that Central America needs and deserves," she said.
Environmental groups, some of which supported NAFTA, appear increasingly inclined to oppose CAFTA. "The agreement will seriously undermine the citizens of Central America," said Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth. "Since multinational companies could challenge environmental and public interest protections before international tribunals (under CAFTA), demanding tens of millions of dollars in compensation, how many Central American countries will still take action to safeguard their citizens and environment?"
Even the increasingly powerful anti-AIDS movement is attacking the scheme, claiming that tougher patent rules Washington is pushing under the accord will make it more difficult for HIV/AIDS victims to obtain life-saving drugs at a time when the epidemic appears to spreading rapidly in the region. Several AIDS activists were arrested Tuesday after committing civil disobedience at the downtown Washington hotel in which the negotiations are taking place.
Oxfam America, the Washington Office on Latin America, World Vision and more than two dozen U.S. church groups, including the National Council of Churches in Christ, have also warned they will oppose CAFTA unless it includes provisions such as strong sanctions for violations of core labor rights and international environmental standards and restrictions on foreign takeovers of key sectors, such as family farms and essential public utilities.
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