Jesse Helms, Populist

Here's a political puzzler: What recently enacted economic legislation presently under review in Washington has inspired an improbable support coalition that includes congressional conservatives, congressional liberals, President George W. Bush, and the editors of the Washington Post? Answer: the Africa-Caribbean free-trade law governing textiles, which passed last year and is now in the process of being interpreted and implemented by customs officials of the US Treasury Department, even as opponents in Congress, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) most prominent among them, look for ways to undermine it.

The law, initially introduced piecemeal as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the Caribbean Basin Initiative Trade Enhancement Act (CBI), establishes a partial free-trade regime between this country and the nations of sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean. Its salient feature provides for duty-free, quota-free access to the US market of wearing apparel assembled overseas using American fabrics and yarns. Clothing manufactured from native materials will also enter the US duty-free, but in more limited amounts that increase slowly over time.

Like most free-trade legislation, the officially titled Trade and Development Act of 2000 carries a bipartisan veneer. The Senate vote to pass was 77 to 19, with 49 of 55 Republicans (89%) and 32 of 45 Democrats (71%) in the affirmative. Barely a fifth of the senators, in other words, resisted the siren call of corporate globalization. The favorable House vote (309 to 110) was similarly lopsided, and free-trader Bill Clinton, of course, signed the legislation. His successor George W. endorses it as well.

Also on board are the corporate mass media, which myopically insist on portraying the AGOA/CBI as humanitarian legislation, an initiative to help poor Third World nations by exposing them fully to the glorious benefits and opportunities of the global marketplace. Here's the Washington Post in a July 2001 editorial opposing congressional efforts to weaken the new law: "A rich country such as the United States should be ashamed of maintaining protectionist barriers against imports from countries where people are desperate for jobs and an escape from poverty." That sounds a lot like George W. Bush, who observed (in response to the demonstrators at last July's G-8 economic conference in Genoa, Italy), "those who protest free trade are no friends of the poor." They are instead, opined the president-select, "isolationist" and "protectionist."

The poor for whom hearts bleed at the White House and the editorial offices of the Post do not apparently include America's working poor -- the people portrayed in Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and William Adler's Mollie's Job: A Story of Life and Work on the Global Assembly Line. It is just these sorts of marginalized Americans whose meagre employment will be shipped overseas by the Africa-Caribbean trade law and similar initiatives coming down the legislative pike, such as the comprehensive Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the super NAFTA desired by the Bush administration. As a step in that direction, the AGOA/CBI allows for the creation of what will be, in effect, the first non-Mexican maquiladoras.

American-based clothing manufacturers will replace domestic processing plants with African and Latin American sweatshops using inexpensive, nonunion labor. American raw materials will be sent abroad to be refashioned into apparel products that will then return dutyfree to the US market in the form of cheap African or Caribbean "imports." This is foreign trade in name only, multiple intra-firm transactions in which the corporation serves as its own trading partner, generating its own internal commerce and using its Third World site as an economic flag of convenience. The winners in the deal are the corporate CEOs and stockholders; the losers are the workers, here and abroad, who (in the former case) lose their jobs or (in the latter case) gain exploitive employment that pays a pittance.

An example of the type of company likely to benefit under such a system is Fruit of the Loom Inc., leading American maker of underwear and manufacturer of several well-known lines of casual apparel, whose annual sales, produced mostly in the US, hover around $2 billion. Anticipating imminent passage of the AGOA/CBI, the Chicago-based multinational laid off 16,000 American employees and closed a dozen stateside plants in the late 1990s, quietly moving 95% of its labor-intensive sewing operations to Latin America. Fruit of the Loom presently maintains manufacturing facilities in Honduras, El Salvador, and Jamaica that fall conveniently under the purview of the Africa-Caribbean law, which will function primarily to displace US textile workers and transfer the remainder of their industry offshore.

Of course, that's not how government proponents of this form of trade policy view their handiwork. Proselytizers for the concept of open-ended commerce with underdeveloped nations describe it in mystical, almost religious terms. Backers of the AGOA/CBI in the Office of US Trade Representative and in the State Department's Africa section, as well as President Bush himself (in a May speech before a trade forum in Washington), have claimed the following potential benefits from the law: a reduction in illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and terrorist threats to the US; a decrease in crime, illiteracy, disease, child malnutrition, and unemployment in impoverished Third World countries; an enhancement of democracy, political stability, and environmental standards in emerging states; and (in the specific case of the CBI) help for Central America in rebuilding from hurricanes.

This would seem to be a truly wonderful piece of legislation, one that can even compensate for bad weather! Dig a little deeper, however, and the less edifying aspects of AGOA/CBI become clear. As critics at the Africa Fund, a human rights organization, point out, it contributes to the worrisome trend toward "replacing aid with trade," thereby feeding into the flawed notion that government foreign aid can be dispensed with and replaced by corporate beneficence. Furthermore, they point out, the new law imposes stringent fiscal requirements on participating countries, among them adherence to IMF "structural adjustment programs" (freemarket fiscal and regulatory reforms) that often lead to cutbacks in public safety-net programs for the poor and dislocations in local subsistence economies. Meanwhile, it does nothing in the area of debt relief, the chronic economic problem afflicting the Third World.

This brings us belatedly to Sen. Jesse Helms, the right-wing icon who has emerged as an unlikely Sir Lancelot on the trade issue. In an effort to preserve North Carolina textile jobs, the senator spent the summer crusading to have the Bush administration impose what the Washington Post derisively calls a "protectionist interpretation" on the AGOA/CBI, diluting its effects by blocking Caribbean countries (or, rather, Caribbean-based US subsidiaries) from dyeing and printing American-made cloth slated for eventual reimportation to the US as sewn clothing. By using the hardball tactic of holding up Senate confirmation of Bush Treasury nominees, Helms extracted the administration's promise not to promulgate final trade rules pending further legislative negotiations. I never thought I'd ever say it, but I'm with you on this one, Jesse.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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