Last summer, as Congress debated the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the U.S. press overwhelmingly treated CAFTA as a domestic political story, focusing on the political arm-twisting by President Bush needed to squeak CAFTA through the House by two votes.


Largely neglected were the implications of the deal for the millions of people it will substantially affect in Central America. The agreement represents a drop in the bucket for the U.S. economy (the overall impact on the U.S. will be “miniscule,” as the Associated Press put it), but could fundamentally alter the political and economic landscape in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.


Those countries know it — and the agreement, which was slated to go into effect on January 1, has stalled, as a number of them have yet to make the complex legal changes CAFTA requires. The most important free trade agreement of Bush’s presidency, which he last summer equated with national security and the strengthening of democracy, is well behind schedule.


One might think that news outlets would be quick to pounce on a juicy story like that. But few have devoted much — if any — attention to it. And what little coverage there has been has often failed to look very deeply at the implications of CAFTA.


Our trip through the sexy thicket of hemispheric trade policy begins with the Los Angeles Times, one of the few to have taken notice of the CAFTA delay. In a story on the 9th, the Times reported that “Growing anti-trade sentiment in several Central American countries has held up a trade agreement with the United States that had been slated to launch January 1.” The paper explained that through CAFTA, “the U.S. agreed to open its markets further to key Central American products, such as sugar and apparel and textiles, while those countries promised to lower barriers to U.S. farm goods, high-tech products and services. Central American governments also said they would strengthen their labor and environmental laws.”


But now, as the Times vaguely indicated, there is “rising skepticism about free trade across Latin America,” and “Some countries are balking at the requirement that they put more teeth in their intellectual property laws.” Reported the Times, “CAFTA has become a hot issue in the campaign for next month’s presidential election in Costa Rica, the only country that hasn’t ratified the agreement, and anti-trade sentiment is running high in several countries that have yet to complete the legal changes necessary to put the trade pact in place.”


The Times cribbed a recent Associated Press interview with Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein in which he complained that “U.S. pharmaceutical firms were holding up his country’s CAFTA entry in an effort to force his government to make further changes to its laws,” and “also said his government had decided to strengthen its ties with Mercosur, a regional trading bloc formed by Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.” Aside from Stein, however, the Times piece quoted only American trade experts — so Central Americans’ points of view were conveniently explained through secondhand means. The result? A story that only hinted at the ways that it could have been better.


Next we turn to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the only paper in the state to have produced a CAFTA-focused article in the last month. But that piece, a January 2 international business column entitled “Florida promoting DR-CAFTA opportunities,” was mostly dedicated to publicizing the Sunshine State’s nascent campaign to “raise awareness” about CAFTA and “mobilize businesses to seize the opportunities it helps create.”


The piece did point out that Florida “handled nearly half of all U.S. trade in goods with the six Latin neighbors” that comprise CAFTA in 2004, making “the DR-CAFTA area the No. 1 trade partner for Florida that year.” That signifies how important the CAFTA countries are economically for Florida, and how some businesses gearing up to expand their exports might be upset about delays in the trade deal’s implementation — but the column unfortunately didn’t even mention the delay, let alone provide any larger perspective.

Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.