June 16, 2005
Last June, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and its development and relief agency Catholic Relief Services hosted a delegation of Bishops from Central American countries to Washington to discuss the United States-Central American Free Trade Agreement (US-CAFTA) with Members of Congress and other policy officials. We are sending to you today the Joint Statement on the US-CAFTA that was signed by the Bishops’ Secretariat of Central America and the Chairmen of the Domestic and International Policy Committees of the USCCB. As the Statement asserts, trade is about more than economics; it is about people’s lives and livelihoods. In the upcoming debate on US-CAFTA we urge you to evaluate its provisions in light of the moral criteria laid out in the Joint Statement.
As pastors in the countries involved in this agreement, we recognize that this trade agreement will have a significant impact on the lives of many people. We represent people who come from different traditions, ethnicities and languages. What unites us is our common concern for the dignity that belongs to all people, and a special concern for the poor. There may be some who read our statement and conclude that we oppose the passage of this trade agreement. Others may claim that we support its ratification. In fact, we take no position on the ratification of the US-CAFTA, offering instead a set of ethical criteria that we urge you to take into account.
As pastors we encourage measures that will foster economic growth in a way that lifts up those poor families and vulnerable workers who struggle daily to support themselves. We welcome trade liberalization to the extent that its benefits empower people, in particular the poor, to work with dignity so they can provide for themselves and their families.
In addition, to the extent that increased commercial activity throughout our countries strengthens solidarity among our peoples and offers increased opportunity for the poor and weak to share in all God’s gifts, we welcome such measures. This hope is an inspiring prospect that should serve to motivate efforts to cooperate more closely with some of our poorest neighbors.
However, as the Joint Statement makes clear in a more complete way, we have key concerns that we would like you to consider seriously as you evaluate this trade agreement.
As our Joint Statement cautions, this trade agreement may threaten people’s livelihoods, especially in rural areas. Poor farmers in Nicaragua or Guatemala cannot expect to compete with their much more efficient, highly subsidized counterparts from the United States. Particular foods like corn, beans, and rice are staples for millions of people in the region and the tariff reductions and elimination of supports under CAFTA could subject them to price fluctuations, threatening food security.
It may also weaken worker rights and environmental protection. We are equally concerned that this agreement has failed to reflect the people’s right to engage in a transparent and democratic process concerning important issues that affect their lives. The time-frame for the negotiation of the agreement was only one year, a fraction of the time devoted to negotiating the NAFTA or FTAA agreements. During the negotiation stage and since the agreement was signed in May, there has been an absence of broad consultation with key sectors who will be affected, and little information has been available in forums accessible to the broader public. We urge you to take these concerns into account when evaluating this trade agreement.
Some have called such concerns mere cavils, caveats and cautions that stand in the way of economic progress, but we make no apologies for our concern about the plight of rural farmers, the rights of workers, and the protection of the environment. Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. Bishops’ development agency, has worked for 50 years to improve the lives of poor and marginalized people in the countries of Central America and the Caribbean, and knows their struggles first-hand. One should not have to prove the harm to human life and dignity before insisting that such risks are real and need to be addressed.
In sending this Joint Statement to you at this time, we reiterate our desire to see the creation of a fair trading system in which all have an opportunity to contribute to, and share in, the common good.
Thanking you for your consideration of this Joint Statement in evaluating US-CAFTA, we remain
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Most Reverend Robert N. Lynch
Bishop of St. Petersburg
Catholic Relief Services
Most Reverend John H. Ricard
Bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee
Committee on International Policy