A year ago the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) was a corpse. The Bush Administration resurrected it with the darkest of political sorcery. And now the lumbering beast is growing ever more monstrous–and arousing new controversy.
On March 1, two months after the planned January implementation date for the trade deal, CAFTA goes into effect between the United States and El Salvador. Yet for the five other countries that are party to the treaty–Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic–a starting date remains undetermined. In past months, contentious debates about the implementation of the agreement have triggered new protests throughout Central America, calling into question what the trade pact will look like in practice.
After the White House succeeded in narrowly passing CAFTA through Congress last summer, many “free trade” advocates considered the treaty a done deal. The agreement squeaked through the House in a historically close vote of 217 to 215 and appeared to have finally weathered the storm generated by its diverse critics.
A new wave of dissent in Central America, however, is creating fresh difficulties for CAFTA defenders. In Costa Rica, the only country that has yet to ratify the deal, former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias was expected to win back the presidency by a landslide in early February. In a surprise turn, his opponent Ottón Solís surged in the polls at the last minute, carried by his objection to Arias’s strong pro-CAFTA stance. The final contest was so close as to warrant a lengthy recount to identify the winner.
Based on the current tally, it appears almost certain that election officials will declare Arias the winner. Still, Solís’s opposition party will likely carry enough seats in the legislative assembly to make it very difficult for Arias to pass CAFTA. Contending that the treaty would “bankrupt Costa Rica’s agricultural sector,” Solís vowed this week that, regardless of the election’s final outcome, he would continue championing the demand for CAFTA’s renegotiation.
As the experience of other Central American countries shows, controversy can reignite even after CAFTA is ratified. In Guatemala and El Salvador, the Bush Administration’s advocacy on behalf of US special interests has sparked new disputes during the implementation phase of the treaty. There, US Trade Representative Rob Portman has tried to squeeze even more concessions out of the Central American partners before agreeing to certify their inclusion in the deal. Governments in Guatemala and El Salvador have cried foul, saying that the White House’s current agenda for reforms goes beyond the terms of the agreement.
According to the journal Inside US Trade, Portman has pushed for changes to Guatemalan intellectual property law that would extend the life of patents on many name-brand pharmaceuticals. Already, the United States has compelled Guatemala to repeal a law designed to expand access to generic drugs. Organizations such as Doctors Without Borders have denounced CAFTA’s impact on the Guatemalan AIDS epidemic, arguing that limits on generic antiretrovirals amount to a death sentence for many patients. The White House’s demands only worsen the restrictions.