Tuesday, May 10, 2005
Salvadoran President Promotes Trade Agreement
Anna Macias Aguayo
Salvadoran President Tony Saca said Tuesday that Central America could return to the instability of the 1980s without an agreement now being debated in Congress to remove trade barriers between the United States and Central America.
"There is something more serious than terrorism, and that is unemployed people, desperate people,'' Saca, speaking in Spanish, told 125 people at a breakfast speech at the National Hispanic Cultural Center here.
The Central American Free Trade Agreement, CAFTA, would do for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic what the similar North American Free Trade Agreement in 1995 did for trade between the United States, Mexico and Canada.
As Saca arrived, about 40 people demonstrated at a busy intersection outside, protesting the agreement as exploiting workers and damaging the environment.
Under the pact, more than half of U.S. farm exports to CAFTA countries would become duty-free immediately. Those countries bought nearly $16 billion in U.S. goods last year.
Saca said there are no alternatives to the treaty. And, it would provide jobs and economic stability that are urgently needed in Central America.
"If a person is unemployed, there are no workers' rights to protect,'' he said. "Our priority is to get people working.''
He acknowledged concerns about workers' rights in El Salvador, but said the Salvadoran government has implemented stringent new labor laws. And he said no other accord has as many labor protections as CAFTA.
"The problem of civil rights violations is old history,'' Saca said. "Central America lives in democracy.''
He encouraged those in the audience largely business leaders to urge members of Congress to support the treaty. CAFTA faces opposition from Democrats who say its labor and environmental provisions are too weak.
Saca said New Mexico businesses and such industries as agriculture, textiles, high-tech and entertainment would benefit from increased exports under the treaty.
The protesters, representing unions, community and environmental groups and University of New Mexico students, chanted in English and Spanish as Saca's motorcade drove by: "What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!''
"We've seen the horrible legacy of NAFTA in the border region between the U.S. and Mexico,'' said one, Tomas Garduno of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice.
NAFTA has left widespread pollution and unplanned communities without electricity or drinking water and forced more undocumented Mexicans north of the border "because of the horrible working conditions,'' he said.
Another protester, retired businessman Doug Deaton, contended CAFTA is "part of maintaining the inequality between the rich and poor in the world. It's part of maintaining the U.S. standard of living at the expense of Latin Americans.
"This is not good for the human race.''
Saca dismissed the protesters as uninformed. He said they probably hadn't read the treaty and don't offer any better proposals.
Saca, who had dinner in Santa Fe with Gov. Bill Richardson on Monday night, began a five-day U.S. visit that morning by promoting CAFTA in Los Angeles, home to thousands of Salvadoran immigrants, and San Diego.