National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 12, 2003

George Barisich, a third-generation fisherman and president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, gathers his catch of shrimp off the coast of New Orleans. Louisiana shrimp fishermen are among many groups opposing CAFTA.
-- KRT/Pete Souza
CAFTA unites unlikely opponents in New Orleans

From Louisiana fishermen to Pax Christi members, a motley mix turned out to protest a trade agreement they say will spell disaster stateside as well as in Central America

New Orleans

Managua resident Magda Lanuza used to enjoy drinking fresh milk produced on local Nicaraguan farms. “Not any more,” says Lanuza sadly. “People in the cities are now drinking powdered milk produced by an Italian transnational company. The indigenous food chain has been destroyed. We are eating imported rice, imported corn.”

The company Lanuza is referring to is Parmalat, which began vending a combination of fresh and powdered milk in Nicaragua’s capital in 2000.

The access to Nicaraguan markets that Parmalat and other multinationals now enjoy, according to Lanuza, can be directly attributed to free trade policies imposed on her country by the World Bank. But those policies are just a hint of what she fears will happen under the Central American Free Trade Agreement, CAFTA, currently being negotiated between the United States, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Last month, Lanuza joined protesters in New Orleans during the sixth round of CAFTA negotiations, held in New Orleans July 28-Aug. 1. The negotiating text of the agreement has not been disclosed, even to the legislatures of the participating countries. But protesters say they assume it will be modeled after NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the recently completed free trade agreement between the United States and Chile. And that’s bad enough for them.

“Everywhere, local economies are being broken up in this international economy,” says Brian Marks, spokesperson for the No CAFTA Coalition, which coordinated the New Orleans protest. “Increasingly ‘trade’ is being called cross-border operations within a corporation.” He gestures in frustration. “If I take my watch off of this arm, and put it on this arm, is that trade?”

As Marks and other opponents see it, CAFTA and other free trade agreements unfairly benefit large corporations at the expense of small producers and rural populations. According to a list of talking points distributed by the No CAFTA Coalition, free trade policies like those imposed under NAFTA allow the dumping of imported agricultural products at prices below the cost of production. This, in turn, drives small local producers -- like the corn farmers of Chiapas, Mexico -- out of business. The coalition also maintains that CAFTA will limit the rights of member countries to regulate food safety and the environment within their own borders. Under NAFTA, such regulations can be deemed harmful to an investor by a tribunal of the World Trade Organization, which, though not popularly elected, has the power to levy steep damages against signatory governments. Further, coalition members fear that the pending agreement will force the privatization of vital public services such as water, electricity, education and health care under clauses forbidding unfair competition for contracts.

All this was speculation as nearly 100 protesters gathered in New Orleans’ Armstrong Park for an anti-CAFTA protest and march July 26. But the concerns were concrete enough to call together a motley mix that included third-generation shrimp fishermen, Pax Christi activists and self-proclaimed anarchists.

About a dozen shrimp fishermen, outfitted in billed caps and T-shirts, marched with banners that promoted fresh wild shrimp. The fishermen hung toward the rear of a procession led by bike riders brandishing anarcho-syndicalist flags and a megaphone-toting announcer chanting, “What is CAFTA ‘afta’?” Some of them said the pending agreement amounted to government subsidy of shrimp farms abroad, while others stressed the danger of importing farm-raised shrimp tainted with pesticides and antibiotics. All of them, though, saw CAFTA as part of a trend that threatens their way of life.

“These trade agreements are not to help small people, they’re to help big corporations,” said A.J. Fabre, a member of the Louisiana Shrimp Association. “The prices are killing us, and it’s directly a response to NAFTA,” added shrimp fisherman Troy Zar. Another fisherman, Glenn Poche, said that the fleet in the nearby village of Lafitte, La., had dwindled from 90 boats to four since NAFTA went into effect.

Local Pax Christi organizers Jean and Tom Eagan came out because they see a basic betrayal of human values in the current push toward free trade manifest in CAFTA. “Pax Christi has a long history of involvement with issues like this because of our involvement with and advocacy for poor people in Central America since the 1970s,” said Tom Eagan, who recently retired as a teacher of sociology and psychology at Ben Franklin High School. “I think these agreements are about the exploitation of labor at the low end of the economy under the guise of providing jobs. At the upper end, though, it means corporate profit. That’s why all the meetings here have to be in secret.”

By failing to organize against free trade agreements that further impoverish the poor, said Eagan, the Catholic church is refusing to act on its own social teaching. He referred to a 1985-86 pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops titled “Economic Justice for All,” which lays out the principle that any or all economic policies should be judged on the basis of what they do for people and what they do to people. “It’s not justice that is driving all this. It’s profit -- as opposed to the faith-based perspective, which starts with respect for people,” Eagan said.

Negotiations on CAFTA began last January and are projected to finish by year’s end. According to terms of the 2002 Baucus-Grassley “fast track” trade bill, the U.S. Congress must vote the finished agreement up or down within 90 days of receiving it, but it will not be able to amend the agreement. Numerous organizations, including the No CAFTA Coalition, Oxfam America and Catholic Relief Services, have called for transparency in the negotiating process at a minimum.

A week before the July protest, at an orientation session held at the Loyola University New Orleans library, Tom Ricker of the Quixote Center said that CAFTA was designed to put pressure on Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina to approve similar free trade agreements under the Free Trade Area of the Americas. FTAA, which affects all of South America, is scheduled for final approval by January 2005. FTAA negotiations will be held Nov. 17-21 in Miami.

Lanuza said that in July she was already organizing what she predicts will be massive protests against the next round of CAFTA negotiations, which are scheduled to be held in Managua this month. “With the World Bank, negotiations were every two years,” said Lanuza. “Now it will be forever. They are putting a lock to our rights.”

Lili LeGardeur writes from New Orleans.

National Catholic Reporter, September 12, 2003

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