Congressional forum examines CAFTA's impact on Minnesota
ST, CLOUD - Emphasizing that passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) would have negative effects across the state, 8th District Congressman Collin Peterson heard testimony in St. Cloud Saturday from unions, agriculture and environmental groups.St. Cloud is represented by Sixth District Congressman Mark Kennedy, who has not announced a position on CAFTA. Peterson, who is leading opposition to the proposed trade deal, said the forum is part of an effort "to keep the CAFTA issue in front of the American people."
The Bush administration negotiated the CAFTA deal to include the United States, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic (which actually is in the Caribbean, not Central America). Speakers at the forum said they support trade, but want fair trade that raises living standards for people around the world.
Minnesota's beet sugar industry, the largest in the United States, could be wiped out under CAFTA, Peterson and other speakers said. Currently, the sugar industry receives no subsidies, but imports are controlled to keep a floor under U.S. sugar prices. Under CAFTA, millions of tons of imported sugar would be "dumped" on the U.S. market - sold here at less than the cost of production - making it impossible for U.S. farmers and sugar producers to compete.
Tony St. Michel, representing Local 266 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco & Grain Millers Union, said hundreds of workers employed at sugar factories in Minnesota and North Dakota would lose their jobs under CAFTA. Many small businesses wouldn't be able to survive.
"If CAFTA is allowed to go through, we will have farmers and workers standing shoulder to shoulder in the unemployment line," St. Michel said. "When these people lose their jobs - good jobs, jobs with health insurance, jobs with a pension, jobs with benefits - what is to become of them and their communities?"
Peterson said analysis indicates 25 percent of all businesses in the Red River Valley would go under if the sugar beet industry were wiped out.As proposed, CAFTA contains no provisions to protect labor, human rights and the environment. "The so-called free trade policy does not account for social values, other than corporate profits," said Ginny Yingling of the Sierra Club. "There are far too many losers and only a few winners in this global race to the bottom."
Dennis Olson of the Institute of Agriculture & Trade Policy said free trade agreements such as CAFTA do nothing to address poverty in developing countries - in fact they create it. Rather than being eliminated, the U.S. sugar program and its system of checks and balances should be held up as a model for trade policy, he said.
"We see an opportunity to put the sugar program forth as a viable alternative to the current program that's not working," he said.
Minnesota AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Steve Hunter described the many problems created by the 10-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and said people do not want more of the same.
No vote is scheduled on CAFTA, but one could come in April or May, Peterson said. Currently, the Bush administration lacks the votes to pass the trade deal.
Now the ranking Democrat on the U.S. House of Representatives'
Agriculture Committee, Peterson said he has seen a significant change in his colleagues over the many years he has served in Congress. For years, Agriculture Committee members rubber-stamped free trade deals, he said.
But in the past two or three years, many members have come to realize that these deals only help giant agribusiness companies and hurt farmers.
Due to growing Congressional opposition, a hemisphere-wide trade deal - the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) - appears to be "dead in the water," Peterson said. The Bush administration is now pursuing smaller agreements such as CAFTA and bilateral deals with individual countries.
"I feel good about the momentum" to stop CAFTA, Peterson said. "I think it's on our side. But we can't give up for one minute."
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