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CAFTA passes despite defections in NC delegation

by Jordan Green

Despite opposition from the majority of the North Carolina House delegation, including most of the state’s Republican legislators, the House of Representatives handed President Bush a victory with a 217-215 vote minutes after midnight on July 28 to approve a new trade agreement with five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic.

The bill popularly known as DR-CAFTA, whose formal title is ‘Dominican Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement,’ will result in the removal of trade barriers between the United States and the six countries.

The president hailed the bill’s passage in a prepared statement as a way to level the playing field for American exports since minimal restrictions are in place for Central American companies selling to the US market. While the agreement’s opponents argued that it would cause further hemorrhaging in economic sectors like textiles and degrade labor environmental standards in both the United States and Central America, Bush presented CAFTA as a national security bill.

‘“It is a commitment of freedom-loving nations to advance peace and prosperity throughout the Western Hemisphere,’” he said. ‘“We have a moral obligation and a vital national security interest in helping the democracies of Central American and the Dominican Republic succeed.’”

Among the Republicans who voted against the bill was Rep. Howard Coble of Greensboro, along with Reps. Virginia Foxx, Walter Jones and Patrick McHenry. Only Republican Reps. Sue Myrick and Robin Hayes cast affirmative votes. The state’s Democratic delegation unanimously opposed the trade bill, with no votes coming from Reps. Brad Miller and Mel Watt, both of whom represent parts of Guilford County, along with Reps. GK Butterfield, Bob Etheridge, Mike McIntyre and David Price.

Days before the vote, Coble said Bush called him and other Republican representatives who had not pledged support for CAFTA to the White House and tried to pull them over to the aye column. But Coble didn’t offer him much hope.

‘“I told the president: ‘My mama was a former textile worker,”” he said in an interview with YES! Weekly. ‘“’When I have textile workers coming up to me, specifically female workers, and they’re pleading with me to vote against it, it’s like my mama’s talking to me.””

Bush nodded, as if he understood, Coble said.

‘“Start talking about mama and it becomes very personal,’” he added.

Coble said six weeks ago he thought he would disappoint at least half his constituents no matter how he voted on the bill, but in the intervening time most of them urged him to vote against CAFTA.

Coble said he planned to vote against CAFTA all along, but agreed to say he was ‘“leaning against it’” out of deference to a request by the House’s Republican leadership.

Coble’s vote against CAFTA puts him in unlikely company with the left-leaning NC Coalition for Fair Trade, which represents labor, environmental, immigrant farm workers and faith groups.

‘“Our representatives really stuck by their guns and stuck with us,’” said Dannette Sharpley, a spokeswoman for the coalition who lives in Durham. ‘“We had the evidence that NAFTA [a trade deal between the United States, Canada and Mexico that was ratified with bipartisan support in 1993] was a real disaster for working people. I think a lot of people realize we’re going into an election cycle.’”

What exactly CAFTA will mean for workers in the United States, the Dominican Republic and Central America depends on whom you ask. The combined gross domestic product of Central America equals 0.5 percent of that of the United States, according to the Washington Office on Latin America, and so would likely not cause as much upheaval to American workers as the trade agreement 12 years ago with Canada and Mexico.

‘“It is my belief that CAFTA is neither as good nor as bad as its respective proponents like to belief,’” Coble said.

Sharpley said she agrees, to an extent.

‘“CAFTA is going to have a much bigger impact on our partners and allies in Central America,’” she said. ‘“It’s a relatively small market, so we don’t see it as having the same kind of impact on jobs here in North Carolina as, say NAFTA.’”

Not so for workers in Central America, the majority of whom work in the agricultural sector, and could feel the shocks of subsidized American farm products flooding local markets.

‘“Just like with NAFTA where the subsidized corporate agribusiness from the US forced so many campesinos off their land, the vast majority of people in that region are subsistence farmers and have lived off that land forever,’” she said. ‘“They’ll be forced into one economically exploitative situation or another, driven into sweatshops or forced migration into the US. What we’ve done by passing CAFTA is to wipe out the most viable and widely held livelihood for that region.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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