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Fair Trade

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Costa Rica on Sunday will become the first country where citizens have the opportunity to vote for or against a trade agreement. Despite being heavily outspent by the moneyed interests, despite opposition from the Costa Rican government and the U.S. ambassador, despite an extremely hostile media, the latest polls show momentum building for the opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Incredibly, just the other day, in a nation of only 4 million people, more than 100,000 marched in opposition to the treaty -- a sign of the deep grassroots opposition there to CAFTA.

Free trade is very good for the large multinational corporations who can throw American workers out on the street, move abroad to China and other low-wage countries, hire people there for pennies an hour, and bring their products back into this country. For those people, for the CEOs of large corporations, unfettered free trade has been a very good thing, but for the middle-class and working families of this country, for working families and poor people in Mexico and in other low-wage countries, unfettered free trade has been an unmitigated disaster.

Increasingly, trade policy is not a partisan issue. The vast majority of Republicans now have serious concerns about our current trade policies because they see those trade policies as being harmful to the middle class and working families of this country, according to a new poll. "By a nearly two-to-one margin, Republican voters believe free trade is bad for the U.S. economy, a shift in opinion that mirrors Democratic views and suggests trade deals could face high hurdles under a new president. The sign of broadening resistance to globalization came in a new Wall Street Journal-NBC News Poll that showed a fraying of Republican Party orthodoxy on the economy," The Wall Street Journal reported in a page-one news story on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, the pundits for the plutocrats, twice this week weighed in on what it thinks is good for the people of Costa Rica. They also had a thing or two to say about me.

My trip to Costa Rica last month was not about telling the people there how to vote. That's their business, not mine. The trip that Rep. Mike Michaud and I made was to help counter the lies being spread in Costa Rica that suggested that if the people there, exercising their democratic rights, voted "no" on Cafta, the U.S. government would punish them by excluding them from the Caribbean Basin Initiative as well as other punitive actions.

While I strongly disagree with the Journal editorial page's right-wing ideology, I'll give them points for persistence. Year after year, despite all of the evidence, the Journal has continued to be a cheerleader for the unfettered free-trade policies that, while benefiting multinational corporations, have caused so much economic pain for working families here in the U.S. and our trading partners abroad.

There may be disagreement on the merits of unfettered free trade, but there should be no disagreement that when the people in a free, democratic and independent country like Costa Rica vote their conscience they should not be punished by the world's superpower. That is not what democracy is about.

A Journal columnist, Mary Anastasia O'Grady, wrote last Monday about how wonderful passage of the trade agreement will be for the people of Costa Rica. The Journal said the exact same thing to the people of Mexico during the 1993 debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

What happened with the passage of Nafta? In Mexico, the agricultural sector has been decimated by cheap exports from American agribusiness. Poverty has increased, the middle class has declined and people are literally dying in the desert trying to flee Mexico for the U.S. Working families in Mexico suffer, the rich have gotten richer and we now have the obscenity of the wealthiest person in the world, Mexican Carlos Slim Helu, coming from a country in which millions of families struggle to feed their children. This may be the kind of economic development championed by you, but not by me. We can have trade policies that can do better, that must do better.

It's not only Mexico and other developing countries that have been hurt by these unfettered pro-corporate free-trade agreements. It's also the working families in the U.S. who are now engaged in a horrendous "race to the bottom."

Despite an explosion of technology and a huge increase in worker productivity, poverty in America is increasing, the middle class is shrinking, and the gap between the rich and the poor is growing wider. In the past six years, millions of good-paying jobs in the U.S. have been lost as companies shut down here and move to China and other low-wage countries.

During that same period, median household income for working-age families has declined by about $2,500, 8.6 million Americans have lost their health insurance, three million have lost their pensions, and millions are working longer hours for lower wages. Meanwhile, the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. is now the highest of any industrialized country and greater than at any time since the 1920s.

Nobody I know believes we should place a wall around this country. Trade is a good thing, but what we must begin doing is negotiating fair trade agreements that reflect the interests of working families in America, working families in other countries, and not just large multinational corporations and the CEOs who help write these trade agreements.