NESTLED in the diplomatic language of the Jan. 8 meeting in Austin, Texas, between President-elect Clinton and Mexican President Carlos Salinas were signs of an important change in Washington's relations with Mexico City. As expected, Mr. Clinton restated his intention to supplement the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with additional agreements on labor and the environment. Just as significant was his inclusion of human rights on the bilateral agenda. Unlike President Bush, who ignored Mexico 's authoritarian practices for fear of undercutting President Salinas, Clinton is signaling he will push for political reform.
The need for such reform is being underscored on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is replacing Lloyd Bentsen as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Though committed to NAFTA, Senator Moynihan will ask difficult questions along the way. "We are still being asked to approve a free-trade agreement with a country that isn't free," he said recently. "We have a free-trade treaty with only two nations, Canada and Israel, both free nations.... Due process under law is not assured in Mexico.
To think this is not relevant to a free-trade agreement denies an elemental problem."
The change in tone cannot come too soon. Though the Salinas administration continues to enjoy a reputation for economic reform, its reformist image has been badly tarnished by efforts to preserve authoritarian rule through electoral fraud, repression of labor, and institutionalized torture.
Mexico's electoral system is in disarray. Mexicans are no longer willing to accept the rulings of electoral commissions stacked in favor of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In the central states of Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, and Michoacan, mass protests recently forced the removal of PRI governors despite officially certified "landslide" victories. With preparations under way for next year's presidential election, concern is mounting that the turmoil at the state level will spread to
the national level.
Though Salinas has promised electoral "reform," he continues to rule out the only reform that could make Mexican elections credible: balanced electoral commissions. Independent commissions would change the electoral rules and open up the possibility that the PRI could lose the national elections.
HE Mexican leadership faces a similar dilemma in its treatment of labor. Despite guarantees of labor rights in the Mexican constitution, the government continues to control labor unions through rigged elections, bribes, appointment of labor bosses to high public office, and the selective use of goon squads against dissidents. Whenever this proves insufficient, the regime arrests labor leaders on trumped-up charges, declares strikes "nonexistent," and calls out the army and police to "restore order."
Though such practices have become embarrassing in the context of free trade, they are seen as more necessary than ever. Mexico's leaders depend on a docile labor force to preserve authoritarian rule and to maintain Mexico's only significant competitive advantage: low wages. What attracts General Motors to Mexico despite inferior infrastructure is that it can pay workers whose productivity now matches that of their counterparts in the US and Canada a fraction of what they would pay north of the Rio Grande . Those wages would not be nearly as attractive were Mexicans not denied the right to organize.
Mexico is also being embarrassed by its practice of torture. In November, the United Nations Committee on Torture denounced the "shocking" and "inexplicable" contradiction between Mexican legislation prohibiting torture and the "bestiality" and "impunity" with which the police and armed forces torture citizens. Noting that Mexico has yet to convict a single offender during the six years that the law against torture has been on the books, the committee instructed the Mexican government to return within 18
months to show progress, "especially as concerns punishing those responsible."
To counter the damage to Mexico's image and prepare for the Friday summit in Austin, Salinas reshuffled his cabinet the preceding Monday. Most of the attention focused on his replacement of Attorney General Ignacio Morales, whose ministry is in charge of the federal police, with Jorge Carpizo MacGregor, until now head of the government's human rights commission. The move signals a readiness to crack down on torture.
Yet a simultaneous change at the Interior Ministry just as clearly signals the limits to political reform. The minister of the interior is in charge of elections, intelligence, and maintaining domestic order. Jose Patrocinio Gonzalez, named to the post on Jan. 4, developed a reputation for an "iron fist" while governor of Chiapas, where he dispatched security forces against Indians, imprisoned hundreds of dissidents, and tried to silence the Roman Catholic Church's human rights office.
It is at this point that the interests of the US and Mexican governments diverge. Free trade is a mutual interest. Maintenance of authoritarian institutions is not, particularly when they undercut the rule of law, personal freedoms, and the political stability essential to the proper functioning of free markets. While congratulating the Mexican president for free-market reforms and acting against torture, Clinton will have to caution that free trade will require means of ensuring respect for due process and the right to organize. It will also require credible elections. Freedom is indispensable to free trade.