short takes

Southern Strategy

The media lobby, free trade, and Central America

Media companies dish out millions each year to protect copyright law, maintain ownership rights, and expand broadband lines in the U.S., but who would have guessed that the cause being pushed hardest by media lobbyists lately is one that affects such policies in Central America?

An analysis of thirty-five top companies’ lobbying disclosure forms from 2005 and the first half of 2006 shows that the most commonly listed bill—with eighteen media companies funneling money toward it—is the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA).

DR-CAFTA is a free trade agreement covering all kinds of trade between the U.S. and six countries: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic. Modeled after NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, the agreement means that 80 percent of all U.S. factory-goods exports will now be duty-free in the countries signing the agreement. At the same time, it will open up opportunities for American businesses to expand their operations. For the Central American signatories, the deal is appealing beyond the tax break on U.S. goods: DR-CAFTA encourages foreign investment, which creates jobs, and opens the door to U.S.-sponsored aid programs as well. According to a 2005 World Bank report on the DR-CAFTA deal, free-trade agreements typically produce an increase in the overall growth rates of the countries involved of about .6 percent annually during the first five years after the deals are implemented. In the case of DR-CAFTA, the report estimated, this translates into nearly half a million fewer Central Americans living in poverty by 2010. The agreement also requires the countries to adopt intellectual property standards that mimic U.S. standards. Media megaliths—including Walt Disney, News Corp., Microsoft, and General Electric—have taken a strong interest in the trade agreement largely because it forces Central American nations to rewrite laws on intellectual property that are much stricter than their existing policies, and to step up enforcement of patent and copyright legislation.

What is surprising about continued lobbying on DR-CAFTA is that the legislation has already passed. The Senate approved the agreement in June 2005 and the House followed a month later in a hard-won Republican-led vote of 217-215. President Bush signed it into law in August 2005. But media companies want to maintain pressure on the five countries that have adopted the agreement to crack down on the illegal duplication and dissemination of books, software, music, television broadcasts, and video. “The deal is done,” says Maria Strong, the attorney representing the International Intellectual Property Alliance, a lobbying umbrella group for media companies that focuses on DR-CAFTA’s intellectual property provisions. “The only thing we are caring about now is proper implementation.” The Alliance claims that in Costa Rica alone, $27 million was lost in stolen music and software in 2006, $30 million in the Dominican Republic.

Still, the agreement remains controversial. The Dominican Republic held out on signing until March 2007, and Costa Rica will determine its stance in a nationwide referendum by the end of the year. The resistance in those countries is led by groups fearful that local farmers, textile workers, labor unions, and companies will not be able to compete with American business. The bill has ramifications on products from insurance to textiles to pharmaceuticals.

To the extent that the U.S. press has noticed DR-CAFTA, it has been in favor of it. Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and longtime media analyst, says that newspaper editorials have been almost entirely in favor of DR-CAFTA, just as they were of NAFTA in the 1990s.

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Dorian Block and Lauren McSherry collaborated on this article for CJR. Block is a staff writer for the New York Daily News. McSherry is an intern at Newsday and a post-graduate fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.