'A grand deception'
Along one short stretch of highway in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, stand three huge, futuristic- looking, upscale shopping malls. Here you can visit shops such as Guess, Tommy Hilfi ger and Liz Claiborne; view a BMW, a Volvo and a Jaguar on display; and watch a movie at the multi-screen cineplex.
For visitors to El Salvador, this represents the face of development. And CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Bush last summer, is supposed to usher in a rising economy that will benefit all Salvadorans.
"This is deceitful," says Bishop Medardo E. Gomez of the Lutheran Synod of El Salvador. "Fascinating and deceitful."
"This is a 'sell out,'" says the Rev. Miguel Tomás Castro, Senior Pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in San Salvador. "Central American governments are selling our countries to the United States through CAFTA."
Both of these churches are "partner churches" of the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Both are strongly opposed to CAFTA.
"By opening new markets," Bush said last year, "we'll increase prosperity for our small businesses and farmers and manufacturers, and create jobs for American workers. By enforcing trade laws and agreements, we will ensure a level playing field for America's workers."
Promoted as tariff relief
CAFTA will affect the United States, five Central American nations (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua), and the Dominican Republic. The U.S. government promoted CAFTA in the United States with assurances that CAFTA would eliminate high Central American tariffs, thereby opening the region's markets to U.S. goods, services and farm products.
But in El Salvador, according to Angel Maria Ibarra, CAFTA was promoted as a way for Central Americans to sell their goods "to the richest country in the world."
Ibarra is President of UNES, a public policy advocacy group on environmental issues. He cites a TV ad that showed a woman selling pupusas, a Salvadoran tortilla staple, claiming that after CAFTA she will be able to sell 10 times as many per day.
"The CAFTA promotion was a grand deception," he says. "It was all lies."
"CAFTA is deceptive like the devil," says Bishop Gomez. "It is deceitful with beautiful airports, beautiful highways, beautiful malls and shopping centers. It looks like development, but it is not development because it still leaves the people in poverty."
Gomez is known as a bishop of the people. In 1989, when the six Jesuit priests were assassinated, he was held captive by the death squads for three days before being released due to international church pressure. Two years ago, during El Salvador's presidential election, people threatened to put a bomb under his desk and kill him.
Last year, when the U.S. House of Representatives debated CAFTA, the bishop traveled to Washington and lobbied against it. "I told them that although I'm not an expert on economic policy, I can see the effects on my people," he says. "The Republicans said they understood, that church members in their districts were writing them letters. I went to Washington hoping they would not approve it."
But CAFTA passed, 217-215.
U.S. Rep. Sherrod Brown (DOhio), a Lutheran who often worships at a UCC church with his wife, explained why CAFTA passed in an article in The Nation: "Several Republican members switched their votes amid threats of lost highway-construction money for their districts and promises of committee chairmanships and campaign contributions."
CAFTA went into effect in El Salvador on March 1.
'People of corn'
"CAFTA doesn't take seriously our peoples' way of life," says Castro.
"Salvadorans are 'people of corn,'" echoes Ibarra. "We eat a lot of corn, it's a huge cultural thing. But to produce one acre of corn in El Salvador is 10 times more expensive than in the U.S. because of economies of scale: no subsidies, no tractors, no big machines, etc. And Salvadorans will buy cheaper corn from the U.S., so the Salvadoran culture will suffer. The same applies to beans, rice, soy, chickens, and dairy products.
"What will happen to our culture if we buy everything that we need but we used to produce ourselves?"
One strong possibility, according to Bishop Gomez, is that emigration to the United States will increase. This will result in more money coming back to El Salvador from these emigrants but, because prices will be higher here, he says, this money will end up in the hands of the transnationals.
Role of transnationals
"After CAFTA comes, it will be a lot harder to fi ght against the transnational companies," says Claudia Interiano, coordinator of the Mequila Project, which defends the rights of sweat shop workers.
Working conditions are terrible, she explains, with young women forced to stand from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., six days a week, with only two 15- minute breaks. It's uncomfortably hot, there is no ventilation or air conditioning, fine dust causes respiratory diseases, the toilets are dirty and unsanitary, lighting is bad, and sexual harassment predominates. And for all this, the women receive between $5-6 a day.
But even the maquilas will have problems, says Ibarra, because workers in China and Nicaragua get even less than in El Salvador. Transnationals will pile up violations in health, hygiene and human rights conditions, then up and move their factories just as complaints against them are due to come before tribunals.
"CAFTA's main purpose is to ensure a strategy of globalization," says Pastor Castro. "Its expectations are totally false, that is, that our economy will improve. We know better because of the bad situations in Mexico and Canada because of NAFTA. Like NAFTA, CAFTA considers only the benefits for transnational corporations."
In February, Bishop Gomez preached on the story about Jesus and the man possessed by demons (Mark 5:1-13). When Jesus cast out the demons, they entered a herd of pigs and rushed off a cliff and drowned. "I told these people," the bishop says, "this herd of pigs represents big business, the transnational corporations."
"This is the hope that God gives us," the bishop says, "that the pigs will go over the cliff. In the name of God, maybe this will happen."
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News. He visited El Salvador in February.
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