The future of the Central America Free-Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is becoming increasinglyuncertain as groups opposed to the proposedtrade pact in Central America and theUnited States increase their efforts to stop theagreement dead in its tracks.Even CAFTA supporters agree the trade dealfaces tough challenges ahead.U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick calledlast Friday’s signing of the official CAFTA texts “thebeginning of the most critical chapter” in the pact’s journeytoward reality.This journey, which has included more than a year ofnegotiations and several months of legal revision of theagreement’s texts, will end once the legislative bodies ofthe seven participating countries – the United States,Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras,Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic (which isexpected to sign on in the coming months) – vote to ratifyor reject CAFTA.GETTING CAFTA approved may prove easier saidthan done.Among the agreement’s critics is U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry ofMassachusetts. After months of warningthat if he is elected President, he will needto revise the enforcement of labor andenvironmental standards under CAFTAbefore signing it, on Friday Kerry finallyannounced unambiguously that he will“oppose CAFTA as currently negotiated.”“Over the last decade, I have consistentlysupported free-trade agreements thathave both opened markets and madeprogress in requiring enforceable labor andenvironmental standards,” Kerry said in astatement issued the day of the signing.“…As the nations of Central Americaare among our closest allies, I greatly wishthat the [President George W.] Bushadministration was today signing a tradeagreement with Central America that wasbuilt on that progress and was worthy ofour support,” Kerry explained.“UNFORTUNATELY, the free-tradeagreement signed today marks a disappointingand unnecessary step backward in(…) efforts to ensure that opening marketsresults in higher living standards on allsides and not a race to the bottom of workerrights and environmental protection,” headded.Kerry noted that despite advances,Central America’s countries have a recordof “very weak protection” of core laborrights and environmental standards.The senator also criticized the Bushadministration for failing Central Americaby “knowingly signing an agreement thatnot only misses the mark on labor andenvironmental standards (see separatestory), but has so little support that hewon’t even submit it to the U.S. Congress.”Bush is not expected to submit CAFTAto Congress until after the November presidentialelection.Several key Democratic congressmen,including Sander Levin of Michigan, thetop Democrat in the influential Ways andMeans Trade Subcommittee, CharlesRangel of New York and Xavier Becerra ofCalifornia have also expressed oppositionto CAFTA for the same reasons as Kerry.VARIOUS non-governmental organizationsin the United States have recentlyincreased their anti-CAFTA activity.“The trade ministers can sign CAFTA,but it will be dead on arrival in Congress,”said Larry Weiss, executive director ofCitizens Trade Campaign, in a statement.“Coupled with the stalled WTO [WorldTrade Organization] and FTAA [Free-Trade Area of the Americas] talks, it is onemore indication that the Bush administration’smisguided trade policy is in a state ofcollapse.”Labor unions have also spoken outagainst liberalizing trade between CentralAmerica and the United States.Bill Klinefelter, legislative and politicaldirector of the United Steelworkers ofAmerica, said, “CAFTA is a step backwardon protecting labor rights in trade agreements.The administration’s backsliding onits duty to workers in the United States andabroad has led to tremendous opposition tothis agreement in Congress, and will ultimatelyderail it.”Organizations such as Oxfam Americaand Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watchhave also expressed their firm oppositionto CAFTA, according to the Inter-PressService.CRITICS say last week’s low-profilesigning ceremony reflected the growingopposition to CAFTA. Originally, it hadbeen announced that the Presidents of theparticipating countries would signCAFTA.Instead, it was signed by the foreigntrade ministers with little fanfare in theOrganization of American States (OAS)headquarters in Washington D.C.A recent survey conducted by theProgram on International Policy Attitudes(PIPA) and Knowledge Networks concludedthere is significant support for CAFTAin the United States, even though the survey’sstatistical results show those polledare nearly evenly divided on the issue, takinginto account the margin of error (plusor minus 2.3 to 4 percentage points,depending on the question).The findings were part of a larger studyentitled “Americans on Globalization,Trade and Farm Subsidies.” Those polledwere told “The United States and somecountries of Central America have negotiateda treaty called the Central AmericaFree-Trade Agreement (CAFTA). This issimilar to what the U.S. now has withMexico and Canada in NAFTA [NorthAmerican Free-Trade Agreement].” Nearlyhalf (49%) said they were in favor, while42% said they were opposed, according tothe survey.IN Costa Rica, opposition to CAFTAhas also become increasingly vocal.On May 19, 17 legislative deputies senta letter to the U.S. Congress stating theiropposition to CAFTA.The legislators expressed concern overthe way in which agriculture, environmentalprotection, labor standards and the partialopening of the country’s telecommunicationsmonopoly were addressed in thetreaty.On Monday, at least 10,000 protestorstook to the streets of San José to expresstheir opposition to CAFTA (see separatestory).The Costa Rican Episcopal Conferenceon Friday issued an official declaration onCAFTA. While the group did not pronounceitself in favor or against the treaty, it stressedthe need to promote a public debate onCAFTA open to all sectors of society.“The bishops consider it irresponsibleto say yes or no to the free-trade agreement,”explained Monsignor ÁngelSancasimiro Fernández, Bishop ofNorthern Zone city of Ciudad Quesada.“IT is the Legislative Assembly thathas the responsibility of making a decision.As pastors, we want to tell legislators notto rush. They must create the spaces necessaryfor our people to have access to thisinformation and to discuss it.“We approached this issue with eyes ofpastors,” Fernández said. “We based ourstudy on an ethical standpoint. We are nottechnicians, we do not understand theeconomy.”Monsignor Hugo Barrantes, Archbishopof San José, expressed concern overhow polarized Costa Rican opinions onCAFTA have become. Some see it as “thepanacea” while others demonize it, he said.The bishops agreed CAFTAis an importantdecision for Costa Rica that will permanentlyaffect its development model. ForCAFTA to be worthwhile, Barrantes said, itmust be capable of relieving poverty andunemployment, as well as increase growth.