WASHINGTON -- Sugar. From the sound of it, the thing alternately known as CAFTA or DR-CAFTA or CAFTA-DR is primarily about facing down the bitter remnants of U.S. protectionism. Sweet the rhetoric isn't. "Like Lenin," former Delaware governor du Pont wrote tartly -- in the Wall Street Journal -- "U.S. Sugar seems to think that Americans should suffer economically rather than have a free market in sugar."
It has a nice ring to it, or about as nice a ring as the equation of obdurate sugar lobbying with the picking of famine over private farming can have. Deputy Secretary of State Zoellick put it a little less rudely, and with a better sound bite, too: "We must decide whether we will sacrifice the strategic interests of the United States and the future of Central America for a spoonful of sugar."
Zoellick frames the debate so neatly one almost forgets the golden phrase "strategic interests" before one hears it. But there it is. The sugar issue in CAFTA is only the twinkling tip of a whole iceberg of semisubterranean American strategic interests. Passage of CAFTA matters for reasons that have less to do with the price of beets in Montana and more with international terrorism, the projection of soft power, and the ominous trajectory of South American politics. CAFTA is the only way the United States can synthesize or orchestrate its non-economic policy objectives south of Mexico; the imposition of formalized rigors -- friendly to transparency and hostile to corruption, friendly to the environment and hostile to nationalization -- beyond the reach of NAFTA is a calculated play for the entrenchment of American interests in a zone of political instability, on par with the invasion of Iraq as an expression of grand strategy.
CAFTA CAN'T BE SOLD on the TV interview circuit as the spearhead of a multilayered intelligent American design meant to permanently guide the Western Hemisphere toward the expression of U.S. objectives. Even today we are inclined to blanch at the idea that free trade agreements should be passed into law in order to accomplish things that have nothing to do with economics. But the Bush administration believes, at home and abroad, that everything has to do with economics. Zoellick: "Free markets, development, opportunity, and hope are the best weapons against poverty, disease, and tyranny." Bush: "By transforming our hemisphere into a powerful free trade area, we will promote democratic governance, human rights, and economic liberty for everyone."
Take the Dominican Republic as a case study. Because of their "sad past," Zoellick declared as the DR signed on the dotted line, "hundreds of thousands of Dominicans left their homeland for the United States, where they enriched our society." That sort of backhanded compliment makes it ironically clear that the administration believes local foreign populations can benefit the U.S. in an even more powerful way by enriching their own societies.
And the definition of enrichment goes far beyond mere trade. William Cohen, Clinton's defense secretary (and no Contra apologist), knows "the roots of democracy are not deep and [Central American] economies need to grow. In our own backyard we might have a breeding ground for terrorists." John Murphy, VP for Latin America at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, warns of a CAFTA defeat "that will be seen as a kick in the teeth to Latin America. And that will harm not just on trade but anti-terrorist and anti-narcotic efforts." And Zoellick himself raises the question of "what message" the defeat of CAFTA would "send to struggling democracies in other regions, such as the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa, where economic reformers are pushing for freedom and need our support."
The idea that we might have a national security imperative in ramming CAFTA through a recalcitrant Congress can only be reinforced by the following battery of scheduled meetings among the CAFTA nation leaders: International Relations Committee chairman Henry Hyde; House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security chairman Harold Rogers; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Donald Rumsfeld? Yes -- the Secretary has already been to Guatemala, as recently as this March. And the CAFTA heads of state have caught on. When Honduran Ambassador Mario Canahuati proclaims that CAFTA is "about more than just trade," we are free to reflect upon what "more" really means -- in both political and geographical terms: Zoellick, while plugging CAFTA, mentioned almost in passing that the United States is "now deep into negotiations with Panama and the Andean nations."
SOUTH AMERICA IS THE HORIZON over which CAFTA necessarily looks. In his biography of Dean Acheson, James Chase called the measure of greatness "the ability to seize the moment and to create out of chaos the enduring structures of success." In a different context, Hunter Thompson once wrote in the National Observer that the function of art "is supposedly to bring order out of chaos, a tall order even when the chaos is static, and a superhuman task in a time when chaos is multiplying."
Chaos is multiplying in South America. Readers of Foreign Affairs can find Michael Shifter ("Breakdown in the Andes," "Bonfire of the Andes") bemoaning the madness in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia that is now receiving popular news coverage. And this is to say nothing of Hugo Chavez. This is not the place to rehash the reportage. What is worth mention is that, thirty years ago, Hunter Thompson traveled through South America in a pre-gonzo mode, writing for the National Observer sharp and sad commentary on the Andes that sounds as if nothing whatsoever has changed in that part of the world since Kennedy and the Alliance for Progress. "Today the 'wealth of the Andes' is no longer gold," Thompson wrote on June 10, 1963, "but the political power lying dormant in the Indian population." This sentence could appear in Foreign Policy today. All the fissures and pressures present today echo in Thompson's old headlines: "Why Anti-Gringo Winds Often Blow South of the Border;" "Democracy Dies in Peru, but Few Seem to Mourn Its Passing;" "The Inca of the Andes: He Haunts the Ruins of His Once-Great Empire."
The South American Problem is one that will not remain contained. Chavez continually courts anti-American friends. And a fellow named Gary Marx has written an article at the Chicago Tribune with the anxious headline, "China 'invading' Latin America with investments." The content of that article is even more anxious. China is now Brazil's third-largest trading partner, and Argentina's fourth-largest. China is negotiating a free trade agreement with Chile. Every fact brings a deeper brow-furrow. Marx reports that Hu Jintao, visiting Brazil's legislators, confessed that "Sino-Latin American co-operation is facing an unprecedented historical opportunity."
Meanwhile the United States struggles to keep Costa Rica -- as well as House Republicans -- at the bargaining table. It is not out of casual interest that CAFTA passage is top priority for the House leadership.
WE DO HAVE A NATIONAL security imperative in passing CAFTA -- and it's already on the move. Failure in Congress wouldn't just prevent American grand strategy in the Western Hemisphere from moving forward -- it would yank it backward several steps. There are those who can continue to worry when free trade agreements become host bodies for a series of non-economic objectives, but when push comes to shove, who can come forward with a more honest plan that's equally effective? Even environmentalists get a ride on the coattails -- Zoellick's willingness to play ball on robust green regulations for CAFTA is the object of praise from Democrat negotiators. The administration, unused to placing environmental strictures at the heart of its policy decision-making, clearly feels they're worth the trouble in order to secure CAFTA. Without CAFTA, our "deep" negotiations with Panama and "the Andean nations" will be nonstarters, floating in the same piecemeal limbo as Chile. And our efforts to freeze out MS-13 and other narco-terrorist gangs will be crippled.
Everyone except American and Mexican farming and labor interests has something to gain from CAFTA. The course of American foreign policy and grand strategy within the ambit of the Monroe Doctrine is something that would be determined, in a perfect world, without having to package it all under the half-ingenuous auspices of a simple free trade agreement. But the difference between CAFTA and NAFTA is not just a matter of years. America's geostrategic play for Latin America as well as the Middle East not only creates barriers to the expansion of Chinese economic influence, but it controls -- one can hope -- the vast arc of disorder reaching from Cali to Kinshasa to Tikrit to Tashkent. The trick is to accomplish this without creating more resentment than benefit. As has always been the case in Latin America, appealing to the people as well as their leaders is often times an impossibility. And, in the end, CAFTA seems as good a chance as any to chip away at that truth.
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