Las Americas

Rough Trade

In light of our recent and unfortunate adventure in Iraq, we, as U.S. citizens, may be learning a couple of important lessons: a) Although international affairs are often boring and far away, we should pay attention because our government lies to us about them, and b) If we do not watch what the Bush administration is up to abroad, we will get ripped off so badly that we will not even be able to pay attention. Get it?

While not nearly so exciting as watching our troops storm Holy Cities or pile naked men into decorative human pyramids, international economic affairs are potentially just as damaging to our real national interest. And while we have agonized for the past year about the pros and cons of gay marriage and our current shade of alert, Robert Zoellick, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), has been busy cobbling together yet another mind-numbing international trade agreement for us, with five Central American countries, most of them among the poorest in the hemisphere.

Fortunately for us, we have experts to review these agreements and tell us what they are about, so we don’t have to rely on our own faulty intelligence. Long ago when Gerald Ford, a truly brainy Republican President, was in charge, Congress established the trade negotiations advisory committee system. And when the Congress passed “Fast Track” to expedite the approval of trade agreements in 2002, it required the advisory committees to inform the Congress about whether the agreements, as negotiated, met Congressional objectives in the committees’ areas of expertise. There are now 32 advisory committees that review trade agreements, and, we’re told by Mr. Zoellick, they are a valuable part of his effort “to consult with and receive guidance from American trade stakeholders.”

This means us, doesn’t it? Well, no, apparently not. Although most of my wardrobe this season was manufactured in Bangladesh and Mauritius, I don’t recall ever having been consulted by these committees as a “trade stakeholder.” This is because the committees are really quite specialized. Among the committees consulting with Mr. Zoellick and the Congress are the Technical Advisory Committee for Tobacco, Cotton and Peanuts, the Committee for Animal and Animal Products, the Committee for Textiles and Apparel, for Trade and Processed Food, for Sweetener and Sweetener Products, and much, much more. Zzzzzzzz. At the end of the list, however, is the Advisory Committee for Labor, one for Small Business and one for Environmental Policy. When you stack them up, you can see that everyday Americans are badly outnumbered by experts on tobacco, processed food, and ball bearings or whatever.

Since we’ve come this far, you may be asking, “Does this matter?” But you’re from Texas. You remember Ross Perot and his indignant charge that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had created “a giant sucking sound” as U.S. industrial jobs drained away to Mexico, where wages were abysmally low. He was right. In 2000, the minimum wage in the United States was $5.15 an hour, but in Mexico it was about $4 a day. Reliable estimates 10 years post-NAFTA suggest that the U.S. lost upwards of 800,000 industrial jobs under the arrangement.

Now, in 2004, we not only have NAFTA, but we are about to get its nasty little cousin CAFTA (the Central American Free Trade Agreement), which extends our free trade scope farther south, where wages are lower still. In Honduras, for example, the minimum wage is under $3.50 a day, so if you employ about 1,000 girls assembling flip-flops, this change of venue represents quite a savings for you.

It’s not surprising to find, then, that the Labor Advisory Committee wrote a stiff critique of CAFTA when asked its opinion by the USTR. The Committee wrote, “This agreement repeats the same mistakes of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and is likely to lead to the same deteriorating trade balances, lost jobs, and workers’ rights violations that NAFTA has created.”

The President and Mr. Zoellick do not pay any mind to the Labor Advisory Committee, however. If you look at the website for the U.S. Trade Representative (www.ustr.gov), you will see a ghastly photo of Robert Zoellick and Sonia Guzmán, Commerce Secretary for the Dominican Republic, which recently hitched itself to CAFTA too, holding hands, laughing and dancing, together with the trade ministers for the five Central American governments also involved. I am not kidding. Before they have even rammed this deal through Congress for ratification, the Zoellick people are doing the merengue and apparently having a hell of a kegger, they’re so pleased with themselves.

Perhaps this is because they got better reviews from the Advisory Committee that really counts. The President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy Negotiations (ACTPN) had extravagant praise for CAFTA: “In addition to its economic benefits for all parties, the CAFTA Agreement will contribute to political stability in the Western Hemisphere and advance regional cooperation. The CAFTA should be enacted into law as soon as possible, so America’s farmers and ranchers, factories, service providers and consumers can begin to receive the benefits of this agreement at the earliest possible date.” Wow. The President’s Committee went on, “The ACTPN—with one exception—endorses the US-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).”

The “one exception” turns out to be former committee member James Hoffa, President of the Teamsters union and the only labor representative on the committee. George Bush appointed Hoffa to the Committee in 2003 after tossing John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO, and four other representatives of organized labor off the committee. In the end, even Hoffa couldn’t take it, and he resigned from ACTPN this past June, with this statement: “The administration has clearly decided to wage a full-fledged attack on workers’ rights, social justice and economic common sense. While I had hoped that the Teamsters could maintain some semblance of a working relationship with this administration through my service on ACTPN, President Bush’s decision to sign the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) has left me with no choice but to resign. I will no longer lend legitimacy to a sham process, in which our views and those of other important U.S. constituencies are not respected.”

Sour grapes. Not to be posted on the USTR website. On the contrary, the USTR pumps CAFTA by quoting positive statements from the other members of ACTPN and advisory committees to give the whole effort a democratic air, which it does not really deserve. The ACTPN, which Hoffa called a sham and resigned from, figures prominently in the hype for CAFTA, while the Labor Advisory Committee is mentioned only in passing as habitually rejecting all the trade agreements that have been so diligently negotiated by the partying trade geeks.

But we’re not worried. We think these committees are unbiased. Why, when we look at the membership on ACTPN, where the opinions of members (other than Mr. Hoffa presumably) apparently count for something, we see individuals who seem to represent non-partisan and charitable organizations—sure to play fair. Take Mr. Paul Norman Beckner of Citizens for a Sound Economy. Seems like he must be a nice man, doesn’t it? I’m for a sound economy too.

But wait. It seems that the current chairman of Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE), a “Washington-based organization of grassroots citizens dedicated to free markets and limited government” is Dick Armey. We’re from Texas; we know what that means. And CSE is funded by Archer Daniels Midland, Daimler Chrysler, the former Enron, and Philip Morris, among others. It was founded by C. Boyden Gray, the former President Bush’s White House Counsel, and the Koch brothers of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately-held company in the U.S. and a major polluter. These guys are not my idea of “grassroots.” They’re more like great huge bushy weeds on the landscape.

Okay, well maybe we can’t rely on Mr. Beckner to hold the line for us, but what about the other ACTPN members? Isn’t somebody there? The League of Women Voters? The PTA? Catholic Relief Services? Anyone? Nope. Nobody. Several parties, in fact, represent private companies dependent on the cheapest labor in the world: Victoria’s Secret, Jockey International, Quaker Fabric, and Toys “R” Us. Others are big-time contaminators like Weyerhauser. Or just plain big-time like CNH—”a global leader in agricultural and construction equipment and financial services.” The rest of the crew includes the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, IBM, eBay, Inc., the Republican Governor of Connecticut and the Carlyle Group.

Not since the days of the Robber Barons in America has big money had such a clear shot at labor, the environment, and people in general. Industry tells the USTR what it wants in trade and investment rules with other countries, specifying access to low-wage labor, natural resources, and whatever else they’ve got. The USTR simply ignores everybody else. And Congress approves the negotiated trade agreements on an up-or-down vote. No questions, no answers, no amendments. Where CAFTA (and now DRFTA—the Dominican Republic agreement) is concerned, we are protected only by good-faith arrangements that assume a certain standard of basic human conduct in domestic political affairs. Quaint assumptions such as the idea that large constituencies who will be affected by major changes in the law will be consulted and protected. We don’t ask for a lot, but the Bush administration does not meet even these lowered expectations. We need to watch these people much more closely and raise hell. After all, their vicious Arabian war will be over in five years or so, after everyone’s dead and everything else is busted and bombed. But their trade agreements are going to last us almost forever.

Gabriela Bocagrande is from Houston.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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