- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2005

President Bush in a show of support for the Central American Free Trade Agreement yesterday assured six visiting presidents he would work to secure congressional approval of the pact.

“These are small nations, but they’re making big and brave commitments, and America needs to continue to support them as they walk down the road of openness and accountability,” Mr. Bush said after meeting presidents from the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

The six men this week toured U.S. cities and lobbied lawmakers in an unprecedented effort by foreign leaders to win support for legislation heading to Congress.

“I assured them I will join in the efforts to get this bill passed,” Mr. Bush said. His administration already has promised to seek a renegotiation of narrow, textile-related provisions in response to congressional concern, and members of the Cabinet have stepped up efforts to promote the deal as a boost for the U.S. economy and regional security.

But the pact, which would lower trade barriers for U.S. exporters and cement investor rights, is on shaky ground in the House and Senate, which must consider the deal with a simple yes-or-no vote. Many lawmakers are worried that past free-trade deals have contributed to a hefty trade deficit, or object to provisions related to worker rights, sugar imports and textile imports.

The presidents’ high-profile visit, which culminated with yesterday’s meeting at the White House, brought attention to CAFTA, but it is not clear if they changed any minds.

“We tried to help those who believe that CAFTA has to be passed by Congress … and also tried to convince others,” said Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos. “I think after four days in the U.S. things are changing. I have high hopes CAFTA will be passed by Congress.”

Some groups remained adamantly opposed to the pact.

“It should not include sugar,” said Phillip Hayes, spokesman for the American Sugar Alliance, a powerful lobby that continues to oppose CAFTA because it allows sugar imports to rise.

“Mr. President, the workers of Central America and the Dominican Republic do not enjoy the freedoms in the workplace that permit them to advance the cause of economic stability in their own families, and importantly, in their countries,” Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, and three colleagues wrote to Mr. Bush immediately following a Wednesday meeting with the CAFTA presidents.

Mr. Rangel and other party leaders have objected to CAFTA because it requires countries to enforce their own labor laws, but does not explicitly define labor standards. Mr. Bush yesterday rejected the complaint.

“For the newly emerging democracies of Central America, CAFTA would bring new investment that means good jobs and higher labor standards for their workers,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush also argued that CAFTA would help “achieve peace and prosperity for our hemisphere … by strengthening democracy and continuing the economic transformation of Central America and the Dominican Republic.”

The administration has urged lawmakers to recall Central America’s troubled past as a Cold War battleground, wrought by civil strife, and said CAFTA would help solidify democratic reforms of the past decade.

CAFTA, alternatively known as DR-CAFTA, also is seen as a proxy for broader trade policy in the Western Hemisphere, where the administration is trying to cobble together free-trade deals with Panama and three Andean nations, as well as a Free Trade Area of the Americas that would span from Alaska to Argentina.

“I do think this is a real indicator of the United States’ ability to move forward,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president at the Council of the Americas, a business group that supports CAFTA. “A lot of people are waiting to see how DR-CAFTA comes out. Is it worth doing an agreement with the administration if it can’t get this one through Congress?”

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