Senator Offers a Truly Bizarre Rationale for Pushing Through a Dangerous International Corporate Trade Deal


Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) cited instability in a regional ally gripped by pro-US authoritarian rule as a reason to grant the administration Trade Promotion Authority.

Cornyn remarked at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Tuesday that the recent exodus of migrant children fleeing violence in Honduras justifies a move by the panel to advance the hotly-debated bill—one required for Congress to advance the Obama administration’s ambitious corporate lobbyist-backed trade agenda.

Cornyn referred to a Congressional delegation to the Central American nation he embarked upon in February, as informing his defense of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other White House trade initiatives.

“I visited with Sen. [Tim] Kaine (D-Va.) down in Honduras recently. You remember the influx of unaccompanied minors streaming across our borders, moving in to the United States?” he rhetorically asked committee chair Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “Our failure to help our neighbors provide not only security but also help grow their economy where they live does have a residual impact on us in ways, perhaps, we don’t even recognize.”

In July, as the uptick in migration north caused a mini-crisis in the US, the Washington Post reported that children were fleeing violence and the sort of economic model Cornyn praised–an export-oriented free trade “sweatshop” economy, where a good job fetches a $47 weekly wage.

As others have pointed out, the US played a sizable role in creating the crisis–not through a lack security assistance or economic integration, as Cornyn insisted, but rather in helping the Honduran government maintain its labor market discipline by force. On Democracy Now last summer, University of California-Santa Cruz history professor Dana Frank described the systemic violence in Honduras as “tremendous criminality” resulting from the 2009 military coup—carried out without US opposition against a democratically-elected populist leader, by a faction that still receives support from Washington. As Jacobin Magazine noted in February, much of the violence is politically-motivated and directed towards opponents of the country’s elite, with attacks over the past 6 years directed at “subsistence farmers who oppose land grabs for agribusiness, mining, or hydroelectric projects.” The crackdown, the magazine said, “has claimed over one hundred lives” since the coup.

In February, as he was on the congressional delegation with Sen. Kaine, Cornyn praised US support for Honduras’ much-maligned law enforcement system—one Frank described as being beset by “spectacular corruption.” Kaine, a former volunteer with a Jesuit-run technical school in Honduras during the 1980’s, was much more muted in his commentary about the government in Tegucigalpa.

While he didn’t address Cornyn’s migration claim directly, AFL-CIO leader and panel witness Richard Trumka pushed back on the idea that a place like Honduras—not currently a party to the TPP—should be a close trading partner. He lamented the fact that his organization has been “repeatedly” told by US Trade Representative officials, “their general counsel and their assistant USTR for labor” that violence against labor organizers is not set to be addressed in any free trade agreements.

“When people say this is a higher standard yet, talking about labor, you’ll have to excuse me if I’m unmoved or unsatisfied when they tell us directly, without any equivocation, that violence and the murder of trade unionists for exercising their rights is not a violation of these agreements,” Trumka remarked. He noted that 105 labor organizers have been murdered in Colombia since the South American nation and the US negotiated closer economic ties in recent decades.

Amid last summer’s child migrant influx, the AFL-CIO published a report detailing an “increasing climate of repression” against union leaders in Honduras. Agricultural organizers there, for example, told the American union that “one of their union’s leaders, Jésus Maria Martinez, was forced to flee the country after receiving threats against his life.”

Highlighting how the issue is relevant to the TPP, the ranking member of the House Committee on Ways and Means Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) on Tuesday issued a press release highlighting a Vietnamese labor leader’s call to cease talks over concerns about Hanoi’s union-busting police state.

“Do Thi Minh Hanh, who recently spent four years in prison for distributing leaflets to factory workers, has urged that the Trans-Pacific Partnership not be concluded until Vietnam guarantees and promotes worker rights,” Levin’s office noted.

While many parties to the TPP already have free trade agreements with the United States, Vietnam does not.

On Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee will be voting on Trade Promotion Authority in a procedure that will be characterized by a bevy of amendments from the left, according to remarks made at the committee by member Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

When asked by Brown what kind of changes to trade policy he would like to see, Trumka rolled out a wish-list that included the AFL-CIO’s draft chapters on labor, currency, investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms, environmental rules, and procurement. Many of these ideas, he said, the union has proposed to the USTR over the past five years, as TPP has been hashed out, with very little response from the Obama administration.

Brown replied that his experience with the administration’s top trade negotiator–offering policy ideas on points such as currency manipulation labor standard enforcements–dovetailed.

“When they do meet with me, it’s not to exchange ideas or rethink how we do things, it’s to tell me why I’m wrong, that my concerns are not valid,” the incredulous senator said. “The administration has taken this approach that you are either with us or against us on trade,” he added, alluding to George W. Bush’s now-infamously bombastic War on Terror declaration.

In wrapping up the hearing, Hatch praised ranking member, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) for his work in hammering out a bipartisan agreement. He predicted, however, that it would not pass unanimously.

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