As the Central America Free Trade Agreement nears a decisive vote in the House, religious leaders and faith-based activist groups are actively seeking to derail the pact.
Catholic opposition is being led by leftist groups such as Pax Christi, and a few Catholic bishops who are viewing CAFTA as a way of preserving the economic status quo. In the language of CAFTA’s critics, status quo means that the free-trade agreement is just another scheme by the rich (Americans) to defraud and oppress the poor (the Latin Americans).
In a statement issued in April by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the bishops carefully asserted their impartiality on CAFTA while urging legislators “to engage in a moral dialogue and evaluation” of the proposed legislation. All well and good, and moral evaluation is of course part of a bishop’s job description. But ethical judgments on free trade cannot be divorced from sound economic thinking.
In the Catholic world, the logic of the anti-CAFTA movement was well expressed by Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of San Marcos, Guatemala, who testified before the House International Relations Committee in April. The bishop, whose appearance was supported by the USCCB, told the committee that the current model of economic growth through free trade was “deficient” and raised “enormous risks.” CAFTA, he said, “is a narrow path across a deep gorge that only the strongest and most capable can travel.”
He might have added that many poor Guatemalans are already traveling a dangerous path these days. They’re leaving Guatemala, often with little more than the clothes on their backs, in search of better opportunities in countries like the United States.
So how would Bishop Ramazzini fix CAFTA? In his testimony, he argued for trade policies that “need to be complimented by institutional reform and a broader development framework that affords each person their right to participate in a market that is fair and compassionate.” He also pointed to the European Union model of rich countries funding the development needs of new entrants from Eastern Europe and elsewhere that are brought into the union. What the bishop did not discuss was the means by which some countries become rich, and why these rich countries present an irresistible draw to immigrants seeking to better their lives.
Through CAFTA, the United States and its trading partners will promote a freer climate for enterprise, which is another way of promoting the free expansion of individual human initiative. It is hard to understand how an agreement such as CAFTA that ensures more freedom from economy-crushing tariffs, more freedom for investment in Central America, and more resources for social development can be presented as a hindrance the welfare of the poor.
The governments of both the United States and Latin American nations who would join in a CAFTA are doing the right thing by removing barriers to economic growth and development. This role of the Centesimus Annus:
Economic activity…presupposes sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services. Hence, the principle task of the State is to guarantee this security … Another task of the State is that of overseeing and directing the exercise of human rights in the economic sector. However, primary responsibility in this area belongs not to the State but to individuals and to the various groups and associations which make up society.
If there is one thing we know for sure, the quickest way out of poverty is by allowing the impoverished a fair place in the markets. It also means everyone, legislators and rights activists, Americans and Latins, ought to recognize the individual’s right to economic initiative. Bishop Ramazzini criticized the fact that “trade discussions begin by asking how policies will be good for business and economic growth.” But what is economic growth if not the greater productivity of the human worker in meeting the needs of others? Should we not encourage the freedom that allows workers and entrepreneurs to thrive in creating the wealth that makes social development possible?
When we hear some Catholic bishops raising moral questions about CAFTA, it makes you wonder whether their “impartial” concerns are just a smokescreen for blocking the real moral goods of free trade.
–Reverend. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty in Grand Rapids, Michigan.