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Letter on Proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)

 

February 11, 2003

The Honorable Robert B. Zoellick
United States Trade Representative
600 17th Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20508

Dear Ambassador Zoellick,

I am writing on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops with regard to the proposed trade agreement for Central America (CAFTA). Last November I was a member of a delegation of U.S. Catholic bishops that visited Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador at the invitation of the Central American regional council of Catholic bishops. The main objective of the visit was to increase our understanding of the major concerns of the Church in Central America about the effects of globalization.

One of the major topics of discussion in each country was CAFTA, and I would like to share with you the concerns we heard concerning the potential impact of CAFTA on the rural poor and farm production, on urban workers and on the environment. We also heard insistent demands that the agreement be negotiated through a process which is both transparent and participatory.

While we take no position on CAFTA as a whole, we wish to raise questions about elements of the proposed agreement which touch human life and dignity. Increased trade and investment can be truly beneficial, creating higher incomes and job opportunities for many people. Nevertheless, trade agreements should be structured in a way that not just uplifts economies as a whole but also respects the human dignity of all people affected, especially the poor. As religious leaders we are deeply involved in the communities and with the families that could gain or lose much because of trade agreements. As part of an international church, we have strong ties to the Church and peoples of Latin America, Africa and other areas of the developing world. We care deeply about the ways economic agreements will affect the lives, dignity and rights especially of the millions of poor and disadvantaged in these countries.

During our visit, we met with bishops and church personnel and with representatives of a variety of civil society organizations. We also met with government officials in each country and with officials of the U.S. embassies. In each country, we heard fears expressed by Church and civil society representatives that CAFTA could result in erosion of living standards for factory workers and might lead to environmental degradation. The most widely expressed and persistent concern, however, was about the potential impact of CAFTA on poor farmers and farm workers.

We heard that rural communities have been buffeted in recent years by hurricanes, drought, depressed international prices and other factors. Since Central American producers cannot compete with highly-subsidized U.S. agriculture, they believe elimination of trade protections under CAFTA

would undercut local production and result in a further deterioration of already difficult conditions for the rural poor, especially those dependent on basic grain production for their livelihood. It would also lead to further pressures to migrate to the U.S. and other countries. There seems little chance that U.S. farm subsidies would be reduced under CAFTA or that CAFTA would deal with related issues of labor mobility and migration, even though Central America's largest "export" (and foreign-exchange earner) by far is its people.

Some Central American government officials, while critical of U.S. farm subsidies, expressed the view that the impact of CAFTA on the rural sector would be limited. Some mentioned the importance of trying to make CAFTA work for the benefit of the rural poor, and of going forward with programs to help small farmers convert to alternative crops as well as to increase productivity. Representatives of rural communities, however, saw such government plans as "empty promises."

In light of the concerns expressed, we wish to offer a number of considerations, based on our traditional moral principles, which we urge you to take into account in shaping the U.S. negotiating position for CAFTA. The first is that, since so many of the world's poor, including those in Central America, live and work in rural communities, improving agricultural productivity and rural living standards in poor countries is critical to addressing global poverty. Trade agreements, therefore, should foster such improvement.

Moreover, the special needs of the world's most impoverished people warrant differential treatment for poor countries. As a general principle, and particularly when U.S. subsidies preclude the possibility of a "level playing field", we believe that trade agreements must allow poor countries to use subsidies and support mechanisms as necessary to achieve income security for their farmers and farm workers and to help achieve food security for their people. Policies that provide special access to U.S. markets from poor countries should be promoted as well.

We recognize that U.S. farm subsidies are a complex subject, and our long-standing concern for the well-being of our family farmers leads us to support subsidies that are targeted to small and moderate-sized farmers and distort trade as little as possible. On the other hand, since U.S. farm subsidies mainly benefit large producers, there should be ample room to substantially reduce (and target) them as well as other protective measures that undercut production in developing countries or deny their farmers access to U.S. markets.

The concerns of urban workers were not a major focus of our visit; however, they raise important ethical issues that should be considered. Trade agreements should lead to improvement in the living standards of particularly poor and vulnerable workers and their families and should affirm fundamental worker rights, including the right to organize and bargain collectively. (While these latter rights may be embodied in local law, they are often not enforced.) On the environment, concern for God's creation leads us to urge that steps be taken to assure that trade agreements do not undermine the ability of poor countries to promote environmental protection and sustainable agricultural practices.

On process, the Church and civil society representatives were extremely concerned that negotiations were likely to proceed rapidly and largely in secret, giving little opportunity for those representing the interests of the poor to share concerns, and even less to have them taken into account. Because they had so little information, they were left to guess what issues would be addressed in the negotiations of an agreement they believed might have a profound effect on their lives. While government officials expressed the intent to inform the public about CAFTA and to engage in a transparent, participatory process, it was apparent that, at least with respect to civil society groups, that process had yet to begin.

In light of the concerns, hopes and fears we heard on our visit, we encourage you to ensure that all interested parties, especially groups that give voice to the poor both in the United States and in Central America, have sufficient information and opportunities for meaningful input into the negotiations so that CAFTA becomes the product of a full and well-informed public debate.

With best wishes and asking God to bless you, I am

Sincerely yours,

Most Reverend John H. Ricard, SSJ
Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee
Chairman, Committee on International Policy



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