The return of the son of NAFTA

The Central American Free Trade Agreement is a sequel that’s really scary.

IF YOUR YOUTH WAS, LIKE MINE, foolishly squandered in front of the boob tube after school—in the era just before reruns ruined afternoon television—you got to see some of early Hollywood’s great and not-so-great films. You probably even got a chance to experience that first, pretty scary version of Frankenstein and enjoyed it enough to sit through the entire series as the franchise grew less impressive with each straining offspring.

But this summer heralds a blockbuster sequel that promises to be every bit as horrifying as its original. If you thought the dread North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was a frightening deal for Canadian, U.S., and Mexican workers and our toxin-splattered, carbon-choked hemisphere, then be afraid, be very afraid, when CAFTA: Son of NAFTA appears at a congressional office trough near you.

CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, promises to exceed its parent. That’s no small accomplishment. NAFTA led to unspeakable trade deficits and the gruesome cannibalizing of manufacturing jobs here in the United States and wrought the wretched end of centuries of agricultural tradition in southern Mexico. Now CAFTA, its monstrous progeny, threatens to spread the despair ever deeper into the South.

Comprehensive trade deals like NAFTA and CAFTA reflect the culmination of years of painstaking negotiation. The trouble is virtually all of that massive—and in CAFTA’s case, mostly secretive—dialogue is focused on liberating capital from most reasonable social restraints, leading to diminished food security in weaker nations but new vistas of profit opportunism for large corporations and agribusinesses.

Left out of these deals are responsible side agreements to protect fragile ecosystems and indigenous communities or poor farmers and industrial workers in both the affluent and deprived worlds. The latter two groups typically bear the brunt of the many economic, social, and cultural adjustments such trade deals compel. Global manufacturers, meanwhile, race to the bottom of the wage-scale, placing capital squarely over all other concerns as if profit maximization were the only social good worth realizing through economic treaties.

But trade deals do not inevitably benefit only powerful business interests. The various social, political, and economic structures put in place, for example, by the European Union had the net effect of raising standards of living for some of that continent’s poorest nation-members. When Ireland joined the EU it was an economic backwater; today it is called the “Celtic Tiger.”

Instead of allowing a handful of well-connected bureaucrats to concoct secretive deals that primarily benefit the elite in each of the signatory societies, why don’t we try to build a better deal, a fair trade deal, as if people mattered more than profit? Arranging priorities in this manner, you might design a trade system that protects farmers in vulnerable communities.

You wouldn’t devastate regional economies by dumping commodities from heavily subsidized First World agri-producers into them. You would strike a deal that supports localized food production and distribution systems and allows small nations to maintain food sovereignty. That way, rather than driving indigenous farmers from the land and into industrial wage servitude, our hypothetical fair trade treaty could encourage farmers to remain in their communities while the health, sanitation, and educational advancements taken for granted in the developed world were delivered to them.

Well, at least that’s the kind of trade deal that Catholic social teaching might inspire with an eye to the common good, protecting human dignity, and putting economic systems into the service of people, not the other way around. But that’s a reel we’ll never get to see running in Washington.

You see, just as Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy leads to recurring rounds of bad sequels, the guys in the Washington consensus seem stuck rewriting the same free-trade script treaty after treaty, regardless of the real-world outcomes. Unfortunately this economic script offers up a shock ending that is no longer much of a surprise, though it remains pretty horrifying to watch and so much worse to live through.

Kevin Clarke is a senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the July 2005 (Volume 70, Number 7; page 29) issue of U.S. Catholic.

All active news articles