Opponents criticize CAFTA agreement

By DAR HADDIX, UPI Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- Opponents of the Central American Free Trade Agreement criticized the proposed agreement as damaging to Central American economies, workers' rights and prescription drug access as official talks concluded on Wednesday.

Countries involved in negotiations for a regional trade agreement with the United States included Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Costa Rica walked out of the talks on Tuesday, but has the option of reentering the pact, according to a statement from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the business association. The agreement will have to be approved by Congress and the Central American countries' governments before it can take effect.


"A lot of people are going to lose their land," because of U.S. subsidized crops, Tom Ricker of social justice organization the Quixote Center told United Press International. Farmers who grow crops "critical for the local economy," such as corn and rice, are "not going to be able to compete with U.S. subsidies," he said.


Ricker and others also criticized what they claimed was the secrecy of the talks as well as the tone. "A lot of pressure has been put on governments in Central America to do what the U.S. wants," Ricker told UPI.

John Murphy, vice president for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the U.S Chamber of Commerce, said the agreement would include safeguard measures against import surges that might damage local economies.

Murphy said that though there would be "shifts in production," he added, "In the net, it's a huge win -- free trade agreements have consistently created opportunities."

As for the complaints against secrecy, "The negotiations have been open," Murphy said. "The U.S negotiators have made a point of meeting with groups publicly and privately."

Elizabeth Drake, an international policy analyst for union organization the AFL-CIO, said that the agreement would weaken workers' rights. "The only thing the agreement requires is that countries enforce their own laws," which often aren't adequate, she told United Press International. Employee firings and even murders have resulted from attempts to unionize in Central American countries, and the agreement would "allow that situation to continue," she added.

"There is no political will in Central America to bring labor laws into compliance with international standards, to punish violators, or to proactively enforce those laws that are on the books," the AFL-CIO said in a statement.


American countries could also suffer under the agreement, she told UPI. For example, under NAFTA, companies have threatened workers if they tried to unionize, saying that they would move to Mexico, she said.

But though there are "shortcomings" in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the International Labor Organization found the labor laws in the five countries involved in the talks "pretty good," the chamber's Murphy said.

However, Murphy conceded that "enforcement is an issue," and that new resources would be dedicated to enforcing labor laws.

Salvador Arias, a member of the El Salvadorian legislative assembly and the leftist FMLN party, said the agreement only benefits the big enterprises, not the "masses" of small and mid-size enterprises, he told United Press International.

CAFTA would "destroy the possibility of economic integration of Central America," he said.

Arias said that the agreement would not do anything to address underdevelopment in Central American countries, would raise unemployment, and would cause a surge in immigration from Central America to the United States, he said.

Arias said he is confident that his political party, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, currently the majority party, will win next year's presidential election to be held in March 2004. "When that happens, we will review the agreement," he said.


Murphy countered that free trade is "especially important for small businesses," since it is easier for big businesses to trade internationally. He said that in the first nine years of NAFTA, the number of small businesses involved in international trade rose from about 100,000 to over 230,000, or 90 percent of those involved in international trade.

The agreement would also limit access to generic drugs by extending patents and enacting new rules requiring new costly research rather than using existing research results, Sharonann Lynch of Health GAP (Global Health Project) said in a statement. This would jeopardize HIV patients, Asia Russell of the same organization explained in Health Gap's statement.

Central America has "much smaller economies" than the United States, according to the Alliance for Responsible Trade, an activist group. The region's per-capita incomes range from about 6,500 in Panama to about 1,800 for Nicaragua, according to the latest Human Index Development Report by the United Nations Development Program.

Murphy said imposing rules and protections for intellectual property would "bring Central America more in line with U.S. law," and would encourage development.

"Canada has about 50 times more investment because it has a business environment and protection for investment that has encouraged dollars to flow into that country," he said.


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