CAFTA Meets Katrina

And more than the fiscal health of an American city hangs in the balance

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. is in the middle of a "cyclical period" of stronger hurricanes that could continue for at least another decade. Given last year's active hurricane season and this year's already disastrous record, the possibility of another storm disabling yet another southern cargo port is not implausible—and then America's economy might really feel the effects. This could in turn result in a cascading series of consequences for U.S. influence around the Gulf and Caribbean basins.

And indeed, surveying the ruined piers of Gulfport, with cargo containers piled on debris from the wrecked homes of dockworkers, it is hard to avoid a deeper feeling of unease about America's place in the world.

Of course, workers like Casey hoped for more opportunity from CAFTA, but the agreement is not just about money—for as proponents of globalization never fail to note, trade and security are directly related. The promise of CAFTA was not simply one of prosperity but stability as well, with rising standards of living in Central America intended to alleviate widespread social turmoil born of grinding poverty.

Further, CAFTA was meant to secure an area that is truly a "central" pivot in terms of both geography and shipping—including the strategic Panama Canal—as a preamble to a general hemisphere-wide integration between North and South American free trade zones.

Thus CAFTA's regional opponents—Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro chief among them—hope that a combination of economic gamesmanship, rhetoric, and unforeseen events like Katrina might roll back American influence in Central America. The U.S. State Department has accused Chavez of using Venezuela's oil revenue to fund violent insurgencies throughout Central America as well as in neighboring Colombia. And Chavez can only benefit from interruptions to Central America's exports of perishable agricultural goods, which spoil if they aren't shipped to a destination that's close by. In this context, ample cargo facilities on America's Gulf Coast constitute a kind of economic deterrent, by assuring Central American governments that their exports will always get through.

Meanwhile, back in Gulfport, the employees of shipping companies have been gathering every day at the places they used to work, eager for income that will allow them to feed and shelter their families and rebuild their houses. Casey, for one, is hopeful that major shippers will return, and Gulfport will recover: "People are used to working, they want to work. If you give them a chance, they'll be here."

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