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We Used to Call That Imperialism

By Alex Modotti

On May 1, tens of thousands of Salvadorans filled the streets of San Salvador in an energetic mega-march to commemorate International Workers’ Day. One of their main demands, as illustrated by thousands of banners and posters carried by protesters snaking their way along the four-hour march route, was to stop the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Unionists, peasants, women, community groups, and street vendors carried “No CAFTA” signs, while groups of students spray-painted city streets and walls with “CAFTA = Death.” The march’s tone echoed that of dozens of similar anti-CAFTA actions in El Salvador and the rest of Central America that have taken place over the past two years.

Twenty-eight days later, officials from El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the United States gathered in Washington, D.C., to sign the final draft of the agreement. In an absurd twist, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick tried to dismiss the protestors outside the gathering, saying, “You’ll pardon me if I have a little bit of an ironic smile when primarily people from the United States decide to tell democracies in Central America what’s good for them. We used to call that imperialism.”

Five Donkeys and a Tiger

Here in Central America, the concept of opening markets to free trade is not new. People have already experienced the devastating consequences of allowing foreign capital to run loose in their countries. They recognize that CAFTA would deepen and solidify transnational corporate power in the region by writing all of the rules of free trade in stone. Like NAFTA in Mexico, CAFTA would take legal precedent over national constitutions,2 a massive intervention into national sovereignty.

Even without having witnessed the negotiations, it is possible to imagine the miniscule leverage with which the five tiny Central American parties were able to negotiate with the United States, an economic superpower with a Gross Domestic Product at least 140 times greater than their collective GDP.3 As one rural Salvadoran woman explained it, “A free trade agreement between the United States and Central American countries is like putting a banquette feast between a hungry tiger and five little tied-up donkeys.” The bargaining process was closed to the scrutiny of most of civil society. Government and business representatives negotiated it in secret without any participation from social movements or non-governmental organizations. With such an imbalanced and guarded negotiation process, it is not surprising that the U.S. was able to walk away from the feast having left barely any crumbs for Central America.

Of course, there are a few powerful Salvadoran families whose businesses stand to gain significantly from CAFTA. In order to get their slice of the pie, theSalvadoran elite and their representatives in government are bending over backward to help Bush get CAFTA ratified. The severely indebted Salvadoran government is spending millions of dollars on lobbying in Washington in attempt to sway the U.S. Congress. The government has also sponsored a glossy ad campaign to promote the treaty within El Salvador, airing television commercials showing image after image of jobs that CAFTA will supposedly create.

The right-wing Salvadoran government has also rolled out the red carpet for U.S. officials to come and promote CAFTA. In March 2004, Jeb Bush traipsed through Central America with an entourage of men in suits representing Florida businesses looking to invest in the region when CAFTA passes. The much-publicized visit came to El Salvador during the height of a highly contested presidential campaign, aiding the Salvadoran ruling party, always anxious to demonstrate its strong ties to the U.S. government. While it has succeeded in causing some public confusion, thus far, the multi-million dollar public relations campaign has not slowed down El Salvador’s organized resistance to CAFTA.

Acting on Experience

Electricity workers in El Salvador have seen the effects of neo-liberal4 reforms first hand and their story is a dark foreshadowing of what CAFTA will do to workers and consumers throughout Central America. Until the mid-’90s, electricity generation, transmission, and distribution were all run by one public corporation in El Salvador. At that time, the company had around 5,000 employees, many of whom were active members of the union. Fredy Lopez, Secretary of Relations of the Industry Union of Workers in the Electrical Sector (STSEL), explains that, “The union was powerful, negotiating living wages and benefits for the workers. However, over the past 10 years, as electricity distribution has been privatized and much of the generation has been conceded, the number of workers has been reduced to around 700, with 240 affiliated union members remaining.” Meanwhile, the great justification behind privatization — the promise of reduced rates due to competition in the free market — has been exposed as a hoax. “Since privatization,” says Lopez, “electricity rates have increased by 750% in El Salvador.”

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