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WASHINGTON LETTER Jul-23-2004 (960 words) Backgrounder. With logos posted March 10 and photos posted today. xxxn

Campaign '04: Free trade has low profile in U.S. but impact abroad

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In today's globalized world, the United States is the economic superpower, making free-market capitalism the only game in town for poor countries that want to carve out a bigger share of world trade.

President Bush has continued the push of his predecessors for free trade agreements around the world, but discussion of the pros and cons of these agreements is not on the front burner in this year's presidential campaign.

Yet the positions of Bush, the likely Republican nominee, and of Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, his expected Democratic opponent, have strong implications for the developing world; and the entire issue is of concern to church officials in the Americas.

Bush and Kerry agree on trade pact goals that include creating jobs in the United States by opening up new world markets for U.S. goods. Import tariffs, which would be reduced under free trade agreements, currently make some U.S. products uncompetitive in other countries.

The approach of church officials to free trade accords is different, said John Carr, head of the U.S. bishops' Department of Social Development and World Peace.

Most U.S. politicians see trade agreements narrowly, looking to maximize the benefits for the country and to avoid the disadvantages, said Carr.

Church officials take a "bottom-up" approach, concerned more with how such agreements affect the poor and vulnerable members in the countries involved, he said.

For the church, the issue goes beyond creating jobs, he added. "Do people leave poverty behind? Is life enhanced?"

Greater economic integration among nations can be an important part of helping countries develop, said Carr.

"Unfortunately, trade policy is often an inside game. The poor and vulnerable do not have a place at the table," he said.

"Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility," the U.S. bishops' 2003 document offering a Catholic perspective on election issues, says the United States has the "capacity and responsibility" to address issues of world poverty and underdevelopment. It asks for a comprehensive U.S. development program which includes "more equitable trade policies."

Daniel Finn, a professor of both economics and theology at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., said that, in general, politicians of differing ideologies endorse free trade as a way to get poor people to support themselves and their families and become more productive.

But Democrats and Republicans differ on the approach, he said.

Republicans have "too much confidence in the free market," he said.

They do not see some of the negative consequences that need correction, he added.

Republicans take this view because their political base is in the business community which favors the free-market approach and wants "little involvement by government in the economy," said Finn.

Democrats, with a political base in labor unions, take "a simplistic view of trade" and are more protectionist than Republicans because they want to protect U.S. jobs from being threatened by cheaper imports, he said.

Regarding "bottom-up" development, bishops from Mexico and Central America have questioned whether free trade agreements produce more benefits than losses in poor countries. They also question whether such accords provide an equal playing field between the economically powerful United States and their underdeveloped countries.

Bishops are especially concerned that the dropping of tariffs on agricultural products in their countries, where the majority of people earn a living though farming, will put their crops at a disadvantage in comparison to the United States with its huge agribusinesses and price subsidies.

Mexicans have been living under the North American Free Trade Agreement since 1994. NAFTA implemented a free trade zone in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

In a 2003 statement, the Mexican bishops' social action commission said a majority of "small peasant and indigenous farmers have experienced a severe decline in their incomes and quality of life" under NAFTA. The bishops estimated that 3 million Mexican farmers are worse off while those who benefited number "in the thousands."

Kerry voted for NAFTA but has expressed second thoughts about similar free trade agreements.

Bush has used NAFTA as a model for other free trade agreements in the Western Hemisphere, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement promoted by his administration. The Bush administration is also pursuing bilateral free trade agreements with other countries and wants to widen the free trade zone in the Americas.

CAFTA has been signed by trade officials of five Central American countries and the United States but has yet to be approved by the national legislatures of the six countries. It is not expected to be voted on by the U.S. Congress before the November election.

"Exports equal jobs. It's important for people to understand that," Bush said in March. "So when you hear me talk about negotiating trade agreements, really what we're doing is leveling the playing field."

Bush has also promoted free trade as a way to stabilize democracy in underdeveloped countries by promoting economic growth.

Kerry has said he would renegotiate CAFTA and all other pending trade treaties to ensure that provisions protecting the environment and safeguarding fair labor practices are included.

The Democrat also wants strong enforcement of treaties to guarantee sanctions against other countries which undercut the competitiveness of U.S. products.

He told a June 26 meeting of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials that his administration would "stop other countries from violating those agreements and walking away with the store."

Kerry supporters said he wants core labor standards endorsed by the International Labor Organization written into free trade agreements to make sure that other countries cannot undercut U.S. products by providing cheap labor through unfair practices.

The core standards include freedom to form unions, collective bargaining, no compulsory labor, no child labor and no discrimination in employment.


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