Washington U.S. manufacturers and farmers would enjoy increased access to Central American markets under a free trade agreement signed Friday, but U.S. textile makers and sugar producers are worried about the increased competition they will face as trade barriers are lowered.
Ultimately, the voters may decide the fate of the Central American Free Trade Agreement because of the different views held by President Bush and presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry.
The Bush administration hopes Congress will approve the agreement during a lame-duck session after the November elections. Kerry said Friday that if he were elected he would demand that the pact be renegotiated to include better protections of worker rights and the environment.
The agreement was signed Friday by the chief trade negotiators of the United States and five countries of Central America -- Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
The Dominican Republic will be part of the package when it is presented to Congress, but the country will have to wait until this summer to sign the deal because its negotiations were completed later.
The six nations will represent the second largest market for U.S. products in Latin America, second only to Mexico.
In many ways, the battle over CAFTA is shaping up to be a replay of the fight 11 years ago over the North American Free Trade Agreement, which added Mexico to a free trade zone covering the United States and Canada.
Supporters say that opening up the huge U.S. market to poorer countries helps them sell more products here, making them more prosperous and thus better able to buy U.S. products.
Opponents contend that free trade deals with developing nations simply give a green light for U.S. companies to move their production facilities to those nations, where they can get cheaper labor and face fewer environmental regulations in manufacturing products.