CAFTA’s passage not an exercise in democracy

To secure last-minute votes for the Central American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman cobbled together a deal ensuring that Central American apparel producers would use pockets and linings produced in the United States. Portman also arranged to delay tariff-free imports of Mexican textiles into Central America and persuaded Nicaragua to limit imports of textiles from China. So much for “free trade.”

The Bush administration’s protectionist side deals complemented political coercion and bribery to overcome unprecedented bipartisan resistance to CAFTA. For example, Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican who is one of his party’s chief “whips,” said he would “twist some Republican arms until they break in a thousand pieces” to gain the necessary votes. Rep. Bill Thomas, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee and was a top CAFTA supporter, openly encouraged fellow Republicans to trade pro-CAFTA votes for highway funds.

In the end, of the 217 votes for CAFTA, 15 came from Democrats. Of the 215 votes against, 27 came from Republicans. Significantly, two anti-CAFTA Republicans didn’t vote (though one said afterward he had voted no, but his vote wasn’t counted).

A day after the midnight CAFTA vote, The Wall Street Journal reported, “The close vote and bitter fight underscored anxiety about the pace of globalization and clouded prospects for approval of future deals.” The Journal added that “the push to encourage globalization is faltering elsewhere.”

For example, talks in Geneva in July aimed to jump-start World Trade Organization negotiations seem to be going nowhere. Movement toward a Free Trade Area of the Americas is stalled.

“With scant progress in those areas,” reports the Journal, “the close call with CAFTA raised doubts around the world about the willingness of the U.S. Congress to take the politically painful steps that are sure to be part of any future trade deals.”

That the trade debate has shifted from bipartisan support for new “free trade” agreements to high levels of skepticism is apparent.

A poll cited by the Journal finds 79 percent of the U.S. public dissatisfied with the government’s approach to trade or against increased trade altogether, compared to only 16 percent who favor more agreements along the lines of NAFTA and CAFTA. Those are numbers stark enough even to sink in on Capitol Hill, albeit slowly.

The Bush Administration would do well to rethink its plans for new trade agreements with Southern African and Andean countries, as well as its ambitions to expand WTO authority and create the hemispheric “free trade” zone, FTAA.

The broad coalition that opposed CAFTA – unions, farmers, religious groups, Central America solidarity organizations, and business groups threatened by imports — cannot afford to rest on a moral victory. After all, the administration won its “fast-track” negotiating authority by a single vote three years ago with the same kind of last-minute deals it pulled off for CAFTA.

The ability of fair trade advocates to defeat the next round of agreements and undo the damage of the ones already passed will depend on their ability to continue to broaden their coalitions, sharpen their arguments about the impact in their own communities of trade rules designed primarily to benefit large commercial interests, and build better connections to civil society fair-trade movements in other countries. Having the facts on their side is clearly not enough.

Arnie Alpert is New Hampshire coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization supported by people of many faiths who believe in social justice, peace and nonviolence.

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