Central America Crisis Belies CAFTA’s Empty Promises
“…[the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is] the best immigration, anti-gang, and anti-drug policy at our disposal…”
--Representative Tom Davis, July 27, 2005 – one day before Congress passed CAFTA
“Something must be happening that children and their mothers are now leaving for the United States in busloads…People are saying, ‘There’s no future here.’”
--Miriam Miranda, Honduran human rights leader and recent kidnapping survivor, July 30, 2014
Nine years ago this week, the polemical Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) was passed by the House of Representatives…in the dead of night…by a single vote.
CAFTA proponents promised the deal would reduce gang and drug-related violence in Central America, boost economic development, and diminish the factors pushing Central Americans to migrate to the United States.
Such promises already sounded hollow when they were voiced in 2005. Today, as thousands of Central American children leave their homes and risk their lives to try to make it to the United States, CAFTA’s promises have proven tragically empty.
When trying to secure passage for CAFTA’s expansion of the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) model to five Central American nations and the Dominican Republic, the Bush administration and corporate lobbyists could not rely on the standard promises of job creation and deficit reduction that had proven false under NAFTA. Instead, they launched a barrage of political arm-twisting and horse-trading to convince members of Congress to vote against the anti-CAFTA opinions of their constituents.
Many CAFTA backers also resorted to selling the deal as a pathway to peace and prosperity for Central America. Here is Representative Tom Davis (R-Va.) speaking on the House floor in favor of CAFTA on July 27, 2005:
“…we need to understand that CAFTA is more than just a trade pact. It's a signal of U.S. commitment to democracy and prosperity for our neighbors. And it's the best immigration, anti-gang, and anti-drug policy at our disposal…Want to fight the ever-more-violent MS-13 gang activity originating in El Salvador but prospering in Northern Virginia? Pass CAFTA …Want to begin to ebb the growing flow of illegal immigrants from Central America? Pass CAFTA.”
One day later, Congress passed CAFTA.
Nine years later, gang and drug-related violence in Central America has reached record highs and the “growing flow” of immigrants from Central America has surged.
On Wednesday, Miriam Miranda, coordinator of the Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH) traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak to congressional staff about the rampant violence and unrelenting poverty in her home country and its neighbors. Miriam spoke not only of the skyrocketing homicides and widespread gang and paramilitary control in Honduras, but the economic instability undergirding such violence.
The issue is not theoretical for Miriam – just two weeks ago she survived an attempted kidnapping by armed men.
I asked Miriam what she would say, if given the opportunity, to the members of Congress who had promised CAFTA would spur development and reduce violence and migration pressures in Central America. She responded:
“It’s more than evident with what has happened in the last eight to nine months – this massive exit from Central America – that these policies that they have implemented are completely mistaken. They don’t respond to our needs…We have to question this model of development – development for whom?”
Not only did CAFTA fail to stem violence and migration from Central America as Rep. Davis and other proponents promised. The deal appears to have actually contributed to the economic instability feeding the region’s increase in violence and forced migration.
That’s the conclusion reached by the 67 members of Congress’ Progressive Caucus, who included CAFTA in their recent summary of the root causes of the refugee crisis occurring along the U.S.-Mexico border: “free trade agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) have led to the displacement of workers and subsequent migration from these countries.”
How has CAFTA led to displacement and migration? Under CAFTA, family farmers in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have been inundated with subsidized agricultural imports – mainly grains – from U.S. agribusinesses. Agricultural imports from the United States in those three CAFTA countries have risen 78 percent since the deal went into effect.
While agricultural exports to Central America represent a small slice of U.S. agricultural corporations’ business, they present a large threat to the livelihoods of small-scale Central American farmers who cannot compete with highly subsidized and mechanized U.S. firms. When Mexico experienced a similar surge in agricultural imports under NAFTA, more than 2 million Mexican farmers and agricultural workers lost their livelihoods and migration to the United States doubled.
In the lead-up to CAFTA, development groups like Oxfam warned of such displacement, stating that when considering the impacts on Central American rice production alone, CAFTA threatened the livelihoods of up to 1.5 million people in the region. Central American immigrant advocacy groups like CARECEN, CONGUATE, and SANN also raised such concerns early in the CAFTA negotiating process, but were ignored by the Bush administration.
Certainly the economic instability and violence plaguing Central America, and the resulting surge in migration to the United States, cannot be pegged on CAFTA alone. The causes of the crisis are manifold, and many have been amply discussed. But though CAFTA did not singlehandedly spark this fire, it appears to have contributed to the kindling.
And clearly, CAFTA has utterly failed to deliver on the far-fetched promises used by Rep. Davis and other proponents to sell the controversial deal to a skeptical Congress back in 2005. I wish Representative Davis, and all those who voted for CAFTA, would have been there on Wednesday to hear Miriam’s words.
I wish the same for the members of the Obama administration who are now pushing to expand the NAFTA/CAFTA trade model across the Pacific under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). As with CAFTA, some are trying to sell that deal with rosy promises that it will spur development in TPP countries.
In the words of Miriam, development for whom?