Miami Herald - Posted on Fri, Jun. 24, 2005
CAFTA provides summer suspense in Washington
D.C. cliffhanger: Can opponents kill CAFTA or can President Bush cajole
and compel Congress to approve the treaty to make six Latin countries
full trade partners?
BY JANE BUSSEY
WASHINGTON - After more than a year of false starts, the Bush
administration Thursday sent a free-trade agreement with Central
American nations and the Dominican Republic to Capitol Hill, setting up
what is expected to be this summer's political blockbuster.
Lobbying over the Central American Free Trade Agreement, known as
CAFTA, has reached a fever pitch in the past few weeks as the Bush
administration has battled a coalition of labor, environmental and farm
groups who oppose the treaty. ''Hand-to-hand combat'' is how
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has described the process.
Because of the influence of Florida's sugar industry, which opposes
CAFTA, the state's congressional delegation has been the target of
fierce lobbying efforts.
Hours before the legislation was sent to Congress, President Bush
invited ambassadors from the CAFTA nations -- Costa Rica, El Salvador,
Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic -- to the
White House to offer a ringing endorsement: ``CAFTA is more than a
trade agreement, it is a signal of our nation's commitment to democracy
and prosperity for the entire Western Hemisphere. We urge the United
States Congress to pass CAFTA.''
The vote is expected to be close, but Central American officials were
René León, El Salvador's ambassador, said that the White
House sending the bill to Congress showed that Bush was confident.
'When you hit the `send' button, you have to have the votes in your
''Since I've been [in Washington] in the past two days, the situation
has changed,'' said Nicaraguan Trade Minister Azucena Castillo. ``It is
completely different from where we stood a week ago.''
But R. Dennis Olson, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy,
said the administration may have just rolled the dice: ``It may not be
because they have the votes; it may be that they have nothing left to
The pact has languished for more than a year in the face of stiff
opposition from Democrats who fault weak labor and environmental
protections, as well as from Big Sugar, cattle ranchers, and textile
The six CAFTA countries offer only a small market for U.S. exports.
Their combined economies of $85 billion are only about the size of
Orlando's. And two-way trade is just $32 billion, a fraction of
America's total $2.3 trillion foreign trade last year.
But the CAFTA countries play a key role as a location for offshore
assembly plants for U.S. apparel, and the finished clothing fills cargo
containers arriving in South Florida ports and airports. U.S. sugar
growers say CAFTA's increased allotments for Central American sugar
imports would destroy them.
Other agricultural producers share those worries. Ethanol makers in the
Midwest are concerned that cheap Brazilian ethanol brought in duty-free
via Central America could swamp their nascent industry.
Meanwhile, retailers, importers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have
been working overtime to promote the accord as a way to break down
But CAFTA's significance goes well beyond just the trade numbers. The
fight over CAFTA has been transformed into a debate over the free-trade
agenda. If Congress fails to pass CAFTA, a new treaty would have to be
negotiated with all the member nations and it could cloud prospects for
a Free Trade Area of the Americas, a 34-nation, free-trade zone, and
upset already difficult global trade talks in the World Trade
So important is passage of CAFTA to breathe new life into stalled FTAA
talks that Jorge L. Arrizurieta, who heads the effort to land a
possible FTAA headquarters in Miami, has traveled to Washington four
times in recent months to lobby Florida legislators to pass CAFTA.
Florida sugar producers, along with their counterparts in the
sugar-beet industry, have forced the administration to look for a
compromise to prevent imports from overwhelming their industry. But the
American Sugar Alliance, an industry group in Washington, said Thursday
there was still no deal.
Sugar's opposition to CAFTA is one reason Florida politicians aren't
universally supporting the accord.
''Sugar just has a grip,'' said Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, one
of the few Florida legislators who has openly supported CAFTA.
''I very much want to support it. I know it's a very good thing for
Central America . . . and important for our foreign policy,'' said
Republican Sen. Mel Martinez, who also expressed worries that the pact
could hurt sugar producers and their employees. ```My only concern is
that we need to make sure that in the process we find a way not to cost
Said Jack Roney of the American Sugar Alliance: ``Unless we defeat
this, we won't be around to worry about people's opinion.''
WILL IT PASS?
Currently, Democrats think they have the votes to defeat CAFTA. ''Today
we would beat it decisively,'' Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said in a
telephone interview. Brown listed 190 Democrats and 40 to 50
Republicans opposed to CAFTA. To pass CAFTA, 218 out of 435 possible
votes are needed.
At this point CAFTA passage may require as much old-fashioned political
pork as congressional arm twisting. ''Its chance of passage is
dependent in part on the president's opening up the bank,'' Brown said.
One reason CAFTA is a harder sell than other trade pacts negotiated by
the Bush administration is that pro-free-trade Democrats object to weak
Bama Athreya, deputy director of the International Labor Rights Fund,
which carried out a study of the labor situation in the six CAFTA
countries for the U.S. Labor Department, said one of the accord's
shortcomings was that it only allowed governments to police themselves.
Neither labor unions nor citizen groups can lodge complaints over labor
''It's a process that will never be invoked,'' Athreya said. ``The way
the agreement is written, it creates the conditions for a conspiracy of
Everyone is expecting a CAFTA showdown as Washington's summer heats up.
But like a good suspense movie, no one is sure how it will end.
Herald Staff Writers Lesley Clark, Marc Caputo and Pablo Bachelet in
Washington contributed to this report.