It was a matter of national security. So said President Bush in regard to this morning's passage of CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement. The trade pact, which would tear down trade and investment barriers between the U.S. and various Central American countries, was barely approved in a 217 to 215 vote just after midnight. It was part of a broad mobilization on behalf of the White House to expand free trade and score a political victory for the president.
According to The Washington Post, in an effort to bolster lagging support for the bill, President Bush spoke with lawmakers in a House Republican Conference and explained that passing CAFTA was, among other things, essential in stemming the anti-American sentiment in Latin America that would surely result should the United States refuse to open its markets there.
But we can't help but notice the irony here. Some anti-American sentiment is growing precisely because of CAFTA and the effects of its trade and labor provisions.
The Post also reported that much of the Republican opposition that threatened the bill was circumvented by some last minute wheeling-and-dealing by the White House. Various lawmakers from textile, industrial and sugar-producing states, in exchange for their vote, got in return promises of "fundraising appearances by Cheney and the restoration of money the White House has tried to cut from agriculture programs." Much of those favors will be neatly "tucked into the huge energy and highway bills" that are expected to be passed before Congress recesses.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, accused the Bush administration of eroding what little is left of the U.S. manufacturing and industrial base. And Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., referred to CAFTA as "the first agreement in which we would move backwards in enforcing international labor standards," the Post noted.
President Bush, according to a New York Times report, has said that by lowering trade barriers, CAFTA would "level the playing field" for American workers and small businesses, effectively reciprocating the trade status that Central American goods receive in the United States.
But Mark Engler over at The Nation explains why perhaps we shouldn't take Bush at his word. Engler notes that, for example, there is concern that CAFTA's patent laws would make it difficult for countries to tap into the generic drug market competition that provides cheap, life-saving medicine. Bush scored a victory for his administration, but is it a victory for anybody else?