In a long awaited move, the Senate late Thursday night barely approved implementing legislation for the Central America - Dominican Republic - United States Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). CAFTA's approval was assured in the Senate, so this is no surprise. What is a surprise is that it was approved with the least number of votes for a trade bill in recent history. While CAFTA squeaked by with a 54-45 vote, past Senate "yes" votes on trade agreements include 83 for China PNTR, 76 for the WTO, 80 for the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement, 64 for Fast Track in 2002, and 61 for NAFTA. The biggest upset was Hillary Clinton, who voted against CAFTA -- a surprise to many who projected that her national aspirations would portend a Yes vote, and whose husband shepherded NAFTA through the Congress 11 years ago.
Usually, trade votes are taken up in the House before the Senate. However, because the Bush Administration still does not have the votes in the House -- even well over a year after CAFTA was signed on May 28th, 2004 -- the Administration is attempting to contrive an artificial sense of 'momentum' by having the Senate vote on it first. At last count, over 166 Representatives had publicly stated their opposition to CAFTA, while a mere 65 had publicly stated their approval. The House Ways and Means Committee passed implementing legislation out of committee this Wednesday, setting a 15-legislative day clock ticking for the Bush Administration to make a last-ditch attempt to shore up Representatives' votes for the massively unpopular treaty. The Congress returns from a July 4th recess on July 11th, so the vote must come this July.
With approval ratings at an all-time low, support for the war plummeting, and efforts to privatize social security going nowhere, the Bush Administration appears to be opening up the pork barrel bank in a desperate attempt to pass something, even if it destroys American jobs and our environment.
Far from building momentum for CAFTA, this vote is another sign of the widespread opposition to CAFTA, an agreement based on NAFTA, whose failed record includes the loss of a million American jobs and over 38,000 American family farms, while in Mexico over 1.5 million farmers have been pushed off their land and manufacturing wages have plummeted. The massively unpopular bill could only squeak through a traditionally pro-"free trade" Senate through last minute fake "deals" on two issues: sugar and labor. According to a recent study by Public Citizen (http://www.citizen.org/pressroom/release.cfm?ID=1968), 89% of all such "deals" to win trade votes in the past have never been fulfilled.
But what can be bought in the Senate will face must stiffer opposition in the House, especially with sustained opposition by workers and the sugar industry to the new so-called 'deals'.
Labor Repression Reports Censored
This week, studies came to light that were commissioned by the US Department of Labor and carried out by the International Labor Rights Fund (www.laborrights.org). The studies showed that the 5 Central American countries violate basic ILO standards in at least 20 different ways, including violations of freedom to organize and freedom of assembly, forced overtime, lack of payment of minimum wage, and others. Although funded by US taxpayers, the studies were censored by the Bush Administration for almost a year, and just released on June 29th. They demonstrate that children as young as 10 years old are working in sugar cane fields, and that workers are exposed to machete accidents, pesticide poisoning, minimum wage violations, and widespread labor repression. CAFTA, which does not include any enforceable labor provisions, will do nothing to improve this situation, but will worsen it as countries lower labor standards to attract investment.
In light of this and other evidence of massive labor repression in Central America and the lack of enforceable labor standards in CAFTA, Senator Bingaman, a Democrat of New Mexico, had asked for $1 billion for Central American labor enforcement capacity building. The US Trade Representative, Robert Portman, sent Senator Bingaman a letter June 28 detailing that the administration would support a paltry $40 million a year for labor rights enforcement capacity building legislation, from 2006 to 2009. But this "promise" is sure to be broken: the funding has not actually been appropriated or authorized, cannot even be guaranteed by the Bush Administration, and is miniscule compared to the dire need to improve labor rights in Central America. In addition, the paltry funding offered by the Administration to support as many as 6 million farmers in Central America who will likely be displaced by CAFTA will be funneled through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an institution widely criticized for spending millions on consultants instead of development, and for disbursing only .016% of the monies allotted to it by Congress. Unfortunately, Bingaman was bought, and voted for CAFTA.
Requiem for the US Sugar Industry
The other last-minute 'deal' before the Senate vote was an attempt to buy off sugar opposition. This week, Agricultural Secretary Mike Johanns sent a letter to Agricultural Committee Chair Senator Chambliss outlining a new 'deal' offered to the sugar industry, in a desperate attempt to buy votes for CAFTA from Senators in states beholden to the sugar industry. The Administration presented an offer to pay foreign countries to NOT export sugar to the US for two years. The letter also promised to perform a study to examine the possibility of taking excess sugar imports, which producers fear would drive down market prices and send them out of business, and convert it into ethanol. The American Sugar Alliance flatly rejected the proposal, but a few Senators, like Coleman of Minnesota, took the bait hook, line, and sinker and sold their vote for a future broken promise.
Future of Trade Policy Depends on Democracy and Public Mobilization
There are now over 35,000 registered lobbyists in Washington, DC -- double the number of 5 years ago. Big business has seen the wide-open field for corporate giveaways created by the Republican controlled White House and both chambers of Congress. Just to give one example, the pharmaceutical industry, which counts on more lobbyists on Capitol Hill than there are members of Congress, obtained extremist patent monopoly provisions in CAFTA that will make lifesaving medicines that cost $216 a year skyrocket to a totally inaccessible $5,000 a year for over 275,000 people with HIV/AIDS in Central America.
Walmart is one of the biggest corporate lobbyists for CAFTA. So is Procter & Gamble, which has made billions selling consumer goods to Mexico under NAFTA while raking in $1 billion a year on sweatshop coffee from Latin America through its Folgers brand. So are candy manufacturers M&M/Mars (http://www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/fairtrade/cocoa/index.html) and Hershey's, which not only still use African slave labor in their chocolate, but now want to combine it with Central American sweatshop sugar to make their bittersweet confections.
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The good news is that the struggle against CAFTA can be won, if we keep up the momentum the fair trade movement has built over the last years in exposing the real impacts of corporate globalization on people's lives, and holding elected officials accountable to their votes. Damning evidence of the failed model of free trade has been combined with strategic political savvy and widespread grassroots mobilization to create of the most dynamic, exciting and successful social justice movements in the US. People can contact the Citizen's Trade Campaign (www.citizenstrade.org) to find out how to get in touch with nationwide state Fair Trade coalitions. Or download a 60-page Action Pack, complete with short, to-the-point analysis of CAFTA and the environment, sweatshops, agriculture, investment, and services, from Global Exchange's website (www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/cafta).
We must make our voices heard if we are to wrest our global economic policies out of the claws of the corporations and ensure that global economic governance becomes democratic. That means that citizens have to take CAFTA seriously enough to mobilize against it -- and now is the final hour to test the strength of our commitment. The handy http://thomas.loc.gov is a good place to find out how your Senator voted on CAFTA. Then pick up the phone, and call them, and let them know how you feel about their CAFTA vote -- be it reward or retribution.
But the most important call of the year for global economic justice will be the call to your Representative in the House, where the real battle for democratic trade policy will be pitched. Fortunately, the United Steelworkers of America have set up a toll-free number -- 1-866-340-9281 -- so that citizens can get involved in letting their voices be heard to their Congressmembers.
Corporate lobbyists are pouring millions of dollars into the CAFTA fight.
But millions of people in the US have been negatively affected by NAFTA.
Millions more know that CAFTA is a raw deal for workers and the environment.
So pick up the phone, and call your Representative.
1-866-340-9281. Tell them to vote NO on CAFTA.
It's a great way to spend Independence Day.
Millions of workers and farmers in Central America and the US will thank you for it.
Most important of all, you'll thank yourself.
CAFTA is a struggle we can win, and that victory will set the stage for a great turnaround in the struggle against corporate globalization and for a fair trade policy with our neighbors for decades to come.