By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 13, 2005
President Bush moved to rescue his floundering trade agreement with Central America yesterday by bringing the region's leaders to the White House and casting the pact as key to his broader stated mission of spreading democracy throughout the world.
Raising the stakes in what has developed into the toughest trade battle of his presidency, Bush shifted from an economic argument to a political one, making a case that more robust commerce with the United States would strengthen the fragile democracies in a region only now emerging from decades of dictatorship and violence.
"By transforming our hemisphere into a powerful free-trade area, we will promote democratic governance, human rights and economic liberty for everyone," Bush said with a half-dozen heads of state at his side in the Rose Garden. "The United States was built on freedom, and the more of it we have in our backyard, the freer and safer and more prosperous all of the Americas will be."
But Bush faces an uphill fight -- and potentially a rare defeat -- if he insists on up-or-down votes in Congress for the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), according to strategists on both sides. Labor, environmental and human rights groups have forged a powerful coalition with the sugar lobby to oppose the pact. Democrats eager to deny Bush a victory have almost uniformly come out in opposition, joined by Republicans from textile and sugar-growing states.
"The more meaningful a trade agreement is, the more difficult it is" to pass, said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), a chief advocate of CAFTA. "This is the most meaningful trade agreement in 15 years."
On that, at least, opponents agree. "This is a much bigger fight than with the previous countries," said Thea M. Lee, chief international economist for the AFL-CIO. "All the teary-eyed arguments about how this is good for democracy and prosperity -- none of that will happen if all the agreement does is enrich multinational corporations, cost good jobs here in the United States and create sweatshop jobs in Central America."
The trade agreement, reached in December 2003 with four countries and expanded into a final deal by last summer, would over 15 years eliminate most tariffs on industrial goods, consumer products and farm exports among its seven members -- the United States, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
While the market is relatively small for the United States, its authors argue the agreement favors it disproportionately because 80 percent of Central American imports already come into the country duty-free. What Central American leaders say they get out of it is an anchor in the democratic community of nations. "It consolidates our governments and creates more confidence in our way of life," Honduran President Ricardo Maduro said after leaving the White House meeting with Bush.
Critics say CAFTA would not adequately guarantee workers' rights or environmental standards in Central America and would further impoverish many in the region. "This is going to displace the poorest of the poor without any international development plan for what to do with these people," said Jeff Vogt, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group.
The resistance to CAFTA is the first major opposition to a Bush administration trade deal. During his first term, Bush pushed through five agreements, one previously negotiated by the Clinton administration with Jordan and four that he made with Australia, Singapore, Chile and Morocco. Democrats decided to draw the line with CAFTA in part, according to strategists, to prevent a larger deal that would cover the entire Western hemisphere.
The coalescing House Democratic caucus was made clear last week when four centrist Democrats who frequently support trade deals announced their opposition. Only three House Democrats have come out in favor of CAFTA. "As Democratic leader, I'm here to tell you that Democrats will not support the Central American Free Trade Agreement in its current form," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), told the AFL-CIO in a speech Tuesday.
Republicans have also been willing to buck the president, particularly those from key farm and textile states. Even the Senate, traditionally friendlier to trade deals, appears problematic. In significant part, that owes to the sugar industry, which opposes CAFTA because it would allow some sugar imports. The administration argues it would amount to less than 100,000 metric tons a year compared with U.S. production of 7.8 million, but the industry wants to avoid opening the door at all.