This was a sad day.
After heavy lobbying by the Bush administration, the House of Representatives voted 217-215 to pass CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (as an aside, it's funny how conservatives, now that they are in the majority, always manage to let a few Republicans cover their asses, either because of local issues, or because they have a 'conscience' or because a particular bill hits their district harder, but still always have just enough votes to carry the day every time a tough vote comes up).
Now, understand that I'm not against engaging other nations, and I'm not against free trade. I understand that we are part of a global economy, and people who want to pull up the drawbridge and fill the moat are as wrong as they are obsolete.
However, I believe that our government has two obligations that should underpin our trading strategy. The first is to increase or maintain prosperity, and living standards in the United States (for all Americans, not just those who own large amounts of stock in multinational companies). The second is to promote labor, living and environmental standards that are in keeping with those that we expect from our own corporations.
This agreement mainly allows companies which are willing to sell goods that are made by what is essentially slave labor (like Wal-Mart) to gain access to a whole new source of sweatshops. It does little to push for better living standards for the workers in these countries, who may be paid as little as 15 cents an hour. The agreement contains no promises of modernization or political or economic reform. President Bush claimed it would 'promote Democracy' in the region. If he is right, then I have two questions: 1) Aren't all of these countries already nominally Democracies? Is he admitting (gasp) that all those new Democracies all over Central America are really still dictatorships after all? and 2) If free trade really pushes people to demand more political freedom (and in fact I think it can, as it did Eastern Europe), then why doesn't he adopt the same policy towards Cuba?
That said, if we sign a free trade agreement with a developing country, then we should recognize that they need us far more than the reverse, and if we really want to push them to modernize then any such agreements should be contingent on their adopting and enforcing minimum wage laws, workplace safety laws and child labor laws that are at least significantly better than what they have now (granted one can't expect them to match us overnight, but we have the right to see a serious and sustained effort to improve the lot of ordinary working people). They should also adopt U.S. environmental standards (oops, forgot, Bush and the environment.... Well, I still think we should expect something in that regard).
Most dangerous to us, though, is it gives corporations wanting to outsource overseas to cut costs a new area to export jobs to. Central America and the Dominican Republic are much closer than Asia, and have governments that are safely run by pro-Washington toadies. This agreement does nothing to protect American jobs, but instead is likely to push more good jobs out of the country.
The bottom line here is that entering into a free trade agreement with the United States is a privilege for a developing country, and we should expect and write into the agreement something tangible in return that will benefit their citizens, not just hand them an agreement which will benefit mainly the wealthy in both countries and do nothing for the great majority of the citizens in either one.