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Central American Jews Lead Way As Countries Consider Trade Pact

July 22, 2005
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Members of Central America’s small Jewish communities have played an uncommonly pivotal role in pushing for the approval of the United States-Central America Free Trade Agreement. With the U.S. Congress on the verge of giving final approval to CAFTA, Jewish umbrella groups in the United States generally have divided along partisan lines. But in Central America, the final push to make the pact a reality highlights the prominence of individual Jews in lobbying for the deal.

The agreement would eliminate import duties and quotas on the vast majority of goods that Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica trade in. The deal also includes the Dominican Republic, which is not part of Central America.

While the combined gross domestic product of these nations is less than that of the Czech Republic, CAFTA’s passage has become a top policy priority for President Bush and has stirred deep partisan divisions in Congress.

The American Jewish World Service issued a scathing condemnation of the pact last month, calling it a “disaster” and arguing that it would increase poverty while doing nothing to improve labor conditions in the region.

In contrast, the American Jewish Committee has come out in support of the agreement.

“It’s not going to solve everything in the region, but it will open borders not just for free trade but for the trade of ideas,” said Dina Siegel Vann, director of the AJCommittee’s Latino and Latin American Institute. “It will put pressure on governments to modernize areas that have to do with the well-being of their citizens. It will be a catalyst not just for growth but for strengthening democracy.”

The U.S. Senate approved the deal, 54-45, earlier this month. A final vote in the U.S. House of Representatives is due by the end of July.

In their local legislatures and business organizations, Central American Jews insist that CAFTA is not a “Jewish” issue per se and that their participation is strictly on a personal level, but they have made CAFTA their cause.

The clearest example of Jewish involvement is in Costa Rica, where the deal faces the strongest popular opposition and where the legislature hasn’t even begun a debate on the pact.

The country has the largest Jewish community in the region. Many of its members hold leadership positions in business groups, including Samuel Yankelewitz, president of the country’s Union of Business Chambers, Costa Rica’s largest private sector organization.

During CAFTA negotiations, Yankelewitz met regularly with Costa Rican and American trade negotiators and acted as the private sector’s de facto spokesman, attempting to sway public opinion at home to favor the pact. With Costa Rican President Abel Pacheco now dragging his feet on sending the deal to the Legislative Assembly for approval, Yankelewitz has returned to the spotlight, lambasting the president and urging speedy approval.

Economist Saul Weisleder, who served in the Costa Rican legislature from 1994 to 1998, edited a book analyzing the agreement that was released earlier this year. One of the chapters favorable to the deal was written by a textile industry power player, Miguel Schyfter, who also plied strong ties with negotiators during bargaining sessions.

Not all of Costa Rica’s estimated 3,500 Jews are pro-CAFTA, though none has taken a leading role among groups opposing the deal. Those groups object to CAFTA’s provisions requiring Costa Rica to break up state monopolies in insurance and telecommunications; they also feel the accord leaves rice and potato farmers in an unfavorable position.

Local Jews who have expressed opposition to the agreement cite stricter patent enforcement on medicines, which may mean that the country’s once-proud but now grossly underfinanced health-care system will be unable to purchase low-cost generic medicines.

If CAFTA reaches the Legislative Assembly before her term ends next May, Deputy Aida Faingezicht de Fishman will be the only Costa Rican Jew with a chance to vote on the agreement — and she’ll reluctantly vote yes.

“I agree that CAFTA has some clauses that to me have nothing to do with the level of social and economic development levels of Central America,” she told JTA. “Nevertheless, if I have to choose between CAFTA or no CAFTA, and the benefits of the Caribbean Basin Initiative are taken away, I will vote for CAFTA.”

Jaime Rosenthal, an opposition congressman and one-time presidential hopeful in Honduras, who is reputed to be the country’s wealthiest man, was the first Jew to vote on the agreement in any country — casting a yes vote when the deal sailed through the Honduran Congress in March.

His lobbying, focused on the hundreds of thousands of jobs in the local textile industry, helped ensure near-unanimous support for the agreement in the legislature.

“I am a supporter of integrating Central America and the U.S. more,” he told JTA in a telephone interview. “CAFTA well managed could be a great opportunity.”

Members of the smaller Jewish communities in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua generally have backed the agreement with enthusiasm.

Since the local Jewish communities are small minorities in a mostly Catholic region, they tend to shy away from the spotlight as a collective. That has left them a bit perplexed at the public lobbying in Washington by American Jewish groups.

“It seems to me that when we have a name of this type that uses the word ‘Jewish,’ we must be very careful,” Faingezicht said, rebuking the American Jewish World Service for opposing the deal. “There is a whole series of very important topics that Jewish organizations can take positions on.”

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