May 23, 2005 | Commentary on International Organizations

CAFTA: New Front in Freedom Fight

Americans might be so focused on expanding freedom and democracy in the Muslim world that we'll blow an historic opportunity to promote those causes in our own backyard. That's what will happen if Congress rejects the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in the coming weeks.

CAFTA is a U.S.-initiated trade agreement with five Central American nations (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) and the Caribbean's Dominican Republic.

The pact has far-reaching ramifications for U.S. interests, including free markets, democracy and national security.

Of course, CAFTA is predominantly about trade: the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) office says CAFTA countries constitute the second-largest U.S. export market in Latin America (behind Mexico and ahead of Brazil.)

These six nations (of 44 million people) form a larger export market for the U.S. than do (the 1.5 billion people of) Russia, India and Indonesia combined - and the CAFTA market could be even bigger.

Under existing trade practices, 80 percent of CAFTA country goods come duty-free into the U.S. market, while American exports face stiff tariffs; CAFTA will level the playing field by eliminating those barriers.

CAFTA will also help the U.S. and its neighbors compete with China's economic rise. Right now,there's lots of hand-wringing over America's trade deficit with China, especially in textiles, and about Beijing's undervalued, non-floating currency, the Renminbi. Implementing CAFTA will strengthen ties with regional garment makers ensuring that they use American fabrics and yarn instead of Chinese textiles. That will help support U.S. exports, jobs and influence.

American national security interests are also at stake. Central America has made great strides toward democracy since the turbulent 1980s, when authoritarian governments, bloody civil wars and communist insurgencies prevailed. CAFTA provides a unique chance to support these young democracies. As Deputy Secretary of State Bob Zoellick said in a recent speech: "CAFTA matters most to them [CAFTA heads of state] because it will strengthen the foundations of democracy by promoting growth and cutting poverty, creating equality of opportunity and reducing corruption."

In sharp contrast, Cuba's Fidel Castro and his "Mini-Me" - Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez - both oppose CAFTA because it undermines their efforts to spread socialist revolution in Latin America. Killing off CAFTA would play into the hands of these two false prophets, increase anti-Americanism and boost China's influence in the region.

CAFTA would have a salutary effect on illegal immigration, drug trafficking, criminal gangs like MS-13 and also on the vile international trafficking of people - a practice akin to a modern slave trade.

Today, far too many Central Americans and Dominicans are informally employed, underemployed - or unemployed. Nearly half live in poverty. CAFTA would generate economic opportunity at home, providing alternatives to a life of crime, reducing the need - and incentives - to illegally enter the U.S and strengthening regional democracies.

Passing CAFTA may seem like a "no-brainer," but not everyone agrees - especially sugar growers, labor unions and the environmental lobby.

U.S. sugar producers hate CAFTA because it would marginally increase sugar imports from CAFTA countries. But that "increase" may be as little as as one spoonful per American per week.

Labor unions and environmentalists attack the pact because it doesn't mandate CAFTA countries adopt international labor and U.S. environmental standards. In fact, over the long run, the economic benefits arising from CAFTA would vastly increase wealth in these nations - wealth that will enable them to enforce existing, and institute new, labor and environmental protections.

It's unconscionable that Congress would gamble with our political, economic and security interests based on misunderstandings of these issues.

Our domestic debate should focus on the importance of the region's proximity and its stability - what happens south of our border affects us significantly. A failure to pass CAFTA would increase the region's risk of tumbling back into troubled times.

The United States has rightly been promoting freedom and democracy as an antidote to many of the world's troubles. And the world will be watching our deliberations over CAFTA - to see whether our deeds match our words.

CAFTA provides a great opportunity to support freedom and democracy in the Caribbean and Latin America. Congress must decide whether America's national interests - or those of K street lobbyists and special interests - are more important.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post