Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 329 | Diciembre 2008



DR-CAFTA, ALBA and the Sustainable Development Trinity

DR-CAFTA, the free trade agreement with the United States, has been in force in Central America for more than three years. And for the last two Nicaragua has also been a member of ALBA, the brainchild of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. The two “development programs” live side by side. Before assessing their first results, we should first ask: do they guarantee sustainable development?

Gloria María Carrión Fonseca

Like corner posts of a house, three pillars support sustainable development: the economy, society and the environment. We don’t always see all three of them in the current trade models. Sometimes, with everything hanging on just one of them, the house ought surely to collapse. The story below has two threads. One of them will lead you through the corridors of a London university in pursuit of sustainable development. The other will invite you to reflect on power, participation and inclusive development through the eyes of DR-CAFTA and ALBA—or of CAFTALBA, seeing as they co-exist in Nicaragua.

Fishing for a paradigm in London

London awoke in the middle of the hullabaloo. The avenues had filled with black beetle-like taxis and red double-decker buses at the unearthly hour of 7 in the morning. Millions of people swarmed in and out of the tube stations like ants scurrying about their business. It was as though Londoners had decided to check, step by step, street by street, that everything was in its place: that the newspaper seller on the corner, a recently nationalized Indian, opened his stand on time; that the cafes had caffeine infusions ready for their clients; and that my alarm clock rang without fail at 7:15.

I was new to London. I’d arrived a couple of weeks earlier, excited as any Central American with a grant to the School of Economics and Political Sciences. I was living on the South Bank, in the London of Dickens and Shakespeare; the bank where the other history of the industrial revolution had been stamped: poverty, diseases and the cold. Even in 2004, this legacy was still latent, albeit much diminished. Londoners said that up until quite recently you could have your wallet or even car stolen in this area in the blink of an eye.

Nonetheless, after the council decided to develop an agreeable walk alongside the Thames, the South Bank had increased in value. Various art galleries, pubs and restaurants opened their doors and blocks of modern, expensive flats weren’t far behind. When I moved into the students’ residence in Great Dover Street, the area was a mish-mash of housing for successful, professional young people—read bankers or apprentice bankers—cheek by jowl with grey terraces where poor and immigrant Londoners lived. A thin line divided these two worlds. My residence was right on it, like a retaining wall.

The university was little more than three streets of various buildings and an enormous, well-stocked library. The number of pubs per head was the highest I’d ever seen in my student life. My classmates studying for a Masters in Environment and Development were mostly North Americans, various Europeans, a handful of Latin Americans, Africans and Asians and a pitiful number of Brits. The lectures were mostly on political ecology, environmental economics, gender and development, and international political economy. From different perspectives they all sought to teach us about sustainable development, that shining fish that slips through your hands just when you think you’ve caught it. This is what I’d come to London for, amongst other things: to go fishing for a paradigm.

Who has more power in the development trinity?

Of all the seminars and lectures I attended that year, two marked me profoundly: international political economics and political ecology. And three of the ideas we discussed in those classes still keep me company.

The first is that power relations infiltrate all the cracks in human existence, especially the political-economic regimes we construct. The second is that a development model must be inclusive and as such guarantee the effective participation of all society’s actors. In other words, everybody should be able to voice their opinion. The third is that sustainable development has to be based on three pillars: the economic, the social, which also includes the institutional, and the environmental. Just as a house built without corner posts will not stand, so development must be built on this trinity if it is to be long-lasting.

Many say this sounds all fine and good, but what use is academic waffle in a country like Nicaragua? Well, a lot. Especially if we apply it to the two most important political-economic regimes co-existing at the moment in Nicaragua: the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Agreement with the United States (DR-CAFTA) and the Latin American Bolivarian Alternative (ALBA). Let’s begin then with power.

The international political economy course was given by two great lecturers: Ken Shalden from the United States and Robert Wade, an Australian. It’s thrilling to feel the precise moment when knowledge lights up the mind and dazzles it with an idea. One knows nothing will be the same again. That’s how I came to my understanding of the notion of power, of its ubiquity, that enviable quality of being in all places at once, of power relations in international regimes. “Uncover the actors and their interests,” Ken repeated to us over and over again. It’s that power and the different degree each actor exercises of the power he or she has that condition the political-economic regime you end up with. In other words, he who shouts loudest gets the most.

Power is exercised and expressed in many ways, even in daily life. In other words, it has a great capacity to transform itself to suit the purpose. In economics, one of the favorite forms power assumes is that of ideology. The force of an idea can decimate populations, invent flying machines and change the course of world history. One only needs to think of Nicholas Copernicus and his inflammatory idea that the sun and not the earth was the center of our system in the universe.

The economy becomes political when it’s dressed in ideology. Neoliberalism is based on a very powerful idea. Free trade, say the economists of this school, generates economic development and this in turn ‘trickles down’ from groups that generate wealth to those that don’t. Reality, however, tells another story: one in which power and particular interests determine whether this wealth is concentrated in a few hands or is shared.

Who decides the rules of the game?

In DR-CAFTA, power manifested itself in three spheres. The first: between countries, Nicaragua vs. the United States. The second: between actors, such as private enterprise and civil society. And the third: within and between these two groups.

Imagine if you will a boxing match. In one corner of the ring there’s a featherweight boxer, a bit skinny but with his gloves on, ready to give it his all. But there’s no one around him to give him water; his trainer went out for a smoke and the guy who towels down his sweat isn’t there either. On the other side a heavyweight with various prizes under his belt is getting ready. He’s got an entourage that guarantees him water, towels and massages. He’s used to winning. He almost always wins.

Mario Amador, president of the National Commission of Sugar Producers (CNPA), tells the story of the final round of CAFTA negotiations in Washington: “The agreement had just been signed when the official photo was taken, but the celebrations started without agreement on the sugar quota for Nicaragua.” Those with the power get to sing the lead role. Free trade treaties are negotiated chapter by chapter.

Right from the start the US negotiators determined the rules of the game. Nicaragua and the other countries could negotiate the chapter on “market access,” in which countries usually seek favorable access for their agricultural and industrial products. The other issues, such as intellectual property, services and investment never made it to the negotiating table. The US negotiating team brought with it previously drafted documents to which “only cosmetic changes could be made,” according to a Central American negotiator. Sensitive issues, such as the millions of dollars in agricultural subsidies that the United States deals out to its farmers, thereby closing most small and medium Central American farmers out of the game, also never made it to the table.

Perhaps the moment when the power imbalance between the United States and the other countries was at its clearest, however, was when CAFTA, which by then included the Dominican Republic, was submitted to the US Congress for approval. The southern textile manufacturers weren’t thrilled with the 10-year break obtained by Nicaragua to import cloth from countries such as China, which is usually much cheaper. Feeling it would undercut their business, they put pressure on their congressional representatives to the point that the textiles concession made to Nicaragua was unilaterally modified. Although the 10-year period wasn’t reduced as the textile manufacturers had wanted, they did manage to establish that for each piece of clothing produced in Nicaragua using Chinese cloth, a second had to be made using cloth from the southern textile manufacturers. It was as simple as that, just like two and two make four.

The great private sector:
Guest of honor in the hotel lobbies

The big economic players were more successful than civil society in lobbying the DR-CAFTA negotiating team. Private sector representatives such as the CNPA sugar producers, the Nicaraguan Association of Textiles and Clothing (ANITEC) and the San Martín Abattoir had direct access to the negotiators.

Fernando Traversari, ANITEC’s vice president, relates that his association worked hand in hand with the negotiating team to design the negotiating strategy: “At the beginning our negotiators weren’t very familiar with the industry or its technical details. But they learned along the way and we even developed a synergy that worked very well. Together we designed the concepts that subsequently became strategies at the negotiating table.” This closeness between Nicaragua’s big business sector and the government negotiating team was the rule rather than the exception. Between them they created a kind of symbiosis in which the negotiators obtained valuable information and the private sector made sure its interests were represented in the country’s negotiating position. In other words, it was a perfect scenario or, as the economists like to say, a win-win situation.

The meetings between these two players usually took place at night after the negotiations. They were bilateral encounters in which information was channeled both formally and informally. Formally in that it was presented in the “side room,” a salon literally off to the side of the one where CAFTA was being negotiated. Informally in that, as Alfredo Marín, General Manager of the San Martin Abattoir remembers, the negotiators passed information to them in the hotel’s corridors or lobby, by telephone or while having lunch some place. So in DR-CAFTA, the private sector was like a guest of honor. The strategy worked rather well. The most important achievements in gaining access to US markets via DR-CAFTA correspsonded to textiles and clothing, sugar and meat, among others.

When the proposals are
“politically indefensible”

In order to appreciate the big private sector’s power in the DR-CAFTA negotiations, it’s necessary to understand what happened to civil society. Faced with the agreement, Nicaraguan civil society divided. Some, such as the CID Initiative, believed it was important to influence the process, while others, such as those who formed the anti-CAFTA movement, decided to “fight it in the streets.” The latter gave voice to their discontent through various marches.

The CID Initiative, consisting of the Humboldt Center, the José Benito Escobar Sandinista Workers’ Center, the National Federation of Agricultural and Agroindustrial Cooperatives (FENACOOP) and the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), also sat in the “side room.” But the relationship between the CID Initiative and the negotiating team was not as cozy as that of the private sector. Amado Ordóñez, executive director of the Humboldt Center, reports that there was such a lack of trust between the CID Initiative and the government that its proposals were only presented to the negotiators in public. “This was how we maintained our autonomy from the state and our legitimacy with the rest of Nicaraguan society,” he exlained. For the most part the CID Initiative’s proposals were directed at issues that were political hot potatoes, such as agricultural subsidies, Nicaraguan small and medium farmers’ productive limitations, working conditions and environmental standards, as well as the possible dangers represented by patents on generic medicines and biodiversity.

Although the negotiators officially received all these proposals, very few were included in the national negotiating strategy, apart from a few exceptions such as the one on white maize. Some negotiators were even in favor of civil society proposals and arguments, but said they were politically indefensible. In other words, the United States would never accept them.
To picture how the US negotiators might have reacted had these proposals been put forward would now be a futile exercise at best. It is the case, however, that many spaces and possible gains are lost in trade negotiations by thinking that the other side is stronger and will always say no. Power isn’t just held; it’s also projected. And if it isn’t held, I would add, it can be cultivated.

The “power” of white maize

Of the few “victories” won by civil society in the CAFTA negotiations, the most often mentioned is white maize. It is said that this product, so important for the diet and survival of Nicaragua’s rural population, was excluded from DR-CAFTA. The reality, however, is a little different; no products were excluded. What happened was that an exception was made for the import duty on white maize. While the tariff barriers that “protect” Nicaraguan products from importations will be progressively lowered year after year until they disappear, the tax on white maize will always exist.

The idea is to protect national production from competition by US-subsidized corn. But the US delegation got a concession from Nicaragua in exchange for this exception: the opening up of a relatively small import quota of white maize grown in the United States. In other words, white maize will be imported from the United States. There’s no free lunch in politics.

In the end, however, it’s highly likely that the greatest danger for white maize farmers won’t come from the importation of white maize from the United States but from the rise of Maseca, the maize flour processed and imported from the North, which we already use more and more to make our tortillas.

Some with many and varied contacts,
other with impenetrable barriers

It would be a mistake to think that Nicaragua’s big business sector and the part of civil society representing small business are each monolithic and barely differentiated. Nothing could be further from the truth. Both groups are equally plagued with power relations, in many cases unequal ones. The differences within these two groups were ever-present in the CAFTA negotiations.

ANITEC and the CNPA, for example, had ample resources with which to hire international experts from Washington and Louisiana to help them design alternative negotiating scenarios for textiles and clothing and for sugar. The CNPA also had access to select circles of power in which to present its negotiating proposals, could rely on direct contact with the Central American trade ministers, as well as different representatives from the FSLN and PLC benches. It even had access to US negotiators and congresspeople. According to Mario Amador, nearly ten meetings were arranged with key US negotiators such as Allen Johnson, chief negotiator for agriculture, and with some senators.

In contrast, the rice growers and dairy farmers, on the whole small and medium producers, couldn’t even afford all the expenses to attend the rounds negotiated in different Central American cities and Washington, much less to hire international experts. Nor did they have the same extensive access to political circles the CNPA had. International trade negotiations were a novelty for actors such as the Nicaraguan Dairy Sector Chamber (CANISLAC). According to Wilmer Fernández, CANISLAC’s vice president, the technical language of the negotiations was an obstacle to the participation of many of their affiliates.

The basic grain farmers couldn’t participate at all, given financial, technical and institutional limitations to their uniting and organizing a common position. Representatives from the CID Initiative and the Center for Rural and Social Promotion, Research and Development (CIPRES) therefore played a vital role in defending the interests of the country’s small and medium farmers by reducing the treaty’s possible negative impact on them.

There were also some differences within civil society. Networks such as the CID Initiative had the technical knowledge necessary to make solid proposals in the different areas under negotiation. They also had the institutional capacity to identify and use funds that foreign donors were offering to support lobbying. But the majority of social movements and some of the NGOs that comprised the anti-CAFTA movement were unfamiliar with the technical language and concepts that would allow them to be considered a “serious” actor by the negotiators.

The power that oozes from the television

Perhaps the most destabilizing element for civil society in those negotiations was the media campaign the Nicaraguan government unleashed against the mobilizations organized by the anti-CAFTA alliance.

In September 2003, the anti-CAFTA movement’s demonstrations and campaigns had achieved a certain success. The national survey firm M&R presented a report titled “The state of public opinion with regard to DR-CAFTA” to authorities in the Ministry of Development, Industry and Commerce (MIFIC). According to the report, the free trade agreement negotiations faced two obstacles: the population’s unfamiliarity with the issue and the anti-CAFTA campaign. Although the negotiations had started eight months previously, only 7% of the Nicaraguan population recognized CAFTA as a free trade agreement being negotiated and only 2% said they knew what the negotiations were about.

Alarmed, the MIFIC authorities put together a group of communication specialists to design a campaign promoting the DR-CAFTA negotiations. This group set to work and prepared radio and television announcements, popular education texts, brochures, newspaper supplements and Web pages. The campaign was called “CAFTA: our bridge to the future.” Its strategy consisted of creating brief but effective messages identifying CAFTA with more investment, more progress, better quality products and more jobs.

The campaign provided the hoped-for response. Based on a sample of 800 people, M&R found shortly afterwards that 78% had “read, seen or heard” the pro-free trade agreement announcements; 81.5% knew they were about CAFTA, while 82.9% stated that the announcements had “helped them understand the agreement.” When CAFTA reached Nicaragua’s National Assembly for its approval, 66% of the 1,200 people questioned said they were in favor of the agreement and 23.4% were against. Finally, 51% of the people questioned considered the agreement would benefit Nicaragua while 31.4% believed it would prove damaging. Power oozes from television too.

More power for only a few

“Go to the end of the corridor and then turn right,” a very freckled girl told me. Although the university wasn’t that big, I’d already managed to get lost. I reached the hall just as the professor was writing his name in red: Tim Forsyth. I sat on the end in the only empty chair left. This is how I arrived in my first political ecology lecture.

The relationship between societies and their ecosystems does not flow in a perfectly balanced interchange like that of plants that fix CO2 and water and give back oxygen and nutrients during photosynthesis. On the contrary, society extracts resources and usually gives back waste, often toxic. It is enough to read up a little about environmental catastrophes to know that this rule, sadly, has had very few exceptions.

But natural resource extraction doesn’t come about spontaneously. It has an order and a hierarchy. It has names and surnames. Ecology becomes political when we identify that some actors exploit natural resources and keep the profits while others have to live with the cost of the contamination and waste. In other words, there are winners and losers.

Economic regimes work the same way. In the DR-CAFTA, civil society’s participation through the CID Initiative was limited by the private sector’s structural power and, as we’ve seen, by the big private sector in particular. A political-economic regime that doesn’t attend to needs or listen to the arguments of a part of civil society is doomed to partiality.

In DR-CAFTA, a number of issues never made it into negotiation and hence into the agreement; these include limitations in production, innovation and quality that affect the majority of small and medium farmers; sanitary, phytosanitary and other barriers that bar access to agricultural products; and the unfair competition implied by agricultural subsidies. Without creating capacity on different productive and social flanks, directed especially at small and medium enterprises, only a few will be able to take advantage of DR-CAFTA. That’s the reality. It’s when faced with all these limitations that some see in ALBA as a useful alternative to create alternative capacity.

ALBA: Solidarity and great nationals

The Latin American Bolivarian Alternative (ALBA) is a regional integration plan created as an alternative proposal to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) promoted by President Clinton in 1994. ALBA is based on two fundamental concepts: cooperative advantages and Great Nationals.

Cooperative advantages consist of incorporating a dimension of solidarity in international relations and maintaining the principle of national sovereignty. To construct these advantages ALBA envisages the creation of regional compensation funds—a sort of special and differentiated treatment that must be used to achieve social and economic objectives. It is in this context that Petroalba, Albagas and Albaelectric came about, to facilitate access to oil and payment for it over longer periods. Albacom, Telesur and ALBA TV also emerged to develop communications, services and infrastructure, along with ALBA-Medicines for the importation of generic drugs and ALBA-Food for accessing agricultural and industrial supplies.

The Great Nationals, a “state” version of transnationals, would be in charge of implementing all these huge projects. In practice, they have been implemented through public-private links. In Nicaragua the cooperative Nicaraocoop was an example of a private entity with links to the FSLN government used for selective distribution to farmers of urea fertilizer provided by Venezuela and channeled through ALBA officials and agreements.

It’s still too soon to evaluate the results

There’s no doubt it’s still too soon to talk about the possible positive or negative impact of ALBA on Nicaragua. A recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) report titled “Economic Perspectives: the Americas dealing with the world financial crisis” indicates that of all the Central American and Caribbean countries, Nicaragua was the principle beneficiary of ALBA funding in 2007 and envisages this tendency continuing in 2008.

The IMF maintains that the Petrocaribe initiative, which sells Venezuelan oil at preferential prices, has helped cushion the shock (of the financial crisis). As well as providing concessionary finance for Venezuelan oil imports, Petrocaribe also offers a framework for coordinating energy policies in various countries.

The IMF estimated that finance from Petrocaribe would reach 5-6% of the gross domestic product in Guyana, Jamaica and Nicaragua in 2008. The current fall in international oil prices could throw doubt on this scenario.

“We know about ALBA because of the news”

Perhaps before asking “how much” ALBA can do, it would be more important to ask “how.” The “how” refers to the ALBA implementation process. Given that the implementation referred to is still in the early stages it’s only possible to talk about tendencies. Among these, power, effective and inclusive participation of all actors and the ALBA application in situ can’t be ignored.

Just like DR-CAFTA or any other political-economic regime, ALBA is inserted into a landscape of power relations. Everything is permeated with different power relations, from the fact that Venezuela, the country promoting ALBA, conceived the conceptual framework and is the owner of the oil that makes the mechanism work, to the way ALBA resources are distributed in Nicaragua.

If it’s true that ALBA is based on inclusive development objectives, one of the most curious things about its recent implementation is that the decision to join was made from above. According to actors such as CANISLAC, ALBA is unknown territory. Months ago, Wilmer Fernández, vice president of CANISLAC, indicated that “as an organized production sector we don’t know the implications of ALBA. We requested a meeting with President Daniel Ortega to discuss ALBA and the negotiations for the European Union Association Agreement but didn’t get a reply.”

Based on the little knowledge they have of ALBA, CANISLAC’s members believe small and medium dairy farmers might benefit from the program, and it might even prove beneficial for big private sector actors such as the CNPA and ANITEC. Nonetheless, they also say these opinions are based on information about ALBA they got from the news.

According to Mario Amador, sugar exports, were already subject to preferential treatment in Venezuela because of unilateral concessions it had granted Nicaragua long before ALBA. In general, they have dealt directly with their Venezuelan clients and prefer to keep it that way: “With ALBA we don’t know if we’ll need to deal with the Venezuelan government or a state enterprise. We’d prefer to carry on maintaining direct contact with the buyers because when the state gets involved in transactions, things get complicated.” As for ANITEC, its main objective is to open up new markets for textiles and clothing and “if ALBA can create opportunities to open new markets in Venezuela and other South American countries, then it’s welcome.”

We joined ALBA without consulting anyone

Opinions are more diverse within civil society. For some, ALBA seeks to redistribute wealth within a formal democratic framework and represents a means of opposing US imperialism. For others, including Bianca Mangas, a former Humboldt Center official, ALBA is a cooperation agreement that should be analyzed publicly due to the possible fiscal burdens it could generate as well as the possible conditions it might impose. She agrees with other stakeholders that ALBA could be “a useful instrument to strengthen capacity in small and medium sectors faced with trade liberation.”

Social movements have reacted to ALBA in very different ways. While those with historical links to the FSLN have participated actively in implementing the agreement and were invited to take part in some of the ALBA summits, post-revolution social movements such as the María Elena Cuadra Movement of Working and Unemployed Women and the Women’s Forum for Central American Integration say they know little about ALBA. They explain that they’ve been directing all their efforts at lobbying the negotiating team responsible for the European Union Association Agreement.

Unlike the CAFTA negotiations, the lack of involvement of any non-state actors in consultation processes before Nicaragua joined ALBA and the lack of knowledge some sectors of society might have about ALBA doesn’t appear to cause many problems for some social movements. In Bianca Mangas’ view, the lack of social mobilization demanding greater transparency around ALBA can be interpreted two ways. On the one hand, she argues, “many social movements are in agreement with ALBA ideologically and conceptually. On the other, the social movements that might not agree with the low level of transparency in ALBA’s implementation are possibly afraid of being dubbed ‘traitors’ if they openly criticize the government’s approach.” Other actors, such as FENACOOP, have decided to initiate a debate on what they consider to be the shady side of ALBA implementation.

ALBA’s shadows

FENACOOP, says its leader Sinforiano Cáceres, agrees with the social, distributive, educational, food security and poverty reduction objectives pursued by the government. What it wants to discuss is the elements of ALBA’s implementation that could undermine its long-term objectives of sustainable and inclusive development. FENACOOP criticizes the lack of information in the realm of public administration.

Actors such as FENACOOP say there are still no available details about the implementation of this and other programs, projects and plans of Daniel Ortega’s government. They indicate that governmental decision-making has been so centralized that even ministers and public functionaries are unsure where the limits of their authority lie, given the firing of certain officials whose declarations to the media were considered unacceptable criticism by Daniel Ortega’s government.

More specifically, FENACOOP questions the way some Venezuelan aid resources have been distributed, such as urea and loans for small and medium farmers. According to Cáceres, the urea has been channeled exclusively through Nicaraocoop, a cooperative whose legitimacy has been questioned by various cooperatives. When FENACOOP asked the government about the distribution mechanisms, they were told that “the urea will be distributed according to urgency.” Nevertheless, says Cáceres, it was sold at three different prices in practice: “the price for party members, the price for leaders of some associations and the price for those who don’t belong to either group.”

Complementary powers?

Sinforiano Cáceres also says that the US$10 million for loans to small and medium farmers announced by President Hugo Chávez was only distributed through five firms. When FENACOOP members asked about the criteria that would be used to gain access to the loans, the government told them they had already been established and the resources distributed.

For Cáceres, these actions reinforce national inequalities and are counterproductive to the objectives pursued by the Venezuelan cooperation. “Who is saying how the aid should be distributed? What technical criteria are being applied? We believe the most vulnerable groups within the rural sector should be prioritized. The tendency, however, is to favor groups led by national legislators or high-ranking members of the governing party.”

At a conceptual level ALBA appears to be an ideal instrument for dealing with the structural limitations of Nicaragua’s economy that were left out of DR-CAFTA, such as energy, infrastructure, finance and the high levels of poverty. Nonetheless, ALBA’s impact should be evaluated based on its implementation on the ground. In other words: who benefits and who loses? And how will the inequalities that still prevail in the country be attacked?

Although ALBA is a recent process, the first signs of its implementation present a series of challenges. The lack of information to all stakeholders, their limited inclusion in decision-making and the low level of accountability for ALBA resources could, in the long run, become counterproductive to the inclusive development objectives promoted by this program.

For the majority of non-state Nicaraguan actors, ALBA and DR-CAFTA are complementary. Nevertheless, maintaining public policy coherence and an effective response to production limitations and social problems continues to be one of the most important challenges for the current government, as well as for the whole of Nicaraguan society.

ALBA’s priorities are social

The importance of balance in life is an experience we bump up against over and over: when we learn to ride a bicycle for the first time or when we overdo it at some party. At university too. Tim Forsyth, my political ecology lecturer, was a fan of postmodern critiques and we used to question each theory, approach or model to death to “deconstruct” it, as he used to say, looking at its discourse, its language and its stakeholders. Tim possessed that mysterious ability to give a class without letting it be known, even for a minute, what position he took on the issues we discussed so passionately every Tuesday and Thursday in the university’s lecture theater.

As the end of the year drew closer, my anguish increased, because although we had become almost expert in decon-structing the different positions on sustainable development, as if we were dealing with the components of a car’s engine, Tim was incapable of giving us any clue, of telling us, “That’s right, you guys, the path’s this way.” So I decided to visit him in his office to ask him directly what he believed in. His reply was categorical: “In models and interventions that give equal importance to the social, the economic and the environmental, and especially that my students never stop inquiring.”

At this moment ALBA and DR-CAFTA are each looking at Nicaragua from only one pillar of the sustainable development house. ALBA’s implementation mainly prioritizes the social one, shortchanging the institutional dimension and neglecting the economic and environmental pillars. On the economic level, the isolation of actors such as FENACOOP or the consolidation of national value chains and commercialization mechanisms for small and medium farmers’ products are challenges that won’t wait if we’re looking for viability that is institutional, productive and commercial as well as social.

On the other hand, although preferential access to Venezuelan oil is beneficial for Nicaragua in the short run, it’s imperative to develop renewable energy sources that considerably reduce our dependency on oil and prepare us for the imminent tests of climate change. Effective and balanced attention to the institutional dimension and the economic and environmental pillars in ALBA’s current implementation would aim at greater inclusion and sustainability of this program.

DR-CAFTA focuses on the economy

For its part, DR-CAFTA focuses mainly on the economic pillar, especially the export sector, leaving the social and environmental dimensions to one side. The current disparity between the productive capacity of Nicaragua’s small and medium farmers and even its entrepreneurs and those of their competitors in the United States are colossal. A free trade agreement that doesn’t take this reality into account will probably only create opportunities and benefits for those national and international actors that possess the knowledge, capital and capacity to compete.

Likewise, although DR-CAFTA contains a chapter on the environment, the Central American region’s capacity to safeguard environmental standards is questionable. DR-CAFTA transfers to the state the “burden of proof” and the costs of whatever environmental crime might be committed in its territory. Although free trade agreements are effectively negotiated and implemented by the state, DR-CAFTA’s norms on environmental matters don’t reflect the responsibility the private sector could have in applying—or failing to apply—environmental standards. This means that the Nicaraguan state rather than the private sector would be sued in an international court.

Aside from this, the capacity of Central American states to monitor the observance of both environmental and labor standards is very weak. Although in theory the environmental chapter envisages a cooperative framework to strengthen this capacity, very little has been done in practice. By neglecting the social and environmental dimensions, DR-CAFTA has also signed its own warrant of unsustainability.

Building on three pillars and building bridges

The challenge of making good use of both these programs so they deal with urgent development needs and oppose the profound inequalities that pervade Nicaraguan society cannot be put off. Both must ground themselves in that “trinity” that makes development sustainable.

The road that still lies ahead is rough but it is urgent that we keep moving if we want to construct a sustainable development model that includes all actors and frees the majority of Nicaraguans from poverty and lack of opportunities. Without doubt both ALBA and DR-CAFTA are very useful programs to this end, but it will depend on whether we use them to include or isolate different sectors of society. If some advance at the expense of the rest, whatever the model, everything will stagnate. That’s how it is: we’re an interconnected swarm.

All Nicaraguan men or women who live below the Tropic of Cancer have a vision and many dreams of the country we want. The model must be built and grounded on these three pillars. We have to build well-founded bridges. If we don’t, or worse yet, if we burn the bridges that bring us closer together, help us to put ourselves in another’s shoes and facilitate a constructive dialogue, the opportunities for long-term development will continue to pass before us and move on by like the Doppler effect of a train. Without these bridges it might be that one day, on getting out of bed, we notice with horror that our dreams have abandoned us and closed the door with a padlock. A country without dreams must be a very sad place.

Gloria Carrión is an expert on environment and development, and an envío collaborator.

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