WASHINGTON – Hoping to win congressional support for a free trade pact, the Bush administration on Thursday pledged to devote more money and effort to improving labor rights in Central America.
As part of an aggressive campaign on behalf of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (search), President Bush also was meeting with Democrats, many of whom are resisting the deal.
Some opponents of the agreement say it does provide enough protections for the environment and workers.
The pact would eliminate most tariffs and other trade barriers between the United States and six Latin American nations — Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republican.
The House could vote on the agreement in the next month.
The deal is a hard sell in the House because many lawmakers say it would repeat some of the problems of the trade deal with Mexico and Canada that took effect 11 years ago.
U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman (search), in a speech Thursday to a U.S.-Hispanic business group, said he would seek to increase the $20 million already set aside to help the Central American nations with their labor and environmental standards.
Portman said he would try to organize an international conference before the end of July that would focus on helping those countries strengthen labor rights, enforce labor laws and combat discrimination.
Such steps would add to "the best agreement ever negotiated by the United States on labor rights," Portman said.
The agreement requires participating nations to enforce their own labor laws. Violations could bring as much as $15 million a year, per occurrence.
Critics argue that some of the Central American nations have a poor record of labor law enforcement and that the deal would lead to further abuses, including crackdowns on unions and the use of child labor.
They say the agreement should require that signers abide by standards set by the International Labor Organization.
Rep. Sherrod Brown, leading foe of the agreement, was not impressed by Portman's approach.
"If the administration was serious about labor provisions, they would have negotiated them into the trade agreement in the first place," said Brown, D-Ohio.
The agreement also is not popular among Republicans from districts with textile manufacturers and sugar beet or sugar cane farmers. The U.S. sugar industry says the small increase in imports from Central American allowed under the deal would hurt U.S. producers.
Meantime, the House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday released a letter in which former President Jimmy Carter said the agreement would enhance U.S. national security and influence in the Western Hemisphere because of "improved stability, democracy and development in our poor fragile neighbors."
Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias (search), a candidate to return to the presidency of Costa Rica, was on Capitol Hill this week urging fence-sitters to back the deal.
The agreement, he told reporters, offered "a choice between making more prosperous the people of Central America or condemning them to live in poverty forever."
But Costa Rican parliamentarian and party leader Otton Solis, in a telephone interview with reporters, said the agreement would have serious consequences in his country. He said it would force the breakup of Costa Rica's telecommunications and electricity monopolies, to the detriment of Costa Ricans, and result in a flood of cheap American food products that would hurt small-scale farmers in Costa Rica.
That, in turn, would compel more poor farmers to try to migrate to the United States or turn to the drug industry.