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Latin Free Trade: Mixed Support

A new poll shows that Americans generally support free trade with Latin America, but where do the leading U.S. presidential candidates stand?


While the top two Democratic presidential candidates are generally opposed to free trade with Latin America, a new poll shows that more Americans favor free trade with the region than oppose it.

Nearly half - 47.3 percent - strongly support or somewhat support U.S. free trade agreements with Peru and Central America, while only 35.5 percent strongly oppose or somewhat oppose them, according to a poll by Zogby Interactive with collaboration from the Inter-American Dialogue.

However, asked to evaluate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - which combines the U.S., Canadian and Mexican markets into one of the world's largest free trade zones - only 26.7 percent believe it has been good for the United States. Nearly half - 47.7 percent - say it has been bad for the United States. The results are similar to a previous poll from Zogby released in August last year. That poll showed almost half of Americans - 48 percent - believed the United States had been hurt the most by NAFTA, while only 16 percent say the United States had benefited most from the pact (see U.S. Favors Free Trade, Sees China Threat).

Iraq, taxes, immigration and healthcare have dominated the debate among presidential candidates. But where do they stand on free trade with Latin America?  Latin Business Chronicle took a closer look.

U.S. Senator, Democrat

Clinton has a mixed record on free trade as a Senator and is now a vocal critic of trade pacts ranging from NAFTA to CAFTA.  In December, she was among five senators that didn't vote on the U.S.-Peru free trade agreement, which was passed with 77 against 18 votes. In contrast, Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential canidate in 2004, voted in favor.

Although Clinton voted in favor of the US-Chile FTA in 2003, she voted against CAFTA two years later. "While this agreement provides some benefit for New York, I regretfully conclude the harm outweighs the good," Clinton said just before voting against CAFTA.  "My vote to oppose DR-CAFTA is one taken with great difficulty. I have heard strong arguments both for and against from many New Yorkers who have a stake in the agreement and I have weighed them seriously. Segments of the New York economy would benefit from this agreement, but at the end of the day, I cannot support an agreement that fails to include adequate labor standards and is a step backward in the development of bipartisan support for international trade."

She also criticized that the final agreement "excludes provisions for assisting U.S. workers harmed by trade" and charged that "the environmental provisions of CAFTA undermine environmental protection, by including a lack of parity between the enforcement of commercial and environmental provisions." Finally, CAFTA also fails in the area of public health [since it] will significantly impede the ability of developing countries to obtain access to inexpensive, life-saving medications, she argued.

"One of the reasons I voted against CAFTA is that it retreated from advances we were beginning to make at the end of the 1990s," Clinton told a meeting in February 2006 organized by the United Auto Workers union. "We should never ever enter into a labor agreement in the 21st century that does not have labor and environmental standards in trade. Because if we don’t have trade agreements that lift the bottom up, we will see a race to the bottom." She voiced similar sentiments in an interview with Time magazine in February last year. "I voted against CAFTA because I looked at the facts and I thought we have no environmental or labor standards—something that I believe is within the rubric of free trade," she said. "Free trade doesn't mean trade without rules."

More surprisingly perhaps, is Clinton's criticism of NAFTA, the trade pact her husband fought hard to get congressional approval for.  "NAFTA and the way it's been implemented has hurt a lot of American workers," she said during an August 2007 debate between Democratic presidential candidates in Chicago organized by the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor group. "So clearly we have to have a broad reform in how we approach trade."

In an interview with Bloomberg in March 2006 Clinton said she wonders why NAFTA is "continuing to drive hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people from Mexico into our country...We just can't keep doing what we did in the 20th century.'' In that interview  - and again in an interview with Time in February last year - she emphasized that NAFTA was not an initiative of her husband, but his predecessor, George Bush. "NAFTA was inherited by the Clinton Administration," she told Time. NAFTA was "pushed through Congress in the Clinton administration," she told Bloomberg.

The new anti-trade policies mark a contrast to past statements, Bloomberg points out. "The simple fact is, nations with free-market systems do better,'' Clinton said in a 1997 speech to the Corporate Council on Africa. "Look around the globe: Those nations which have lowered trade barriers are prospering more than those that have not.'' And at the 1998 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, she praised corporations for mounting "a very effective business effort in the U.S. on behalf of NAFTA...It is certainly clear that we have not by any means finished the job that has begun," Bloomberg quoted.

Clinton's free market criticism also contrasts with her husband's efforts to implement the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a free trade pact that would include all nations in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba.

US Senator, Republican

McCain has consistently voted in favor of free trade. He voted in favor of CAFTA in 2005, the U.S.-Chile FTA in 2003 and NAFTA in 1993. He also has specifically expressed support for the pending FTA's with Colombia and Panama as well as Peru, although he didn't vote when the Senate passed the U.S.-Peru FTA in December. (He thus joined Clinton, Obama and previous Democrat presidential hopefuls Chris Dodd and Joseph Biden in not voting).

"We need to build on the passage of the Central America Free Trade Agreement by expanding U.S. trade with the region," McCain said in June to the Florida Association of Broadcasters. "Let's start by ratifying the trade agreements with Panama, Peru, and Colombia that are already completed, and pushing forward the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Too many Democrats have embraced economic isolationism, paying off special interests by opposing trade agreements with our democratic neighbors. They could not be more wrong. My administration would reduce barriers to trade and press for renewed Trade Promotion Authority."

U.S. Senator, Democrat

Obama has a mixed record on free trade. He has voted for a U.S. free trade agreement with Oman, but voted against CAFTA in 2005 and has criticized NAFTA.  In December, he was among five senators that didn't vote on the U.S.-Peru free trade agreement, which was passed with 77 against 18 votes.  In contrast, Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential canidate in 2004, voted in favor.

CAFTA "does less to protect labor than previous trade agreements, and does little to address enforcement of basic environmental standards in the Central American countries and the Dominican Republic," Obama wrote in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune explaining his vote.

In the Chicago debate in August 2007, Obama also said he would try to amend NAFTA. "I would immediately call the president of Mexico, the president (sic) of Canada to try to amend NAFTA, because I think we can get labor agreements in that agreement right now," he said.

However, Obama has supported Brazilian ethanol production as a way to reduce U.S. dependence on oil from Venezuela. "Greater Brazilian production of renewable fuels could boost sustainable economic development throughout Latin America, and reshape the geopolitics of energy in the hemisphere, reducing the oil-driven influence of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez," he said in a statement in March last year. "The more inter-hemispheric production and use of ethanol and other biofuels occurs, and the more such indigenously-produced renewable fuels are used to replace fossil fuels, the better it is for our friends in the hemisphere."

 © Copyright Latin Business Chronicle

Sources: AP, Bloomberg, Chicago Tribune, Council on Foreign Relations,  Time magazine, Senator Clinton's Office, US Senate,  Washington Post, Latin Business Chronicle research.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an updated and shorter version of a longer article U.S. Candidates and Latin America (with more candidates) published August 2007.

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