Two days before Guatemala was to officially join the U.S./Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), campesinos occupied six government-owned estates to protest the agreement. CAFTA is likely to increase the most basic economic problem in Guatemala – a highly unequal distribution of land – and the occupations are meant to show their politicians an alternative approach that would begin to solve the problem.
It is no secret in Latin America that policies like CAFTA are meant to serve the elite, and the poor are expected to pay for them. In most Central American countries, the people took to the streets upon hearing of CAFTA, know that they couldn’t expect their politicians to protect their interests when dealing with the U.S. government.
Throughout the five years of negotiations and a lengthy ratification process, there have been regular protests against the treaty across the region. However, in the U.S., the importance of CAFTA and other trade agreements are largely ignored by the mainstream media. While there is some commotion about "sending jobs overseas", there is no serious debate about the merits of current trade policy or how to hold our government accountable for entering these agreements.
The process of negotiating, ratifying, and implementing so-called "free" trade agreements like CAFTA is out of control, and the time has come to say "enough is enough!" We must demand a new approach from our government: candidates for Congress should be required to make their positions on trade clear so that voters in the United States can make their choices accordingly.
Time is running out. After last year’s battle over the CAFTA, which passed in the House of Representatives by one vote, the Bush administration has continued to pursue the same model. Last the House passed the Oman Free Trade Agreement. Trade agreements with Peru and Colombia could be voted on this summer, and additional agreements with Panama, South Korea and are in the pipeline. While the Democrats in Congress continue to make noise about the lack of enforceable worker rights provisions in these agreements, they have yet to articulate a deeper critique of the CAFTA model. Indeed, too many Democrats are using this argument as a means to leverage small concessions on worker rights, when they should be demanding a completely new approach.
In demanding a new approach we need to acknowledge that CAFTA and its predecessors are not now, nor were they ever intended to be a "free trade" agreement. There is no creation of a free market envisioned, and the bulk of the document has little to do with trade. As many in Central America and elsewhere have pointed out, it’s not much of an agreement either, if one assumes agreements reflect mutual interests and bargaining power.
Rather, the current model is a process through which a hodge-podge of rules meant to project and protect U.S. corporate interests are being constructed. In the process governments are being transformed into service providers for global capital instead of providing services for their people. For Central America and other impoverished economies caught in this trap these agreements are the international equivalent of a happy meal: the prize is supposed to be "more investment" but they have to eat a whole lot of crap to get to it.
We need a new approach.
Toward this end we are promoting the ‘Pledge for Trade Justice.’ With this pledge we are demanding that our public officials start working toward a more just and equitable system. Over the next few months we will be targeting candidates for Congress. Congress has the constitutional authority and obligation to set the rules for international commerce. Congress needs to exercise that responsibility by establishing clear parameters for trade agreements. Members must then simply not support agreements that do not measure up.
The pledge for trade justice is built around core principles that reflect a vision of government as a necessary counter-weight to corporate power. Governments should retain the right to regulate corporate behavior and adjust to new realities. Investment should not be treated as an end in itself, but as a means to shore up essential services, provide for sustainable livelihoods, and environmental sanity.
We argue that the only agreements Congress should consider are ones that meet the following criteria:
1.) Democratic participation, accountability and transparency during trade negotiations;
2.) Provisions that work to protect the dignified lives of small farmers, indigenous communities, women and otherwise vulnerable populations;
3.) Text in the body of the agreements guaranteeing that core labor and environmental standards are strengthened, as defined by international law;
4.) Space for national governments to pursue development strategies that support sustainable, locally-determined economic, social and environmental priorities;
5.) Provisions permitting debt cancellation and aid to be used in direct service to the poor to help close the gaps between and within rich and poor countries;
6.) A framework that focuses finance and investment on productive, long-term development that ensures economic security and sustainable use of resources;
7.) A guarantee that public services like health care, education and potable water will remain public and accessible to poor communities; and
8.) International trade and investment systems that emphasize fundamental human rights, in order to eclipse violence and oppression.
We have developed more detailed explanations of each point at www.stopcafta.org. With the current trade agenda failing everybody save a few corporate executives, the time has come to demand an alternative. Another trade model is possible. But we cannot rely on our so-called leaders to find the political will to do this on their own. We need to generate that will for them by building a movement for responsible economic policies.
* Tom Ricker is the co-director of the Quixote Center. Andrew de Sousa is the national organizer of the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala