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Of Trade and Terror in the Americas


WASHINGTON – Ordinary Americans pay their taxes each year without realizing that they’re in part supporting more than 700 military installations and spy stations worldwide. So it can’t be an easy sell to convince them their tax dollars also support displacing and dispossessing the indigenous peoples of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.

But a half-dozen indigenous leaders kept trying May 22 in Washington. After a morning of meetings on Capitol Hill ran longer than planned, they addressed some 25 representatives of church and advocacy organizations at the Friends Committee on National Legislation headquarters.

They spoke in Spanish as Natalia Cardona, assistant coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee (an arm of the FCNL), translated. Their story, familiar to many of those present and filled out for others by FCNL background papers, left little doubt that U.S. policy has increased their troubles or that America could decrease them by standing down from or refining the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Unlikely as that may seem right now, CAFTA’s model, the North American Free Trade Agreement, is getting another look in light of the immigration debate. Advocates presented NAFTA as a way to improve economic opportunities in the developing world by opening American markets to trade with poorer countries, which in turn had to open their markets to American exports.

After 10 years, one of NAFTA’s short-term failures – its failure to create U.S.-quality jobs for Mexican workers – is glaring enough that NAFTA planners have forgotten there was ever a higher goal than a slight hike in Mexican wages.

As noted in The Wall Street Journal, the minor gains in Mexican wages 10 years after NAFTA were just enough to enable a Mexican exodus north.

So with the jury still out on NAFTA, why would the American state, at significant expense to its taxpayers, seek to impose CAFTA, a near-twin of NAFTA, on Central American states?

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One reason is fairly obvious. America shares no border with Colombia, the epicenter of pro-CAFTA policies under President Alvaro Uribe Velez. But Ecuador does, and Ecuador is already absorbing workers displaced by Plan Colombia, the Velez administration’s regimen of “structural adjustments” designed to render the Colombian economy worthy of U.S.-backed free market guidelines.

Displacement is a standing problem for indigenous communities in the region, especially where development threatens indigenous lands.

In Peru alone, said Rufina Rivera Cabezas, secretary for the Organization of Displaced Families in Lima, Peru, more than 600,000 indigenous people have been displaced, primarily by poverty, land development and related territorial intrusions.

Another reason America favors CAFTA is the war on terror declared by President George W. Bush. The Bush administration is eager to stymie terror in Central America before it can take on a global complexion. CAFTA is partly an economic prescription for addressing poverty as a progenitor of terrorism in Central America.

But terror in Central America has long been double-edged. It is a standard practice for states there to justify the use of force against civil dissidence, on grounds the dissidents are fronting for terrorist groups.

The charge came around again on May 16, when Colombian police confronted farmers and indigenous groups who had gathered to protest CAFTA. The governor of Cauca province, as quoted by an Associated Press reporter, said “terrorism” had “financed, organized and sponsored” the protests. The speakers in Washington May 23 discredited the charges as a typical government tactic.

Another U.S. justification for CAFTA is the profit motive. Under NAFTA, subsidized U.S. agricultural exports have done few favors for small farm producers, and corn growers feel particularly threatened in Central America. That is why farmers took part in the May 16 protests in Colombia.

Indigenous peoples in Central America have a limited ability to adapt to the economic pressures introduced by subsidized foreign produce. “We feel that a trade agreement will lead from poverty to extreme poverty, as well as internal displacement and immigration,” Rivera Cabezas said.

The Central American Free Trade Agreement has not come to a vote in the U.S. Congress.