EVER SINCE NAFTA opened America to imports from Canada and Mexico, Caribbean and Central American countries have been seeking the same favor. The Senate soon will vote on a bill that would do this, at least for the region's textile and garment industries. If passed, the measure would boost growth in countries that might otherwise be the more vulnerable to drug lords and insurgencies; it would also promote export markets for American producers. Still, the bill is the object of determined opposition from labor unions and U.S.-based manufacturers.
The critics start with the protectionist claim that trade deals cost jobs. It is so that since the passage of NAFTA five years ago, America's clothing and textile industries have shed 400,000 jobs. And the extension of NAFTA terms to the Caribbean would endanger a large slice of the remaining 1.2 million jobs in this sector. Despite that prospect, however, trade liberalization remains valid because it brings compensating benefits. American consumers get cheaper clothing, and the money they save will be spent on other goods, thus generating jobs elsewhere in the economy.
Next, the critics suggest that the Senate bill will not promote development in the Caribbean. Instead, they say, the legislation will enrich American corporations that produce clothing in the Caribbean and that stand to pocket $200 million a year from the abolition of tariffs on U.S.-bound exports. It is true that such firms will gain and that their lobbyists are working to get this bill through Congress. But the Caribbean region will profit, too. The trade skeptics declare, rightly, that textile jobs in the United States will be destroyed. It follows that these jobs will move to the Caribbean.
Finally, the bill's critics argue that a Caribbean trade bill is fine so long as it protects decent labor standards. But it isn't always easy to define what those should be in other societies with weaker economies. Procedural standards, such as protection for the rights of free association and free collective bargaining, are one thing. Price-affecting substantive standards, involving such things as minimum wages and maximum hours, require a different approach -- and those tend to be what the critics have most in mind.
America's foreign policy reflects its values. It cannot be in the business of promoting sweatshops. But across the world, trade has promoted prosperity, and prosperity has promoted freedom. There are reasons, but not persuasive reasons, to oppose the Caribbean trade bill. Congress should pass it.