Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)

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The Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is a NAFTA-style deal with five Central American nations (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Nicaragua), and the Dominican Republic. It was passed in the U.S. House by one vote in the middle of the night in July 2005. It has destroyed the livelihoods of Central American small farmers and U.S. textile workers.

After more than a decade of CAFTA, countries in the region have faced hardship for workers and farmers, corporate attacks on health and environmental laws, political instability, and deplorable human rights conditions. The deal was sold with promises similar to those used to push NAFTA: new economic opportunities would be created for people in Central America, who would see higher wages and better conditions while no U.S. workers would be harmed. The pact was so controversial in Costa Rica that its implementation was stalled for years because it was subject to a national referendum, which passed narrowly after U.S. corporations put millions in television and radio ads.

Many years later, it is apparent that opponents, sadly, were right about the pact’s threats.

Today in Central America, life-saving medicines are more expensive due to monopoly protections that CAFTA gave to pharmaceutical corporations.  And the headlines from several CAFTA countries do not report economic prosperity, but economic instability, drug violence and forced migration.  Meanwhile, CAFTA’s labor provisions have failed to halt the assassination of dozens of Central American union workers who were trying to end unmitigated labor abuses like wage theft.  In contrast, the pact’s foreign investor privileges have succeeded in empowering multinational corporations to challenge domestic laws, including consumer and environmental protections.

Fueling economic instability

During the congressional debate over its passage, CAFTA proponents promised the deal would bring economic prosperity to Central America, making it “the best immigration, anti-gang, and anti-drug policy at our disposal.”  Today, CAFTA countries Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are plagued by drug-related gang violence and forced migration.  While the causes are many, “economic stagnation” has fed the crisis, according to the U.S. State Department.  CAFTA clearly failed to deliver on its promise of economic growth for the region.

Worse still, CAFTA has contributed to the region’s economic instability.  Before the razor-thin passage of CAFTA, development organizations warned that the deal could lead to the displacement of the family farmers that constitute a significant portion of Central America’s workforce, by forcing them to directly compete with highly-subsidized U.S. agribusiness.  Indeed, agricultural imports from the United States in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have doubled since the deal went into effect, while the countries’ agricultural trade balance with the United States has dropped, spelling farmer displacement.

And despite promises that CAFTA would make up for rural job loss by creating new jobs in apparel factories, apparel exports to the United States from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have actually fallen $1.6 billion, or 21 percent, since the year before CAFTA took effect.  Not only has the promise of new factories disappeared – so have existing factories.  

Now Donald Trump is scapegoating Latin American immigrants for the economic insecurity facing many Americans with his racist attacks and xenophobic obsession with building a wall along our southern border. But it is the same U.S. trade policies that harm working people in the United States that also have left many in Central America with no option but migration as they struggle to feed and care for their families.

Making life-saving medicines unaffordable

During the debate over CAFTA, health experts warned that by handing pharmaceutical firms greater monopoly protections, the deal would restrict Central Americans’ access to more affordable generic versions of life-saving drugs. Unfortunately, they were right.  Take, for example, Kaletra, a drug used to fight HIV/AIDS.  Under CAFTA rules, Kaletra has enjoyed monopoly protections in Guatemala, making generic versions unavailable, for the entire first decade of CAFTA.  Without a generic alternative, Guatemala’s public health system pays about $130 per bottle of Kaletra.  In contrast, the generic version of Kaletra costs less than $20 per bottle, according to the Pan American Health Organization reference price.  For Guatemala’s taxpayers, paying more than six times the generic price for Kaletra under CAFTA means less money to build schools or bridges.  For Guatemala’s HIV/AIDS patients, it can mean the difference between life and death.

Turning a blind eye to labor abuses

One decade ago, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative sold CAFTA as the “best ever trade agreement on labor,” boasting “world class” labor provisions.  Those provisions failed to prevent the murder of 68 Guatemalan unionists over the course of the pact’s seven years without a single arrest.  In 2008, the AFL-CIO and Guatemalan unions filed an official complaint under CAFTA’s labor provisions, calling for an end to the rampant anti-union violence, wage theft, and other abuses.  It was not until six years and dozens of unionist murders later that the U.S. government moved to arbitration on the case. The U.S. lost that case, proving that the model of labor standards in U.S. trade deals is deeply flawed. (If a case cannot be won relating to the severe and endemic violence against unionists in Guatemala, then where could a case succeeded under these rules….)  Today Guatemala’s union workers still endure frequent attacks with near-total impunity.

CAFTA’s labor provisions have proven similarly ineffective in the Dominican Republic, where sugar cane workers endure 12-hour workdays in hazardous conditions without receiving legally-required overtime pay.  A Spanish priest who filed an official CAFTA complaint in attempt to rectify the abuses was informed by U.S. Department of Labor officials, “Nothing is going to happen on account of not complying.”  Indeed, nothing has happened.  Despite CAFTA’s “world class” labor provisions, the Dominican Republic’s underpaid cane workers continue laboring in squalid conditions.

Why has CAFTA, like U.S. trade agreements before and since, failed to curb widespread labor abuses?   Kim Elliot, a member of the Department of Labor’s National Advisory Committee on Labor Provisions of U.S. Free Trade Agreements, recently offered this blunt explanation: the labor provisions of U.S. trade deals “are in there because they’re necessary to get deals through Congress.”  She added, “It’s really all about politics and not about how to raise labor standards in these countries.”

Empowering corporate attacks on consumer and environmental protections

In contrast to CAFTA’s unenforceable “protections” for workers, the deal granted highly enforceable privileges to foreign corporations.  This includes empowering them to bypass domestic courts and challenge domestic consumer and environmental protections before extrajudicial tribunals via “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS).

Corporations have not held back in using this controversial parallel legal system to challenge pro-consumer policies, including government efforts to keep electricity affordable.  In 2010 a U.S. energy company with an indirect, minority stake in Guatemala’s electric utility used ISDS to challenge Guatemala’s decision to lower electricity rates for consumers.  The next day, the company sold off its minority share.  A three-person ISDS tribunal generously decided to treat the firm as a protected “investor” in Guatemala and ordered the government to pay the corporation more than $32 million.  In another energy-related CAFTA case, a U.S. financial firm challenged the Dominican Republic’s decision not to raise electricity rates amid a nationwide energy crisis.  The government decided to pay the firm to drop the case in a $26.5 million settlement, reasoning that it was cheaper than continuing to pay legal fees.

CAFTA countries also face an increasing array of ISDS cases against environmental protections.  A U.S. mining company, for example, has launched a claim against the Dominican Republic for delaying and then denying environmental approval for an aggregate materials mine that the government deemed a threat to nearby water sources.  Other U.S. investors in the Dominican Republic have threatened to launch a CAFTA claim against the government for denying environmental approval for their plans to expand a gated resort.

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