EIGHT members of the U.S. House of Representatives,forming the largest congressional delegation ever tovisit Costa Rica, made the rounds Monday in San José, visitingmembers of the Costa Rican-American Chamber ofCommerce (AmCham), the Legislative Assembly andPresident Abel Pacheco, among other leaders, to discussthe Central American Free-Trade Agreement with theUnited States (CAFTA).The press was not allowed to attend any of the events, butmet with the congressmen after each one of the private meetings.The legislators’ positions ranged from indecision to diehardsupport – from arguments that the agreement mightallow the exploitation of Central American workers, to assurancesthat CAFTA is crucial not only for regional economicgrowth but for hemisphere-wide security.ALTHOUGH CAFTA proponents in the group told The Tico Times early in the day theyplanned to urge Pacheco to send the treatyto the Legislative Assembly – the Presidenthas said he will not do so until legislatorsapprove tax reforms – they were reluctantto criticize his priorities.“We have found that we have muchmore in common with your President thandisagreements,” Jim Moran, a pro-CAFTADemocrat from Virginia, said at day’s end.Indiana Republican Dan Burtondeflected questions about Pacheco’sCAFTA stance.“We’re not going to get into the politicalramifications of one bill precedinganother,” he said. “But we were encouragedby the attitude of the President andhis Cabinet toward CAFTA.”Foreign Trade Minister ManuelGonzález and other members of theEconomic Council also participated in themeeting and represented Pacheco at thepress conference afterward. No reason wasgiven for the President’s absence.González said the meeting had been“very clear, very amicable,” and hadallowed the U.S. visitors “to feel, firsthand, the considerations the President has”with respect to CAFTA.ONE of the messages the group leftbehind: CAFTA is not up for renegotiation,as some Costa Ricans, such as 2006presidential pre-candidate Ottón Solís,have claimed.“It’s not going to happen,” Burton said.“The CAFTA agreement is going to bevoted up or down by each country in itscurrent form.”Following the meeting at CasaPresidencial, the delegation met with another2006 presidential hopeful, formerPresident (1988-1992) and staunch CAFTAsupporter Oscar Arias, at his home.According to U.S. Embassy spokeswomanElaine Samson, the congressmenalso met with non-governmental CAFTAadvocates and Costa Rica’s Ambassadorto the United States, Tomás Dueñas, duringtheir stay.THE delegation was composed ofRepublicans and Democrats with a mix ofviews on CAFTA. None of the congressmenexpressed full-fledged opposition tothe agreement, but a few said they were“decidedly undecided,” as Gregory Meeks,a Democrat from New York, put it.Meeks told The Tico Times he is not yetconvinced that the labor and environmentalclauses of the pact will do enough to protect“those at the bottom of the rung.”“We know that the United States built(itself) unfairly, because they built onexploitation – slave labor, child labor. Wewant everyone to be part of the FirstWorld, but we don’t want it to be done thesame way that it was done before,” he toldThe Tico Times.Another undecided New YorkDemocrat, Maurice Hinchey, said economicconditions in the United States willmake it difficult for members of Congressto justify a vote for CAFTA. He alsoargued, however, that fears about theagreement in the United States are basedmore on fears than on facts.“THE average income of theAmerican worker is going down; there’s agrowing disparity between the very richand very poor; there are indications thatthe middle class in America is actuallyshrinking,” he said. “There’s a sense on thepart of many people that previous tradeagreements have played a major role insome of the negative aspects of the economyof the United States that have occurredover the last decade or two.”“If CAFTAcame before the Congress inthe abstract, without any context or a historyof trade agreements elsewhere in the worldwith the U.S., there’s no doubt in my mindthat it would pass overwhelmingly,” headded. “But it’s impossible for people tolook at CAFTA completely in isolation.”While Ambassador Dueñas said after theAmCham breakfast meeting with the U.S.visitors that he is confident of the pact’sapproval in the U.S. Congress, he also saidthe first informal discussion of CAFTA inthe House Ways & Means Committee lasted8.5 hours, an indication of “how broad thediscussion is going to be.”MORAN’S assertive pro-CAFTAstance stood in sharp contrast to some ofhis colleagues’ doubts. He said Costa Ricacannot afford to pass up the opportunitiesCAFTA would provide.“Costa Rica is the leader of CentralAmerica… if you pull out of CAFTA, ifyou don’t participate, Costa Rica will beon the sidelines,” Moran said. “Money isgoing to move over to your neighbors. We(the United States) don’t want that. We want Costa Rica to continue to set the standardfor Central America.”Like other delegation members, heargued the treaty’s proponents have CostaRica’s best interests at heart.“CAFTA doesn’t really matter thatmuch (to the United States). It’s not astrong economy. It’s really more in CentralAmerica’s interest than in the interest ofthe United States,” Moran said.He discounted fears that the treatywould change Costa Rica’s culture or laws.“This is not a bill that is going to transformCosta Rica,” he said. “We (the UnitedStates) don’t have that right.”BURTON, the president of the WesternHemisphere Sub-Committee, said CAFTAand the Andean Free-Trade Agreement currentlyunder negotiation between the UnitedStates and South American countries wouldnot only give the Americas a way to combatincreasing competition from the EuropeanUnion and China, but also help wrest powerfrom the hands of left-wing leaders.“I opposed the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the GeneralAgreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)and the World Trade Organization(WTO),” Burton said. “One reason I’msupporting CAFTA… is that we havecountries in South America that have leadersmoving in a very disconcerting direction.Free trade will create… new opportunitiesand economic growth, so that thequestion of radical changes in government(in Latin America) will start to diminish.”He later mentioned Venezuela’s PresidentHugo Chávez as one of the “disconcerting”leaders in question and added that“destabilization… in Central and SouthAmerica,” caused by struggling economies,could cause “mass migration toward wherethey see opportunity and freedom.”OTHER members of the delegationincluded Democrat Henry Cuellar (Texas)and Republicans Darrell Issa (California),Kenny Marchant (Texas) and Joe Wilson(South Carolina). Republicans Jerry Weller(Illinois) and Ron Lewis (Kentucky) alsovisited but left early; the rest of the delegatesreturned to the United States onTuesday.CAFTA was signed by Costa Rica,Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, theUnited States, El Salvador, Honduras andGuatemala last year. The latter three countrieshave already ratified the agreement.
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