"The" Trade Debate

By Oxfam America

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Oxfam was already working with partner groups on the ground in Central America when DR-CAFTA negotiations began in early 2003. Efforts to defeat it picked up speed in 2004 when the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement stalled after a meeting of trade ministers in Miami. Oxfam then joined with other groups in prioritizing DR-CAFTA. It represented some of the same bad ideas: opening up developing country markets while offering few protections. With the FTAA dead in the water, the Bush administration pushed DR-CAFTA in order to jump-start its "competitive liberalization" trade agenda, causing the trade agreement to emerge as "the" trade debate in Congress.

With the US looking to increase trade with Africa and Asia as well, Oxfam and its partners knew the negotiations around DR-CAFTA would set the stage for the US free trade agenda.

"In the US, this was a symbolic vote and symbolic debate. It was about much more than US trade with these Central American countries," Weinberg said. "For Oxfam and others, it was important to draw the line in the sand to say 'stop negotiating trade rules that fail poor people.' Our message to the US Congress and administration is 'get back to the negotiating table at the World Trade Organization to ensure a meaningful outcome that addresses key concerns for development.'"

The campaign operated on several levels. In Central America, civil society groups largely barred from democratic processes worked hard to open up avenues of debate with their government representatives negotiating the agreement. They also carried out grassroots education campaigns and mobilized people from across their countries to pressure their governments to stop DR-CAFTA.

At the same time, Oxfam sponsored delegations from all six Latin American countries that are party to the agreement.

Ten groups—made up of economists, small-scale farmers, generic drug company representatives, women's rights activists, environmentalists and former elected officials—came to Washington, DC, between 2003 and 2005 to speak directly with Congress members and their staff.

"It was an education for many in the US Congress, as well as a capacity building exercise for those who participated, because the people who came up learned a lot about how the US Congress and political system functions," Weinberg said.

At the same time, elected officials in the US learned about the reality on the ground in Central America, which provided a different story than the ones they constantly heard from Central American ministers and ambassadors. In one example, Oxfam America helped facilitate visits by rice farmers from Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic last April. They met with 20 different undecided members of Congress and their staff, and helped them hear directly from farming communities vulnerable to low-priced imports from the US. Congressman Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and his staff heard this message about rice, and issued a statement to his colleagues in Congress explaining the potential for unfair trade.

"While Central American countries will be forced to eliminate import tariffs on rice, the United States will continue to maintain generous subsidies for domestic rice producers. The US produces $850 million in rice each year, but subsidizes the industry to the tune of $1.3 billion; $450 million over the market price. These artificial supports lead to dumping on the international market, distorting trade. Huge agri-business reaps the profits, as 20 percent of US rice producers receive 85 percent of price support revenues," the statement read.

"Central American rice producers face an uncertain and bleak future with an imminent flood of unfair imports."