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Trade Could Be a Tool To Prod Guatemala

Despite poor worker-rights record, the country has privileged status with US

ON June 30, the US Trade Representative determined Guatemala's GSP (Generalized System of Preferences) status, a decision eagerly awaited since the previous December by worker-rights advocates. As anticipated, one of the hemisphere's worst worker-rights violators will not be forced to forgo its valuable GSP trade privileges with the United States at this time.

While deliberations were not completely terminated, the Clinton administration refused to revoke trade benefits; only an untethered optimist assumes that it ever will.

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If the US had chosen to react properly to the existing grim realities in Guatemala, it would have honored the reason the GSP procedure was first established. Instead, the administration called for more time to see if Guatemala's recent dodge of so-called reforms would remedy the country's horrendous rights record.

Anyone familiar with Guatemala's tragic modern history knows that this is yet another case of White House illusion. Guatemala, along with some other suspect countries, will be watched for the next 90 days to see if its labor record improves.

Understandably, labor activists, who without success have been petitioning the US Trade Representative (USTR) to take concrete action to confront the abuses of Guatemalan workers since the mid-1980s, feel betrayed.

The prospect of the suspension of Guatemala's GSP benefits, though possible, is remote, since never in its existence has the USTR review committee honestly responded to overwhelming evidence concerning the reprehensible labor record of any pro-US Central American nation.

Begun in 1970, GSP status was supposed to be linked to a country's willingness to guarantee the basic well-being of its workers. Supposedly, GSP benefits can be stripped from countries blatantly violating labor-rights standards established by the International Labor Organization. Nevertheless, although abuses are chronic in countries like Guatemala, GSP benefits, under which a wide array of products have been admitted to the US on favorable terms for the past decade, always have been maintained. The USTR review committee's findings have not been based on facts, but on US geopolitical concerns in the region - namely, the need to curry allies in the anti-Moscow effort in Central America.

In Guatemala, outright attacks against union organizers and militants have been commonplace, with literally thousands of them tortured, murdered, or disappeared over the years. As a result of such intimidation, only a meager 5 percent of workers belong to unions. Thus, the 75 percent of Guatemalan workers who earn less than subsistence-level wages have few legal channels for grievances.

The Guatemalan government, either through indifference or ideology, has remained ineffective in rectifying abuses. Although prohibited in countries receiving GSP status, forced overtime and physical intimidation are endemic. For example, 70,000 workers - mainly women - are employed at wretched salaries in clothing assembly plants, perform back-breaking work in sweltering shops, and frequently are the victims of sexual and physical abuse. Attempts to curb these practices customarily have been met with indifference or outright opposition. Conditions remain appalling.

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In 1993, US imports from Guatemala covered by GSP reached $40 million. If GSP were denied, Guatemala would be subjected to normal tariff rates. The resulting 4 percent increase undoubtedly would hurt the country economically, but any threat to cut off GSP treatment would be a constructive incentive for the business sector to change its attitude concerning worker rights. With approximately 85 percent of the population living in poverty, and cheap labor easy to secure, Guatemalan entrepreneurs count on the uninterrupted maintenance of the GSP trade privileges as another plus. This was succinctly spelled out by the assertion of Guatemala's deputy foreign minister before the GSP Committee last November that GSP ``has contributed to the growth of our economy on a larger scale than all the aid our country has received.''

GSP labor standards seldom have been a hindrance to trade benefits being awarded to prime human rights violators in the past. Nevertheless, worker-rights advocates believe that Guatemala's GSP status must be suspended if the Clinton administration's pro-democracy rhetoric is to have any credibility. Because Guatemala's deprivations of worker rights are so extreme, and will continue to be so without punitive action from Washington, Guatemala must not take privileged access to the US market for granted. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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