CAFTA: Picking Up Where NAFTA Left Off

Francisco Unger

In the continuing quest for the exploitation of cheap labor and untapped resources, President Bush and the current administration have proposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA. CAFTA, to be comprised of the United States, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica, is essentially a continuation of NAFTA, the disastrous free trade agreement that wrecked havoc over the already impoverished peasants and farmers of its nation members.

NAFTA, still touted by American leaders as a successful enterprise, saw immense job losses among the poor, the centralization of arable land, the privatization of vital social services, the degradation of workers' rights, and vast cuts in wages. All of this came at the calculated benefit of corporations, and the expansion of corporate hegemony.

True to its acronymic ring, CAFTA does not stray far from NAFTA. Rather, it is almost entirely modeled after the first. Apparently, the complete trampling of the impoverished has done little to deter the US government from building on these same policies. What has come out of NAFTA is a great profit for US corporations, churned out of the toils and sweat of powerless peasants; and for the US government, there can be no greater motivation. Throw in the typically preposterous claims of a commitment to improving economies and raising standards abroad, and US politicians prove eagerly compliant.

In theory, it all sounds quite nice, rather generous actually. A free trade agreement: intended to create dynamic economic pathways, foster multinational cooperation and economic growth, and lead to a more efficient and productive trade system. Unfortunately, theoretical propositions in the hands of the unreasonable rarely materialize into vivid realities. Such has been the case with NAFTA, and CAFTA wields the same catastrophic threats.

What both of these free trade agreements do, for all members save the US, is place a great emphasis on foreign trade and exportation. Thus, rather than focusing efforts on internal development and domestic infrastructure, and developing according to its own needs, these nations are driven to restructuring agricultural and economic policy around appeasement of the US. The demands of potential buyers in the US are therefore given priority over the needs of that nation's own people. Under such an agreement, resource-rich nations direct their riches not to production that would propel their own advancement, but to production that will draw the attractive finance of the US.

And what better way to entice US finance than to centralize land and resources in the hands of multinational corporations, thus creating a stable and secure environment for foreign investment. This corporatization is precisely what NAFTA encouraged, and what CAFTA would once again. In Mexico, under NAFTA, the fertile land on which the masses depended for their livelihood was quickly gobbled up by corporations and government funded cooperatives. Forced to compete with huge corporations, Mexican farmers were driven out of work and left landless and jobless. The Mexican masses were soon rendered a horde of neglected peasants, struggling to survive with little work and dismal wages. As the Mexican market became more centralized, the peasant was crushed under the might fists of corporations.

In this devastating manner, the free trade agreements bolster corporate control at the expense of the common worker. The governments achieve a slight profit through foreign exchange, but none of this profit ever trickles down to the masses. Rather than aiding the entirety of foreign nations, as US politicians insist, the free trade agreements are simply corporate invasions of susceptible markets: invasions that ravage the frail working class, while enabling corporate dominance.

Of course, an agreement entails two sides: one side proposing the deal, and the other approving it. Surely, no leader who prioritizes the well being of his own people would consent to such a destructive deal as NAFTA or CAFTA. Unfortunately, the bulk of today's third world leaders prove more eager to construct corporate ties than to lift their own populace out of the quicksands of poverty and inequality.

Controlling the third world are governments centered on the ambitions of the elite, detached from the drastic needs of the people: a network of corporate rulers who see benefit in appeasement of the US, promoting a global system that condemns their own masses to the most extreme of impoverishment. A government that avidly chases after foreign finance, or a UN Security Council seat, is apt to develop a set of skewed priorities, placing the interest of foreign powers above its own. Because of these elitist priorities, the US government has enjoyed relative ease in luring foreign producers into its one-sided deals. Thus, its agitation with populist leaders such as Hugo Chávez, one of the only leaders to posses the knowledge and compassion to vociferously reject the American trade agreements, is understandable.

Furthermore, Chavez's push for internal development and domestic control of resources, and the relentless allocation of national riches to the poorest of Venezuelans runs counter to the intentions of NAFTA and CAFTA. Where Chavez has sparked this populist movement, CAFTA would channel the oil riches to wealthy corporations, benefit companies with reduced cost, lower workers' wages, increase unemployment, privatize vital resources and social services (effectively raising the price of living), oversee the degradation of workers' rights, devastate longstanding agriculture, and promote corporate expansion.

CAFTA, introduced in the House and Senate this week, stands to drag the inequalities of NAFTA further, creating a Western Hemisphere awash in US influence and corporate control. Were CAFTA passed, more workers would find themselves stripped of their livelihood, and shackled under the floorboards of a system that sacrifices their well being for slight profit and futile appeasement of foreign powers.

Yes, CAFTA would result in more cheap products for us Americans, and perhaps a boost to American might, but these benefits come born in the exploitation of impoverished peasants in Latin America, and around the world. Our policies must instead carry the utmost respect for the rights of all workers, and foster an atmosphere of equality and human dignity. Our obligation must not be to our corporations, but to our ideals and principles. We must recognize the devastation that these free trade agreements propel, and commit ourselves to ending it. The first step is clear: defeat CAFTA.

Francisco Unger, 16, student at Phillips Exeter Academy, can be reached at