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That sucking sound again


We've come to realize that when President Bush makes a pitch for something that's "good for the American people" it's time to watch out. And so it is with the administration's support for CAFTA, the Central America Free Trade Agreement.

CAFTA, of course, is the bastard child of NAFTA, the agreement that was supposed to do so much for the US economy and spread the blessings of economic development to Mexico. And CAFTA is said to be the precursor to FTAA, the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, a far-reaching proposal to spread these blessings across the entire Western hemisphere, which is just over the horizon on the neocon agenda. It all sounds so upbeat. Who could say no to the concept of "Free Trade"?

Before getting into CAFTA, let's take a quick look at NAFTA --- what was promised and what has been delivered. The promise was vastly increased trade opportunities and economic growth for the US, Canada, and Mexico. What has happened is a gigantic transfer of manufacturing jobs from the US to Mexico, now up to two million and counting. A trade surplus with Mexico before NAFTA has turned into a huge deficit, adding to the unsustainable total US trade deficit. It's hard to see any benefit on the US side from NAFTA --- except from the perspective of the multinational corporations moving factory operations to the now notorious maquiladora regions of Northern Mexico.

Perhaps the benefits accrue to Mexico. Well, no. At least not for the vast majority of Mexicans. The total number of stable jobs in Mexico has shrunk since NAFTA. The quality of the remaining jobs has deteriorated, working conditions are worse, real average pay is down by almost 20 percent, environmental pollution in the factory areas is far worse, and significant sociological issues are arising. These issues include dislocations of workers families, lack of infrastructure to support the new factory areas, inadequate health-care facilities, dangerous living conditions, and deteriorating physical security for many workers.

The natural antidote to these typical conditions of laissez faire economics is labor organization. But due to the unfair labor tactics (which would be illegal in the US) used by the mostly American companies operating in the region, unionization has been effectively eliminated. Of the 3,000 new factories in the maquiladora regions, not one has an independent labor union. Of course, that was the reason for going to Mexico in the first place --- get rid of high-paying American jobs, no need to abide a union, no worry about health and safety regulations, and no concern about environmental regulations.

So, again, who benefits from NAFTA? Certainly not the ordinary American or Mexican. And that's not all the bad news. Hidden beneath the fine print of NAFTA --- and the same language is being proposed for CAFTA --- are provisions that give multinational corporations the right to circumvent local labor, environmental, and safety laws. If any of these local laws interfere with the corporation's ability to make the desired profit for an enterprise, by appealing to NAFTA, the local laws would have to be rescinded for that enterprise or the company would be reimbursed for lost profits. It's hard to imagine how these three governments, who supposedly act on behalf of their own citizens, could agree to such an arrangement.

This brings us back to CAFTA, which President Bush in a recent speech claimed would be a great benefit to the people of the six Central American nations (Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua), as well as the United States. Sure it will. He specifically talked about the job opportunities that would be created in the United States because people from these Latin American countries would be buying American goods. That didn't happen when NAFTA went to Mexico, why should it happen this time? Answer: It won't.

The economies of these six countries are miniscule, combining to equal less than 1 percent of the US economy. They are all desperately poor, even poorer than Mexico, and these people are not exactly candidates to start buying American goods even after they begin working in CAFTA sweatshops. The sole purpose of CAFTA is to access yet another source of ultra-cheap labor which will displace more American manufacturing jobs.

In a "race to the bottom," these CAFTA countries can be played off against each other (and Mexico) to see which ones can offer the least regulation and the cheapest labor force. As with NAFTA, the beneficiaries will not be the citizens of any of these countries, including the United States. The beneficiaries will be multinational corporations.

But there are perhaps even more sinister motivations behind the drive for CAFTA. Within the neocon mindset is the overriding issue of national security and American dominance. With these trade agreements, including the overarching FTAA on the horizon for the entire hemisphere, neocons are angling for the power that goes with economic control. With the ability to determine which countries receive or are denied economic development, according to how receptive they are to American business plans, tremendous leverage is in the hands of a few. This leverage can radically influence political developments in the hemisphere, and the possibility for the abuse of this power is almost unlimited.

Before NAFTA was approved, Ross Perot made a memorable reference to the "great sucking sound" made by the loss of US jobs. That colorful description has proven to be correct. More will follow if CAFTA and FTAA are allowed to pass. Another sucking sound will be the loss of national sovereignty to support the citizens of every nation in the hemisphere against the growing power of the multinational corporations.

With draft CAFTA bills gaining approval last week by the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee --- and final CAFTA legislation likely heading to Congress any day --- now's the time to voice your concern. The legislation to approve American support is coming to a vote soon and it's crucial that, this time, an informed public is heard.

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