What Rhymes With NAFTA, But Smells Worse? CAFTA!

Under cover of the corporate (and independent) media’s obsession with GW Bush’s maniacal ‘war on terror,’ the US is pursuing new trade negotiations to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) debacle to Central and South America. The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) aims at creating a free-trade zone throughout the western hemisphere, with a target date of January 2005. The effects of which could have an even more dismal impact on millions of people throughout North and South America then has the latest imperialist government’s war.

But a major stumbling block to the creation of FTAA is the many social struggles, left political parties, and strong unions in the Central American countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. And if FTAA comes to fruition, shipments of export/import goods will have to travel through this region. Therefore, the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is a vital step to expanding NAFTA. Without the endorsement of Central American business leaders and government officials (backed by their respective militaries), FTAA will be next to impossible. President Bush announced last January that CAFTA is a top priority for his administration, and Congressional approval of “fast track” authority earlier this year could mean that it may be ready as early as next summer. The White House’s brief Fact Sheet on CAFTA makes numerous claims regarding the perceived benefits of expanding NAFTA via CAFTA. Several points are worth disputing, based on the measurable results of NAFTA since its passage in 1994, as well as government actions in Central America today. These include the following statements:

Claim #1: American farmers, businesses, workers and consumers will benefit from free trade.

Rebuttal: Last year Public Citizen released a 70-page review of NAFTA’s agricultural outcomes, which empirically refutes this claim. Since NAFTA, American, Canadian and Mexican independent farmers have seen prices plummet and safety nets removed. Thousands of small farms have gone under since NAFTA. As a result, farmland has shifted into the hands of agricultural mega-corporations such as Tyson and Cargill. Small farmers are clearly losers under NAFTA. Correspondingly, large businesses have been the greater beneficiaries of free trade. Since NAFTA began, ConAgra’s and Archer Daniels Midland’s profits have both tripled to $413 million and $301 million, respectively. As for American workers, or any workers for that matter, benefiting from free trade–we haven’t found any. Promises of more manufacturing jobs were never fulfilled. Instead, many jobs were transferred to maquiladoras in northern Mexico, where US corporations could pay workers less while evading US worker safety standards and environmental protection laws. It is estimated that nearly 15 million peasant farmers throughout Mexico have lost significant income. American consumers have not felt the lower prices, either. In reality, domestic food prices rose 20% during NAFTA’s first seven years.

Claim #2: CAFTA would “support Democracy and Economic Reform.”

Rebuttal: There is no doubt that the US trade policies support economic reform outside of the US. But the fundamental question is: do the people of these countries want the kind of economic reform being offered by free trade proponents? It is a neoliberal economic model that is pushed forth by US trade and foreign policy, which is, by all accounts, antithetical to what social movements throughout Central America are calling for. Dozens of movements and direct actions throughout the region have been meet with resistance from the government and military leaders, often backed by the United States. If citizens do not want CAFTA, then how can implementing CAFTA be a vessel for democracy?

Claim #3: “The United States has supported the development of democracy, enhanced economic growth, and security for human rights…”

Rebuttal: US support for democratic governments in Central America cannot be found in any historical record. In fact, the US has a tendency (a policy?) to support military regimes and dictatorships in that region, more than anything else. The US, through the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly known as the US Army School of Americas), has trained tens of thousands of Central and South American military officers in the ancient art of violating basic human rights. It has also worked covertly and overtly to install and maintain governments that are undemocratic (to say the least)–El Salvador’s US-backed coup in 1979, Nicaragua’s contra war during both the Carter and Reagan administrations, and Guatemala’s 1954 CIA-engineered coup, etc. . .(Read Noam Chomsky’s book, Turning the Tide: US Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace).

Claim #4: CAFTA would “commit these countries to even greater openness and transparency, which would deepen the roots of democracy, civil society, and the rule of law in the region…”

Rebuttal: The “openness and transparency” that the Whitehouse if referring to here has nothing to do with democracy, civil society or the rule of law. Rather, it applies to the movement of goods and services, financial and material, across boarders without penalties. It involves a further weakening of those countries abilities to protect their comparatively weak economies from large industrial countries. Privatization of public services such as water and sanitation, electricity, and healthcare has taken place throughout the region behind closed doors and against the will of the populace. Proponents of CAFTA in Central American countries are actually actively working against the interests of civil society and democracy, through union-firings and arrests, rollbacks of labor and environmental standards, and police violence at anti-FTAA rallies. The people of El Salvador have been struggling against FTAA and neoliberal economic policies for decades. Here in the US, the Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) is lending their support to the campaign against CAFTA and FTAA. El Salvadoran labor and civil leaders have identified CAFTA as the greatest threat to their current struggle for democracy in El Salvador. In reality, CAFTA is destroying the roots of democracy and civil society, while instituting military regimes who determine, interpret, and carry out the ‘law.’

Claim #5: Free trade, along with increases in trade and investment flows would “. . . support common efforts to achieve stronger environmental protection and improved working conditions.”

Rebuttal: Free trade has achieved a route circumventing environmental protections and worker’s rights. US corporations often move manufacturing to countries like Mexico, where labor unions, worker’s rights, and minimum wages are weaker than in the US. In agriculture, deadly pesticides that have banned in the US for environmental and worker safety, like the carcinogen DDT, are used freely (and then imported back to US consumers). In all likelihood, CAFTA would further weaken environmental protections and worker’s rights, just as NAFTA has done here and abroad. Like it or not, there is more going on in the world besides the latest ‘war of terror.’ CAFTA is an important issue that should not be overlooked by social/economic/environmental justice activists in the coming months. If it is passed, the expansion of NAFTA will likely result in a reduction in workers rights, higher unemployment and lower wages; higher prices for food; environmental degradation; and an ever-widening wealth gap between the world’s rich few and poor billions. The devastating impacts of corporate-style free trade makes one wonder whether Bush Jr. is actually waging two wars right now. . .

Krystal Kyer is an activist writer, and has a Master of Environmental Studies degree. She can be reached at: klynn@nocharge.zzn.com

Copyright 2002 Krystal Kyer