- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Bush administration is asking U.S. Hispanics to support a Central America Free Trade Agreement, an appeal that has won some backing but alienated others in the fast-growing community.

“To create jobs and to strengthen democracy in our hemisphere, the Congress needs to pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement,” President Bush said yesterday to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Bush’s appeal, a brief mention in a speech focused on energy policy, was made shortly after Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez outlined the administration’s case for the pact at the gathering.

CAFTA would lower tariffs and cement investor rights for U.S. companies selling to or operating in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua — Spanish-speaking nations that by 2000 had sent more than 2.2 million immigrants to the United States, according to census figures.

CAFTA is also known as DR-CAFTA, after the inclusion of the Dominican Republic last year.

The administration is stepping up efforts on Capitol Hill and in the business community to win support for the pact, which appears to have insufficient backing to pass Congress.

Hispanics made up more than 13 percent of the U.S. population in 2002, according to the Census Bureau, and are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country. They are seen as a potentially powerful lobby on behalf of CAFTA, which the administration touts as a boon for U.S. businesses, a step toward economic prosperity in Central America and a way to strengthen young democracies in the region.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Gutierrez’s message on CAFTA was welcomed by Hispanic businessmen.

“Over the coming days and weeks, we will be actively working to encourage Congress to adopt this important trade pact,” said David Lizarraga, chairman of the chamber, which says it represents about 1.2 million Hispanic-owned businesses.

Mr. Lizarraga set an ambitious goal. Most members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and others in the Hispanic community are either against or appear to be leaning against CAFTA.

“There are great concerns about how it will affect the Latino community,” said Rep. Grace F. Napolitano, California Democrat and chairman of the 21-member caucus. Mrs. Napolitano said she would vote against CAFTA.

The administration likely will need at least 20 House Democratic votes to pass the pact, which faces some opposition among Republicans worried about provisions related to sugar and textiles.

Democrats often cite labor-related concerns. Rep. Xavier Becerra, California Democrat and a member of the caucus, has said CAFTA does too little to protect worker rights, such as the right to organize and collectively bargain. That would leave Central Americans vulnerable to exploitation and drive down wages.

Mrs. Napolitano’s and Mr. Becerra’s concerns are echoed elsewhere in the Hispanic community.

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a civil rights group, yesterday cited the North American Free Trade Agreement, the pact with Mexico and Canada that passed Congress in 1993, as a poor precedent to CAFTA.

NAFTA has not led to the development, improved environment or greater prosperity for workers that was promised, said Gabriela Lemus, LULAC’s director.

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