Big Sugar and the Fight Over CAFTA

As the Washington Post reported last Friday, President Bush is struggling to rescue the "floundering" Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and could be in for a "rare defeat" in Congress on the pact.

Why is CAFTA on the ropes? Environmental, labor and human rights groups can claim part of the credit, but the chief reason is opposition from the U.S. sugar industry, which fears a cut in price supports and a phased-in 50% increase in sugar imports. Sugar interests in Florida and Louisiana are the biggest players, although 5,000 sugar beet farmers in states ranging from Michigan to California are also mobilizing against CAFTA.

The sugar lobby is one of the most powerful in politics, dispensing over $3 million in political contributions each election cycle to both Democratic and Republican federal candidates.

Sugar lobbyists like to point to the small farms that make up the industry -- the average sugar cane farm in Louisiana is "only" 700 acres. But it's also made up of barons like the influential Fanjul family in Florida, owners of the 400,000-acre Flo-Sun empire. Alfonso "Alfy" Fanjul was Clinton's Florida co-chairman in 1992, while his brother, Jose "Pepe" Fanjul, was a "Pioneer" for the 2004 Bush campaign, meaning he raised more than $100,000. In 1998, the Fanjul family alone received some $60 million in government subsidies, causing Time to call them the "first family of corporate welfare."

Big Sugar is also one of our most environmentally-damaging industries, the leading cause of the mass destruction of Florida's Everglades. Florida sugar operations -- where a quarter of U.S. sugar is produced -- have doubled their acreage since the early 1970s, and polluted runoff has killed tens of thousands of acres of sea grass, threatening endangered wildlife as well as community water supplies.

There's not much good to say about free trade deals like CAFTA, especially without labor and environmental standards, which have been a disaster for workers and the environment and have given a green light to unaccountable corporations in search of quick profits. And, as they say, it's true that politics makes for strange bedfellows.

But progressives should proceed with caution in their alliance with Big Sugar, which is reminiscent of the volatile bond public interest groups forged with South Carolina's billionaire textile magnate (and loyal supporter of far-right politicians from George Wallace to Jesse Helms) Roger Milliken in the fight against NAFTA -- an association which only served to hurt the reputation of anti-NAFTA activists among Southern workers who suffered under Milliken's fiercely anti-union fiefdom.