- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 26, 2005

What do Starbucks, Alan Greenspan, Jimmy Carter, U.S. farm, textile, and business organizations, Microsoft, the Humane Society and the World Bank have in common? They and the vast majority of editorial boards across the country all share a belief that the Central American-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement,or”CAFTA-DR,” should pass because it benefits the United States and our trading partners. The Senate has already passed the agreement and the House of Representatives will soon vote on it, possibly as early as today. The case is strong: CAFTA-DR will help the American economy and American exports, will contribute to economic growth and prosperity and will strengthen democracy in the region.

CAFTA-DR will build upon what is already a $32 billion trade relationship by opening up markets in Central America and the Dominican Republic to American workers and farmers. These countries already enjoy broad duty-free access to the United States. This agreement simply levels the playing field by stripping away foreign tariffs and barriers to U.S. exports. That’s good for American workers, farmers and businesses. Leading U.S. manufacturing and farm groups estimate billions of dollars in expanded U.S. exports will result. For those concerned about the trade deficit and the need to expand U.S. exports,CAFTA-DRisthe right agreement.

CAFTA-DR will help preserve thousands of American textile jobs, because we send billions in exports to Central American factories that sew clothing to send back to the United States. Without the agreement, many of these Central American factories will continue to relocate to China, where U.S. inputs aren’t used. So for those concerned about Chinese competition and American textile jobs, CAFTA-DR is the right agreement.

Some opponents say they are concerned about Central American labor standards. But the agreement contains stronger protectionsforfundamental worker rights than any free-trade agreement ever negotiatedbyanycountry. CAFTA-DR’s labor provisions are far stronger than NAFTA, and more practical and effective than the more recent U.S.-Jordan FTA negotiated by the Clinton administration. Labor laws in this region are now stronger in many respects than in Jordan and Morocco, two countries with which Congress overwhelmingly approved trade agreements. The International Labor Organization (ILO) confirms that the region’s laws are generally consistent with the ILO’s core labor standards.

CAFTA-DR has tough and practical enforcement provisions. It provides for heavy fines, up to $15 million, with a new and unique mechanism to allow the United States to redirect the monies toward actually solving the labor problem. But CAFTA-DR is just the start on improving labor conditions. As part of the agreement, the United States has made an unprecedented commitment of $180 million in labor and environmental assistance that will strengthen labor ministries, improve labor courts, crack down on gender discrimination and protect the environment.

In addition, I worked closely with Rep. William Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat, and other members to ensure that mechanisms to verify that labor-rights progress in Central America and the Dominican Republic were incorporated in the final CAFTA-DR package. The record is clear — for those truly concerned about labor rights and working conditions, CAFTA-DR is the right agreement.

CAFTA-DRwillstreng-then young democracies by expanding and reinforcing economic and political freedoms in our hemisphere. It wasn’t too long ago that this region was plagued by violence and instability. Today thesecountriesareall democracies who simply want to trade with us.

There is much that unites CAFTA-DR’s supporters. Many opponents, whether American labor unions, authoritarian leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, or ex-dictators like Daniel OrtegainNicaragua,share fears of a closer economic relationship and have a pessimistic view of the future. They are wrong. CAFTA-DR willpromoteeconomicgrowth, hope, opportunity and freedom among our countries. Defeating CAFTA-DR would send shock waves through the region. For those concerned about security, stability and democracy, in our Hemisphere, CAFTA-DR is the right agreement.

President Bush recently described CAFTA-DR as “commitment of freedom-loving nations to advance peaceandprosperity throughout the Western hemisphere.” Former President Jimmy Carter said “U.S. incomes will rise by $15 billion and those in Central America by some $5 billion … if the U.S. Congress were to turn its back on the agreement it would undercut these fragile democracies.” The choice before us is clear. If you care about expanding U.S. exports and creating jobs, promoting better working conditions in Central America and supportingstable,friendly democracies, then CAFTA-DR is the right agreement. It deserves broad bipartisan support.

Rob Portman is the United States Trade Representative.

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