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Latino groups divided over benefits of trade deal with CAFTA

By JIM ABRAMS
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP): Latino lawmakers and interest groups are agreed that they want prosperity and democracy in Central America , but they are divided over whether a free trade agreement with the United States will do that. 

Latino business groups are pushing hard for approval of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, the most consequential trade deal since the U.S.-Canada-Mexico NAFTA agreement of a decade ago. They say it will open up new markets for American exporters and provide economic and political stability to a region with close ties to many Hispanic Americans. 

Suarez, Kaptur, Velasquez, Meza

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But many Latino labor, human rights and immigration groups, as well as some Latinos in Congress, are working equally hard to see it defeated.

“There should be a CAFTA, just not this CAFTA,” said congressman Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat, who worries the agreement will worsen the rich-poor divide, both between the United States and the region and within the participating nations—Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic.

A House of Representatives vote on CAFTA could come as early as this month, depending on whether the Republican leadership can find the votes to prevail.

House Democrats, including the 19 Latinos, are generally unhappy with labor and environmental provisions in the agreement that they say will do little to correct abuses. The four voting Republican Latinos are more likely to support the deal, although three are from Florida , where the sugar industry is mounting a vocal campaign against it.

Henry Cuellar of Texas , the only Latino Democrat to announce his support for the agreement, said he was confident others in the caucus would eventually sign on. It shouldn’t be a Latino issue, he said, “but as Hispanics we should be looking at how this will benefit our brothers and sisters in Central America .”

The nation's 40 million Latinos, including some 5 million from the CAFTA nations, tend to stay out of politics, but this time it could be different, said Anne Alonzo, senior vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council and organizer of the pro-agreement Hispanic Alliance for Free Trade.

“We’re a sleeping giant that has not yet spoken out on this,” she said.

Alonzo said the alliance, representing more than 120 business groups, is holding sessions with lawmakers and conducting grass-roots activities, such as arranging for the leaders of the six CAFTA nations to meet with Latinos groups around the country when they visit next week for a meeting with President George W. Bush.

Also touring the country as a White House point man on CAFTA is Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez, a Cuban-American.

But speaking out are Latinos groups that say CAFTA, which will benefit many U.S. manufacturers and food producers by eliminating most tariffs, will harm Central America’s rural poor.

Supporters talk about evening the playing field, said Gabriela Lemus, director of policy for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the nation’s oldest Latino organization. But the poor in Central America “don’t even have money to buy food,” she said. “We’re afraid that we are going to make it worse.”

Angela Sanbrano, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, a Los Angeles group involved in immigration issues, said the influx of cheaper U.S. farm goods “will probably have a terrible impact on agriculture,” forcing peasants to leave their land and, in some cases, head for the United States in search of work.

Becerra, Lemus, and Sanbrano all supported the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, a decade ago, and now point to NAFTA’s problems in opposing CAFTA. Real wages in México are down since the trade agreement went into effect, and more than 1 million small-scale farmers have abandoned farming, many joining the flood of illegal immigrants, they say.

Diputado Suárez against CAFTA
Diputado Victor Suárez Carrera—a congressman from México City—is opposed to CAFTA, and  it was his central theme in his visit last Friday to the Midwest, as a guest of U.S. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (OH-9).

As part of his tour, Suárez visited the headquarters of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC). He was greeted by its president, Baldemar Velásquez, who had just come back from a rally in Washington D.C., urging legislators to amend many of the provisions in NAFTA, which, according to Velásquez, Suárez, and Kaptur, has had a devastating impact on farmworkers and blue collar workers alike, in both México and the United States.

Velásquez had also urged the legislators to legalize the millions of migrantworkers, currently living in the United States.

U.S. President George W. Bush has urged Congress to pass legislation allowing guestworkers to live and work in the United States legally for a period of time, but neglects to provide for the eventual citizenship or legalization of these workers, the majority of whom are Latinos.

According to Suárez, with NAFTA, more than 2 million jobs have been lost in Mexico’s countryside, along with about 1 million in the manufacturing sector—the loss of jobs translates into more Mexicans risking their lives to find work in the United States.

CAFTA would have the same negative impact.

Suárez later spoke at Lourdes College in Sylvania.  

Editor’s Note: Rico de La Prensa contributed to this report. 

 

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