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Latin American bishops urge caution on free trade agreements

El Salvador's ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement has once again thrown the spotlight on economic integration efforts in Latin America and raised concerns about the possible impact of free trade pacts on poor people in the region.

Catholic News Service reports that on 17 December, the Salvadoran legislature became the first Central American country to ratify the agreement with a 49-34 vote.

The agreement, known as CAFTA, is one of several being negotiated between the United States and Latin American countries. While supporters of such deals claim they will boost development, many of the region's bishops warn that the wide disparity between the $US10 trillion US economy and the smaller Latin American economies.

The treaties also tend to be wide-ranging, going beyond tariff issues to rules for patents, generic drugs, labor rights and other issues that critics say amount to a development model that discriminates against citizens of poor countries.

"For nearly 20 years, our countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have been implementing a so-called development model that has led not to development, but to greater inequality and the loss of opportunities for the majority of people," said Peruvian economist Humberto Ortiz, who coordinates the Humanization of the Global Economy project for the Latin American bishops' council, known by its Spanish acronym CELAM.

"What we need is a more humane model," he said.

Ortiz also warned that free trade deals contradict integration efforts aimed at bringing the region's economies together.

"Free trade agreements are based on competitiveness, and there are clear winners and losers, while economic integration generally involves economies that are more similar and goes beyond simply trade issues," he said.

Brazil has emerged as the regional leader in efforts to block the US-backed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, as well as attempts to spur closer ties among smaller trade blocs.

An integration agreement between the Andean Community of Nations and the Southern Common Market went into effect in November, while South American presidents meeting in Peru in early December signed a charter establishing the South American Community.

Ortiz, however, sees some of these moves as "schizophrenic," as the integration agreement sparked protests in some Latin American countries.

Latin American bishops urge caution on free trade agreements (Catholic News Service 22/12/04)

24 Dec 2004