By Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch
On July 27, 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) by one vote. The signed agreement had sat on the shelf for over a year because of a bipartisan lack of congressional support. Even after an eight-month effort in 2005 involving much of the Bush cabinet and the President himself, GOP leadership threats to “twist some Republican arms until they break in a thousand pieces,” a steady stream of GOP leadership contributions to reluctant Republican members of Congress, and shady appropriations and other deals that may cost U.S. taxpayers billions, the Bush administration was able to pass the deal 217-215 in the House of Representatives only after a coalition of the United States’ largest corporations seeking to exploit CAFTA’s terms launched a full-scale seduction operation.
The CAFTA proposal, which expands the failed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) trade model to six additional countries, had lost on its merits from the time it was inked in May 2004. Because of the disastrous decade-long experience with NAFTA, polls showed that majorities in the United States and Central America felt that CAFTA would damage most people’s interests, and would likely be a net negative for economic growth and quality employment. Indeed, for many in and outside Congress, CAFTA was considered a referendum on the NAFTA model itself – a point not lost on the two and a half dozen long-serving members of Congress who consider themselves “free traders” and who had voted for NAFTA in 1993 but against its expansion in 2005– with many explicitly announcing that their opposition to CAFTA was based on the actual outcomes of NAFTA, and thus the need to alter the model.
Without a clear case for CAFTA, the Bush administration, and the corporate business interests supporting the agreement, turned to increasingly desperate arguments – trying to shift the substance of the debate to unrelated issues such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and China – each of which would somehow benefit if CAFTA were to fail, in the stories told by CAFTA proponents. In fact, a search of the Congressional Record in the lead-up to the CAFTA vote found 143 instances where CAFTA proponents tried to tie the China issue to the Central American trade pact in various floor statements. When this failed, they fell back upon an older tactic – offering financial reward to CAFTA supporters to buy the scores of “missing” votes.