|June 30, 2005||
Vol. 2, No. 24
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Trade agreement opponents as American as apple pie
By Joe Feuerherd
Disputes over trade are as American as the Fourth of July.
Trade was serious business in the new country. Tariffs on imports were a significant source of revenue for the newly formed federal government (the income tax was unconstitutional). "What will be the consequence, if we are not able to avail ourselves of the resource in question in its full extent?" asked Alexander Hamilton. "A nation cannot long exist without revenues."
And by making foreign goods prohibitively expensive, those "excises" protected the burgeoning manufacturing and farming economies of the young country from the sophisticated mercantilism of Britain and other European powers. In other words, whole sectors of the underdeveloped U.S. economy depended on the government to protect them from the economic reach and might of the world's superpowers.
Sound familiar? Globalism wasn't invented in the 21st century, let alone the 20th.
Today, in the eyes of many opponents of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the United States. is the colonial economic power, while the poverty-stricken countries of Central America are the developing economies in need of nurturing and, yes, protection.
President Bush says CAFTA, an agreement among Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic that will be before Congress this summer, "is a good deal for American workers and farmers and small businesses" because 80 percent of the products produced in Central America enter the United States duty-free, while U.S. exports face high tariffs. CAFTA would eliminate these tariffs.
Further, says the administration, CAFTA will spur economic development in the South.
That's a question CAFTA opponents -- a coalition that includes advocates for the poor, U.S. farm interests, environmentalists, labor unions and, not least, religious groups -- keep asking. The U.S. bishops and Catholic Relief Services (who are skeptics but not outright opponents of the trade agreement) recently summarized the concerns. They outlined five key areas:
Stealing a page from the Republican Party playbook, representatives of Pax Christi and Catholics for Faithful Citizenship argued in a June 22 teleconference call that CAFTA is a "culture of life" issue.
"The economic model articulated throughout Catholic social teaching stands in stark contrast to the economic model that lies at the heart of CAFTA, where millions struggle to meet even the most basic human necessities like food, clean water and health care -- including medicine to treat the more than 275,000 people infected by HIV in the region," said Pax Christi communications director Michael Jones.
Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) told the press that the trade agreement is a boon to the pharmaceutical industry, which will be able to charge 20 times the generic drug cost for anti-AIDS medicines under the patent extensions included in the agreement. In Honduras, said Stupak, because of the patent protection granted to U.S. manufacturers under the agreement, the cost of anti-AIDS drugs will be nearly double the annual income of the average Honduran.
CAFTA will be considered by Congress under "fast-track authority." This means that debate will be limited and no amendments will be allowed. No trade agreement considered under these restrictive rules has ever been defeated.
But CAFTA may be different. Democrats are united, if not quite unanimous, in their opposition. And Republicans are splintered -- with representatives from trade-sensitive states like Ohio (the Social Action office of the Cleveland diocese is urging a no vote on the agreement) concerned that a yes vote will haunt them politically.
Meanwhile, the president's popularity has dropped, making appeals to party unity less appealing. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has made opposition to the agreement a test of party loyalty.
If the vote were held this week, said Stupak, CAFTA would lose. But the vote won't be held this week. And in the meantime, the administration will be pulling out the stops -- promising federally-funded "bridges in districts without rivers," said Stupak -- to get the votes.
No one doubts the stakes. Revolutions have started over smaller things.
The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is
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