NAFTA KICKOFF HEARTENS MEXICANS

* The Mexican government, which has spent about $25 million selling the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to the US Congress, is relieved to see the Clinton administration joining the campaign to sell the trade pact.

On Sept. 14, the leaders of Mexico, Canada, and the United States signed the NAFTA side agreements. The signing ceremony here was low-key. But the ceremony in Washington, with the bipartisan support of three former US presidents, was broadcast live.

Mexican officials say they are heartened by President Clinton's public vow to fight for the pact, which would create the world's largest free-trade zone.

``It will be a hard fight, and I expect to be there with you every step of the way,'' Mr. Clinton stated. Later the same day, Clinton launched his pro-NAFTA campaign in New Orleans, La., where state exports to Mexico have doubled in the last five years. (Clinton's efforts, page 6.)

The latest issue of the weekly Mexican news magazine Este Pais showed that 48 percent of Mexicans believed the agreement would go into effect by Jan. 1, 1994; 14 percent believed it would not.

Ratification of NAFTA in Mexico is expected. The Canadian Parliament has already ratified the treaty. The tough battle lies ahead in the US Congress.

In the Tuesday signing ceremony, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari said NAFTA was a ``long-term instrument, and its effects will be felt gradually in the next decades and for following generations.''

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