Inslee gets off fence, opposes CAFTA

The Bainbridge Democrat calls for protections for labor, the environment.

After teetering on the fence for weeks over a proposed trade agreement with Central America, U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee announced this week he"ll hop over to the opposition's side.

"Put me down for another treaty -- one that suits the American values of low tariffs, but also encourages democratic growth while protecting labor organizations and the environment," said the Bainbridge Island Democrat. "This is the wrong treaty. It takes us forward in some ways, but takes us backward in some important areas."

The Senate already endorsed the proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement, which would strike down trade barriers between the United States and six Latin American countries. It is set for a House vote in the near future.

The agreement would suspend U.S. tariffs affecting the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua in return for their reduction or elimination of tariffs on most imports -- the same deal that characterizes the North American Free Trade Agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

The pact would also introduce foreign competition to state-run enterprises and remove legal barriers to foreign investment.

Inslee said he supports CAFTA's proposals to reduce trade tariffs and bolster intellectual property rights protections, but the agreement could erode the U.S. ability to discourage nations from defying international labor standards.

"CAFTA removes a valuable tool from our toolbox that allows us to raise tariffs when nations fall short of basic standards, including using child labor or preventing workers from organizing unions," he said.

CAFTA will have a tougher fight in the House, where a strong front of Democrats has vowed to stop it. Inslee's stance tipped the scale for the state's House delegation, which traditionally supports trade treaties.

Five Washington representatives now say they"ll oppose CAFTA, including Democrats Brian Baird, Rick Larsen, Jim McDermott and Adam Smith.

Democrat Norm Dicks will join Republicans Doc Hastings and Dave Reichert in support of the agreement.

Both Washington senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, voted for CAFTA.

Local free trade activists demonstrated on the island last month, urging Inslee to oppose the agreement.

They said CAFTA would hurt small-scale Central American farmers unable to compete with produce flooding south from the subsidized U.S. agribusiness.

Inslee said these concerns are valid, but were not key in his decision-making.

"That's a legitimate concern and we know NAFTA caused a huge dislocation of small corn growers in Mexico," he said. "But I don"t think subsistence farming should be the long-term goal of any economy, and I think many Central Americans would agree with that."

Inslee said he hopes to help negotiate a new agreement that holds firm on CAFTA's strong intellectual property rights provisions, which many Washington biotechnology and software companies favored, while boosting worker and environmental protections.

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