Supporters of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) narrowly won a 217 to 215 victory in the House this week. While this was a loss, the narrow margin is a sure sign of hope (see the Institute for Policy Studies’ John Cavanagh’s piece that talks about the backroom pork-barreling involved).
Many of CAFTA’s supporters marshaled self-righteous (as well as self-serving) arguments in its support from both sides of the aisle. The Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. William Thomas (R-CA), berated opponents who feared the effects of the agreement on child labor practices in Central America for not recognizing that “those people down there love their children” as much as Americans! Democratic supporters like Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), parroted President Bush’s reasoning for building democracies in Central America, in countries that had a lot of civil unrest and military dictatorships in the 1970s and 80s–never mind that those military dictatorships were either installed or bolstered by the United States in the first place! No mention was made by either Cuellar or President Bush, of course, of the horrific violence and civil wars unleashed as a result of those U.S. policies.
While the concern for our Central American neighbors on the part of CAFTA supporters is certainly suspect, what is of concern is that opponents of “free” trade in the United States–not just conservatives–often tend to couch their opposition to such agreements in very parochial terms as well. Self-interest rather than a sense of genuine solidarity with people in other countries is typically at the heart of such opposition. Concern about job loss and loss of living standards in this country is very much a valid one. But many opponents of “free” trade portray job losses in the United States as automatically equaling job growth and higher living standards elsewhere. This is far from true! If anything, what binds us in this country together with our neighbors in the Global South whether in Central America, Mexico, Brazil or elsewhere in this age of globalization is that workers, low-income families, farmers and agricultural laborers, women and children, minorities and historically-discriminated communities are all at the receiving end of the same corporate stick (see Indian journalist P. Sainath’s reporting on the agrarian crisis in India’s Andhra Pradesh state where thousands of farmers and agricultural laborers have committed suicide, the very state that Bill Gates and Bill Clinton praised as a model for the rest of India and, indeed, the developing world).
What is often forgotten is that many of the devastating policies designed and implemented within the United States–first under Ronald Reagan, then under Bill Clinton and now under George W. Bush–based on “market fundamentalism” and an ideology of neoliberalism were and are similarly designed, implemented and enforced by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization in countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (see the 50 Years is Enough Network’s Soren Ambrose’s piece). This other fundamentalism, as dangerous as the religious variety, forms the underpinnings of “free” trade agreements. Moreover, economic principles and treaties–like legal ones–are hardly neutral, despite the rhetoric which conservatives and liberal free-traders would have us accept. They tend to benefit those in power and those with privilege. They are driven by the support for corporations and their continuous quest for profit at the expense of jobs, health, access to basic natural resources like land and water, the environment and human rights (particularly economic and social rights) for the vast majority of the world’s people. For more on how CAFTA will affect our neighbors and us see these articles at the following links: CAFTA’s Impact on the Environment, Agriculture, Access to Medicine, and Labor Rights; CAFTA’s Impact on Central American Sugar Producers; CAFTA’s Impact on U.S. Family Farmers; CAFTA’s Impact on U.S. and Central American workers; and CAFTA’s Impact on Central American Communities and Social Movements.