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CAFTA's environmental politics

By Lou Dobbs

This week on "Lou Dobbs Tonight": Secret Trade Agreement 6 p.m. ET, Monday-Friday

Who's For It? Who's Against It?
Tuesday: Congressional Pushback
Wednesday: Global Textile War
Thursday: Flood the Borders?
Friday: CAFTA: No Sweet Deal?
Lou Dobbs
Environmental Politics
International Trade

(CNN) -- The Bush administration needs Congressional approval of the contentious Central American Free Trade Agreement, which is the top priority on its trade agenda this year.

In addition to reaching out to domestic sugar and textile producers, who fear they stand to lose the most from CAFTA, the White House is making a surprising pitch to environmentalists.

Earlier this month, the United States and CAFTA countries signed two side environmental pacts to the trade agreement. One sets up a process to allow the public to submit concerns over environmental violations; the other sets goals for environmental protection to be monitored independently.

The United States Trade Representative called these extras "ground-breaking," "robust" and "innovative."

But they haven't impressed many environmental groups, who claim the new provisions are just a political tactic to soften Congressional opposition. The supplements, rather than provide valid environmental protections, simply divert attention from the CAFTA agreement itself, these groups say.

"There's nothing to it," said Lori Wallach, director of Global Trade Watch at Public Citizen. "The actual text of the [CAFTA] agreement is what's binding and the text of the agreement is a catastrophe."

The CAFTA text not only removes some helpful environmental measures contained in past trade agreements, it also includes some of the provisions from NAFTA that have soured many environmentalists on that decade-old trade pact, Wallach said. While some environmental groups supported NAFTA, they have all come out against CAFTA, she said.

And in contrast to the bi-partisan support NAFTA had, many House Democrats now oppose CAFTA. With fewer "free-trade Democrats" in Congress and diminished Democratic power, Democrats are less willing to compromise on issues affecting their core constituencies. They're now calling for stronger labor and environmental protections in any trade agreements that the United States enters.

But a spokesman for the USTR, Richard Mills, pointed out that many of the Democrats now expressing opposition on environmental and labor grounds voted for the U.S.-Morocco free trade agreement last year and the U.S.-Jordan pact in 2001.

They also supported the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), the temporary precursor to CAFTA that allows those countries to export goods to the United States duty-free. CAFTA will make those benefits permanent, as well as increase U.S. access to markets in Central America and the Dominican Republic.

Mills said these Democrats' opposition is "counter-intuitive." He characterized their logic as the following: "'I'm sorry, Mr. U.S. Small Businessman. I feel so strongly about the environment in Honduras, and whether a Honduran worker can organize, that I'm not going to let you sell them anything.'"

But Wallach said CAFTA lost support because it rolled back some of the enforceable environmental provisions that agreements like the U.S.-Jordan pact included. And the CBI, she said, was just a tariff waiver. "It didn't have any of the actively anti-environmental provisions of this [CAFTA] agreement."

Given the current Democratic opposition to CAFTA, the agreement will face a tough fight when it reaches the House of Representatives. But some prominent voices of the old "free-trade Democrat" regime are weighing in.

Robert Rubin, the U.S. Treasury Secretary under President Clinton, recently urged Congress to set aside environmental and labor concerns in supporting free-trade agreements.

Rubin argued that such concerns often "do not relate to the economic realities of the countries involved." He cautioned that the United States could find itself at a disadvantage as other countries that don't insist on such conditions move ahead with their own global trade agreements.

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