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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Rob Portman
Ambassador Rob Portman
United States Trade Representative
July 15, 2005
Rob Portman
Hello everyone, I'm Rob Portman, the United States Trade Representative. Since we last had the opportunity to chat in this forum the Senate passed the U.S.-Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) and the legislation is now being considered by the House of Representatives. With more than $32 billion in two-way trade, these six countries combined represent a substantial market for American products. This is a win-win trade agreement that is a great deal for American workers, farmers and service providers. CAFTA-DR contains stronger protections for fundamental worker rights than any free trade agreement ever negotiated, and it will strengthen young democracies that have stood with the United States in the push to expand freedom in our neighborhood. In fact I met with President Bolaños of Nicaragua yesterday and he stressed that very point.

I'm happy to take any questions you may have on CAFTA-DR or any other trade issues.

Sam, from Minneapolis writes:
How can you ensure that the workers' rights will be maintained and what are the rammifications for those who do not provide those aforementioned rights?

Rob Portman
Sam, I’m happy you asked that question because I think CAFTA-DR is the strongest free trade agreement we have ever signed to protect fundamental worker rights.

Based on what the experts tell us, the problem in Central America isn’t the labor laws on the books – in fact the laws on the books are generally in line with international core labor standards. The International Labor Organization (ILO) has said as much. But enforcement has been a problem. To improve enforcement of labor laws, we need to make sure countries have enough resources, and the political will to use them. We’re working to provide unprecedented resources to help Central American governments enforce their labor laws. Congress appropriated $20 million for this year, and we’re committed to even more in the years to come. To address the problem of political will, CAFTA-DR has real teeth in the form of tough and practical enforcement provisions. Should a country fail to enforce its labor laws, CAFTA-DR provides for heavy fines, up to $15 million per year, per occurrence. Most importantly, this money is redirected by us toward actually solving the labor problem. This means that a country cannot merely make an economic calculus to pay the fine and continue to abuse labor rights. If the fines are not paid, we would then be able to impose trade sanctions. There are practical and effective tools that will actually work to improve labor rights if CAFTA-DR passed.

Daniel, from Great Barrington, MA writes:
Hi I am a 15 year old very interested in politics and the like. How will CAFTA-DR protect workers rights in the countries in CAFTA? And will CAFTA-DR create more U.S. jobs in the end?

Rob Portman
Daniel, it’s great to hear that you are interested in politics. I encourage you to stay active in your community and consider ways that you can get involved in public service to make a positive difference in peoples’ lives.

You can read my more specific answer to your question on protecting worker rights in Central America and the Dominican Republic above. But perhaps the most important thing we can do is make sure workers have good jobs. CAFTA-DR will create new economic opportunities for the workers in these countries, opportunities that would be lost without the agreement. This will help preserve thousands of good jobs that may otherwise go to lower-wage countries in Asia. And CAFTA-DR will create strong incentives for new investors to build factories and create good jobs.

But here is the best part: good trade agreements are win-win. CAFTA-DR will also support jobs here in the United States. You have to remember: 80 percent of all goods and services and 99 percent of all farm products from Central America and the Dominican Republic already enter the U.S. duty-free. What this agreement does is level the playing field for U.S. workers and farmers.

Americans now face large tariffs when exporting goods to the region, and CAFTA-DR eliminates the vast majority of these tariffs immediately, and phases out the rest over a period of years. Eliminating these tariffs makes U.S. products more affordable, which means we can sell more, which means we’ll need more people working to sell those additional products.

Brad, from Ogden, UT writes:
Has the government not learned enough from NAFTA to know that CAFTA is going to do just the same... 1 MILLION jobs lost... Why do theyyou still go forward with this?

Rob Portman
Brad, thank you very much for your question. I am not sure where you are receiving your figures, but I do know there is a lot of misinformation floating around about NAFTA. Since its implementation in 1993, NAFTA has contributed to more than a decade of higher productivity, better jobs, and higher wages. In the U.S., we’ve created more than 21 million jobs since NAFTA, an 18.8% increase over where we were before NAFTA. U.S. manufacturing output soared by 44% in real terms, and Americans were rewarded for their improved production, as real hourly compensation rose by 14.7%. In addition, NAFTA allowed the U.S., to achieve a higher standard of living. In the U.S., income gains and tax cuts from NAFTA provided $930/year for the average household of four.

But even though the overall economic benefits of NAFTA are clear, from a trade standpoint, CAFTA-DR is not NAFTA. CAFTA-DR is even better than NAFTA. Unlike the situation with Mexico prior to NAFTA, our market is already nearly completely open to Central American products. Remember, more than 80% of Central American imports to the U.S. are already duty-free. Additionally, CAFTA-DR contains stronger labor and environment provisions. CAFTA-DR has real teeth, including binding dispute settlement, monetary fines directed at solving problems, and potential trade sanctions. A first-ever citizen participation process will identify and find solutions for trade-related environmental problems. CAFTA-DR also surpasses any other trade agreement we’ve ever signed in terms of resources to improve labor law enforcement.

Brian, from College Station writes:
I watched a Senator from oklahoma talk about how CAFTA would help the farmers in his state. How does CAFTA actually help American Farmers? THANKS

Rob Portman
Right now American farmers, growers and ranchers are subject to high foreign tariffs – between 15 and 43 percent – when we send goods to Central America, while 99% of their agricultural products are imported into the U.S. duty-free. Nearly every major U.S. agricultural sector will benefit from expanded market access under CAFTA-DR, with gains in such sectors as feed grains, wheat, rice, soybeans, poultry, pork, beef, dairy, fruits, vegetables, and processed products. That’s why the American Farm Bureau Federation and more than 80 other agriculture groups support this trade agreement. In fact, the Farm Bureau estimates that U.S. agricultural exports will increase $1.5 billion. That’s great news for American farmers. We have to remember that with one acre out of every three now planted for export, a healthy farm economy depends on trade.

frank, from ontana writes:
how many workers can afford u.s. beef or goods on $2.00 a day in central america? please publish the results of your findings. it should be enough that the meat packing industry is filled with illegal workers from the same areas as the above mentioned.

Rob Portman
The population of Costa Rica, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua is over 40 million. Per capita incomes range from nearly $2,000 to over $8,500, providing substantial upside potential for expanded growth of income and food demand.

It is important to remember that Central America and the Dominican Republic are already good markets for U.S. agricultural products. U.S. agricultural exports to the region totaled $1.6 billion in 2003. The United States is the region's single largest source of agricultural imports, accounting for 41 percent of imports by value in 2001. However, U.S. share declined from 54 percent of total imports in 1995, due in large part to preferential access conditions afforded other countries by the Central Americans through bilateral trade agreements with those other countries. By lowering tariffs on U.S. exports to the region, CAFTA-DR makes American farmers more competitive and will expand what we already sell.

Again, I would point you to the economic analyses that have been done showing growth in U.S. farm exports.

As for your concern regarding illegal immigration, people immigrate to the United States – legally and illegally – from all over the world in search of a better life. CAFTA-DR will provide more opportunities for workers and farmers in Central America and the Dominican Republic. The World Bank said this about CAFTA-DR, “Greater trade opportunities are essential to improving living standards in developing countries. This agreement will help secure and expand the access of Central American nations to their largest trading partner and help provide the potential for increased trade and investment in the region --critical factors in boosting economic growth and reducing poverty."

Andrew, from Salem, Oregon writes:
Being the Trade Representative for the United States of America, would you trade a 1909 Honus Wagner for a Yogi Berra Baseball Greats Holo Card issued by Kellogs in the 80's?

Rob Portman
Is this a trick question? I’m a big fan of Yogi’s, but the answer is no, not a chance. Now do you feel better about me negotiating trade agreements?

Steve, from Arlington, VA writes:
If folks are upset about China, wouldn't they want to support CAFTA since CAFTA will make our US textile and apparel industries more competitive against China?

Rob Portman
Well, Steve, they should support this agreement for that very reason. In the clothing business, CAFTA-DR builds in real economic incentives to use U.S. yarn, fabric, thread and elastics in making clothes in our hemisphere. Fabric mill products from the United States are sold to apparel manufacturers in Central America to produce finished clothing products. These firms are under increasing pressure from lower-wage producers in Asia where less than 1 percent of the clothing produced is made with American inputs. With CAFTA-DR, more than 90 percent of all apparel made in the region will be sewn from fabric and yarn produced by Americans. That’s why organizations representing the vast majority of U.S. textile manufacturers, including the National Council of Textile Organizations, support CAFTA-DR.

Rob Portman
That's a good question to close on because President Bush was in North Carolina today, explaining the benefits of CAFTA-DR.

Momentum is building for CAFTA-DR, and I look forward to meeting with your Representatives over the next few weeks to talk to them about it. If you want to learn more about how CAFTA-DR is a win-win for the United States as well as Central America and the Dominican Republic, please visit our online briefing book at:

Thanks for the questions, and have a great weekend!