Almost 18 years ago the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica signed a peace plan identifying democracy as the key to resolving our region's fratricidal conflicts. We were convinced that only through democracy would the Central American people be able to enjoy the benefits of peace.

Although Central America has come a long way since the wars of the 1980s, the basic equation of liberal democracy remains out of balance. Today every Central American nation holds regular and transparent elections, but at the same time almost 30 percent of our people cannot afford to buy the most basic foodstuffs. With more than half of all families living below the poverty line, our democracies cannot fulfill their promise to provide economic opportunities along with peace.

As the House of Representatives begins debate on the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which was approved by the Senate late last month, members should keep in mind that trade is essential for Central America's economies to grow and lift millions out of poverty. We ask not for charity but for enlightened self-interest from our northern neighbor, as there is no doubt that the United States is affected by the fortunes of this small isthmus, so closely tied to it by geography, by history and now by millions of Central Americans who have made their homes in the North.

A decline in illegal immigration is just one of the benefits the United States would enjoy as a result of CAFTA's impact on Central American economies. In recent years, money sent home by migrant workers has been the sole life raft of Central America's poor, a situation that is neither just nor sustainable. It would be absurd for the United States and Central America to continue to worry about illegal immigration and poverty when a mutually beneficial solution to both these problems lies close at hand.

CAFTA would allow Central America to thrive by exporting goods through trade rather than exporting people through migration. Opportunities would open for consumers to acquire better and cheaper goods; for small and medium businesses to expand and diversify; for more private investment, access to new technologies and educational opportunities; for a qualitative and quantitative improvement in the job market; and for higher economic growth, government revenue and increased social spending.

Furthermore, the agreement includes mechanisms for ensuring that such opportunities do not come at the cost of social justice. The chapters on labor and the environment combine a program of capacity-building and incentives to comply with domestic legislation, an unprecedented tool to improve workers' conditions and promote environmental sustainability. In the United States, resources exist to retrain displaced workers and promote the development of technologies that create new job opportunities for American workers. If all parties have the will to implement the agreement fully and fairly, workers and their families can benefit in every one of our countries.

Free trade will go a long way toward alleviating poverty in Central America. Yet trade alone is not enough. The countries of the Americas would be well served by studying the example of the European Union, where trade policies were enacted in conjunction with reasonable aid. Between 1986 and 1999 the income per capita in the poorest countries of Western Europe rose from 65 percent to 78 percent of the European Union average, largely thanks to economic integration with wealthier countries. Such an astonishing leap was made possible not only by the opening of markets but also by the transfer of resources from wealthier to poorer European nations, facilitating investments in technology and infrastructure.

Although fostering a peaceful, prosperous and equitable hemisphere is clearly in the best interest of the United States, Washington has not always supported Central America's struggle for economic survival. Only two decades ago, the region was a top foreign policy priority for Congress and the president, but in the early 1990s, as our civil wars came to an end, U.S. aid to Central America evaporated. In effect, we were punished for achieving peace.

The absence of significant development aid has only increased the importance of trade for Central America's future. With a tiny market of 37 million people who produce what they do not consume and consume what they do not produce, Central America's economy cannot survive in isolation.

Central America is ready to tackle the challenge of development. Can we count on the United States to stand with us?

To the members of Congress who have expressed concern for the fate of Central American workers, I say that access to the U.S. market is the most important tool to speed our economic and social development and to keep our people home.

The writer is a former president of Costa Rica and the 1987 Nobel Peace laureate.