News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

CAFTA: Democracy Sold Out

The trade bill was approved by a razor-thin margin, and it's sparking dramatic protests -- and progressives' ire. Did it pass on merit, or pork barrel politics?
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

At 12:03 a.m. on July 28, the House of Representatives approved CAFTA, the Central America-Dominican Republic-United States Free Trade Agreement.

The bill, which would expand NAFTA to Central America and the Dominican Republic, would devastate farmers, privatize essential public services, and accelerate the race to the bottom on wages in the U.S. and all over Central America.

At the end of the allotted 15 minutes of voting time, the count was 180 to 175 against CAFTA, so the Republican leadership kept the vote open for over an hour, in order to bully legislators into approving the bill. In the final tally, which was 217 to 215, a full 15 Democrats voted in favor of big business by supporting CAFTA, while 25 Republicans defied the Bush Administration and voted against it. The full roll call vote is available here.

One of the two Republicans who refrained from voting, Charles Taylor, R-N.C., is now saying that he voted against CAFTA, and the clerk failed to record his vote. The other one had a much better excuse -- a spokesman for Jo Ann Davis, R-Va, said she "would have voted against CAFTA but was on her way to her district to attend a Boy Scout Jamboree event." The event was canceled because of bad weather.

Yet stiff criticism also goes to the Democrats, who could have prevented handing Bush a win on a silver platter by sticking to labor and their environment rather than corporate interests, particularly New York Representatives Greg Meeks and Ed Towns, members with safe seats.

It seems that some Representatives have not reviewed the record of the massive failure of NAFTA, the agreement that cost a million U.S. jobs and increased poverty in Mexico. NAFTA also caused the loss of 38,000 U.S. family farms, while pushing 1.5 million Mexican farmers off their land. Still, others, like Hilda Solis, D-Calif. -- the only Representative from Nicaragua -- gave passionate and compelling arguments against CAFTA.

CAFTA was approved. That will be the bottom line for communities in Central America and the U.S. that now face years of falling living standards and wages, erosion of environmental protection, and the loss of family farms because of CAFTA. There are also the 275,000 HIV-positive Central Americans who will be cut off from life-saving generic medicines because of the patent monopolies embedded in the treaty.

Once again, the people of the US -- and the Democratic Party -- lost an opportunity to deliver a crushing blow to the Bush Administration. Yet House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., predicted that Bush's win on CAFTA "will be a Pyrrhic victory for him, because we will take our message to the American people that we are the ones looking out for them."

Twisting Arms Until They Break into a Thousand Pieces

Since CAFTA was so damaging to American workers, the environment, and Central Americans, it wasn't able to pass on its own merits. CAFTA's passage was bought by an outrageous amount of pork-barrel politics and fake side deals. Earlier this month, Republican leaders -- in no secret maneuver -- casually linked transportation and energy bill giveaways to support for CAFTA.

A report issued earlier this month by Public Citizen demonstrated that 89 percent of side deals negotiated to gain votes for previous trade deals have been broken. The side deals on sugar, labor, and textiles have all been exposed as band-aids that hardly cover the festering wounds of job loss that CAFTA will cause. And the China-punishing legislation hastily approved to buy another couple of votes was shown by the AFL-CIO to contain fewer protections for American jobs that other China legislation already in committee.

Unpacking the Rhetoric

A central tenet of Republican arguments is a projected theory that free trade delivers economic prosperity, ergo CAFTA will deliver development. Had the situation not been so tragic, it would have been comical to see Republicans repeatedly claim that CAFTA would help poor Central American countries develop thanks to increased access to U.S. markets. The problem with the theory is the results of the theory when applied.

After 25 years of following free-trade doctrine (opening markets, privatizing basic services, deregulating industry, lowering tariffs, orienting their production for export, and consecrating intellectual property), Latin Americans have achieved the lowest rate of economic growth in their history -- less than .5 percent a year over the last 25 years, compared with a total of 80 percent over the prior 20 years.

The main issue here is that so-called "free trade" doesn't actually deliver the promised benefits -- because it really has little to do with free trade, but much to do with transferring wealth and decision-making power from the public to the private sphere, to unaccountable elites known as multinational corporations. Until we have a sea change in what the US public understands by the phrase "free trade," we will continue to see our democracy turned into a system of corporate rule.

Specter of 9/11

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Portman was joined by Vice President Dick Cheney as he worked the House floor last night to secure votes. President Bush made an extremely rare appearance in the House, mostly framing CAFTA as a security issue. As Bush's polling numbers fall, support for the war in Iraq recedes, and his top advisor Karl Rove is embroiled in a political scandal, Bush pushed hard for this "policy win" to attempt to demonstrate that he isn’t a lame duck.

Bush’s primary, and outrageous argument was that CAFTA would increase our national security. The phrase "fledgling democracy" was used so many times to refer to Central American countries that you'd think they had hatched last month, with the help of mother hen USA. Rep. Tom Delay, R-Texas, has evidently taken up permanent residence in never-never land to be able to make arguments like, "It is good for our national security in supporting these fledgling democracies at our back door. It is good for our effort against illegal immigration. It is good for our economy."

House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pushed back hard against the Bush hypothesis that CAFTA would increase national security. "Trade alone, devoid of basic living and working standards, has not and will not promote security, nor will it lift developing nations out of poverty," she said. "Our national security will not be improved by exploiting workers in Central America."

Republicans have been much more adept than progressives at linking issues of security with trade. We in the global economic justice movement must learn to adapt our rhetoric and strategies to the political changes our country has undergone post-9/11, and make the argument that fair trade, not corporate globalization, will increase security. But we also need more collaboration with the movements for civil liberties and peace to link the issues. And we need to do this with progressive media, which barely covered CAFTA before it passed, with the exception of this website.

Vision for the Hemisphere

Republicans actually acknowledged that poverty -- and a lack of hope for future economic opportunity -- breeds insecurity. But they have the math backwards. CAFTA will not eradicate poverty, but will greatly increase it. The biggest impact of CAFTA, according to the think tank the Center for Economic and Policy Research, will be to push down wages. And the Administration continues to frame the issue of free trade and democracy as two sides of the same coin, rather than acknowledging that one is an economic platform that a well-functioning democracy may choose not to pursue.

CAFTA proponents repeatedly baited voters with the specter of an imminent takeover of Central America by alleged communist forces, harkening back to the wars and instability of the 1980s. "We can send free trade to Central America today, or we will be sending troops tomorrow" was a frequent refrain.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Castro were constantly invoked as being ready to "fill the ideological void" if the Congress "turned their backs on Central America." It was as if Central America was an empty vessel, waiting for U.S. leadership to fill. It was the first time Venezuela's Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, was raised on the House floor. Yet it was portrayed as a radical attack on America, rather than as a political and economic program embodying a different vision for the future of the Americas based on a better vision of economic integration in Latin America.

Stepping Stone to the FTAA Crumbles

The passage of CAFTA is a serious blow to our movement for global justice. But the vote also seals the fate of the future of NAFTA expansion. If CAFTA, a deal with the tiniest economies in the region and the least economic impact on the U.S. possible, squeaked by with only a razor-thin, two-vote margin, the possibility that the Administration could get a deal approved with economies that would actually affect the U.S. doesn’t pass the laugh test. The Bush dream of a Free Trade Area of the Americas is even farther away than before the CAFTA vote. The "stepping stone to the FTAA" has crumbled under their feet.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

This week, in addition to bribing CAFTA into existence, the Bush Administration has been negotiating the expansion of NAFTA to Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia through the Andean Free Trade Agreement (AFTA).

AFTA negotiations have stumbled on crucial chapters on agriculture and intellectual property. They have also been difficult to continue amidst the popular overthrow of governments in Ecuador and Bolivia during negotiations. A recent round of negotiations in Miami this month ended inconclusively.

But most governments have been waiting to see if CAFTA was going to be approved by the U.S. Congress. Now that the margin has turned out to be razor-thin, negotiators will likely take the hint that "free-trade" agreements under the same model are highly unpopular with the U.S. public.

Day of Reckoning

Now that the fight is over, we must display the political power not to walk off the playing field immediately, but rather to spend the extra effort to back up the elected officials that fought for us (and vote out of office the ones that didn't).

This may be difficult during a week when the labor movement has experienced its biggest split in 50 years. It should not go unnoticed that Bush picked the moment when the labor movement, representing those in the U.S. who will be most clearly affected by CAFTA, was fighting itself as much as fighting to organize against the bill.

Where to Go From Here

There are two main items on the agenda for the next few days. The first is to call your legislators and reward -- or punish -- them for their vote. Let them know how you feel about CAFTA, and what it means for so many workers in America and abroad. Again, check here to find out how your legislator voted, and call the DC switchboard at 866-340-9281 or 877-762-8762 with your comments.

We must pick ourselves up and fight even harder next time. This means doing something about the current negotiations on the World Trade Organization, which has a key General Council meeting this week in Geneva, Switzerland. And this means stopping the expansion of NAFTA to the Andes through AFTA.

Hopefully we can all build a stronger Fair Trade movement, and convert this legislative defeat into a long-term opportunity to build a movement that will lead us to true victory against AFTA, the FTAA and the WTO the next time around.

Deborah James is the Global Economy director of Global Exchange in San Francisco.