Peter Allgeier, the acting U.S. trade representative, says CAFTA, the proposed trade agreement with Central America and the Dominican Republic, would double U.S. agricultural exports to the region. That has Central American farmers worried.
Like the North American Free Trade Agreement, upon which it is modeled, CAFTA would flood Central America's markets with products of U.S. agribusiness, much of which is still heavily subsidized. According to Oxfam, U.S. corn exports to Central America would increase by 10,000 percent in the first year. The region's small farmers, who make up the majority of the population, have their eyes on Mexico, where 1.7 million farmers lost their land in the first 10 years after NAFTA went into effect.
"What is at stake for the long term," says Nicaraguan economist Adolfo Acevedo, "is not just the possibility of preserving a large part of the national food production . . . but the fate of the labor force itself, and, more deeply yet, the fate of the human beings linked to this form of production."
Like their Mexican counterparts, their likely fate would be to migrate to Central American cities, where their best hope would be to get low-paid jobs in the sweatshops that have displaced good jobs in New Hampshire and other U.S. locations. Or, they may take the risk of braving vigilantes and the border patrol to migrate to the U.S.A., where more sweatshop jobs await.
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CAFTA includes "investor rights" provisions that would make it possible for foreign corporations to sue for monetary damages if laws adopted at any level of government eat into their profits. Under a similar provision of NAFTA, the U.S.-based Ethyl Corp. won $13 million in damages when Canada outlawed use of MMT, a gasoline additive. As part of the settlement, Canada also overturned its ban on the chemical, which was known to be a neuro-toxin. Under CAFTA rules, such cases would not be heard in open courts, but by secretive panels of trade arbitrators. Laws and regulations to promote public health, human rights and environmental protection would all be at risk.
While CAFTA should be defeated on its own demerits, its significance is greater. It is widely seen as a template for additional agreements that would threaten U.S. jobs, strip authority from democratic governments at all levels, endanger access to essential services such as water, and continue to wreak havoc on the rural economies of poor countries.
International trade is an important element of today's integrated, global economy. But global trade agreements must allow protections for health, social justice and environmental stewardship to be placed before private gain, and they must not trump the ability of democratic governments to protect their own citizens.