For Mexicans, Trade Is Key Issue

NAFTA takes center stage in perceptions here of the US presidential candidates

IF Mexicans could vote in the US presidential elections, George Bush would probably garner the most ss. Bill Clinton would take second. And Ross Perot, if running, would finish way back.

The determining factor? The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Sixty percent of Mexicans believe NAFTA will benefit their country, the highest approval rating among the three parties to the pact - Mexico, the United States, and Canada - according to the latest Gallup poll. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is billing NAFTA as the neon exit sign for a nation seeking a way out of its developing-nation status.

And nobody on the hustings is touting NAFTA like President Bush. The jobs created by US export-oriented industries are one of the few bright spots the Republicans can point to amid the economic gloom.

Bush and Mr. Salinas have met more frequently than any US and Mexican leaders in recent memory. The personal rapport has been good, thanks to similar free-trade, market-oriented ideals. The nation-to-nation relationship has also been close: Relations have not been derailed even by a recent US Supreme Court decision virtually rubber-stamping the kidnapping of Mexican citizens as a legal way for the US to fight the drug war.

"Ten years ago, that would have been grounds for severing diplomatic ties. But now commerce exceeds $70 billion annually. You have a commercial relationship that governs the bilateral relationship," says Roberto Salinas Leon, academic director of the Center for Free Enterprise Studies in Mexico City.

"By the year 2000 I have no doubt Mexico will be the No. 1 US trading partner," he says. "NAFTA brings order to this tremendous, inertial, commercial relationship."

While leading leftist opposition parties here argue about NAFTA's shortcomings, they do not dispute the free-trade trend. Most analysts see it as part of a global pattern.

"The single most important issue shaping the relationship over the next century is free trade. If Clinton accepts that, the Salinas administration will accept him," says Luis Rubio, a political scientist at the Center for Research for Development in Mexico City.

During the primaries, Governor Clinton and former US Sen. Paul Tsongas were the only two Democratic candidates to take pro-free-trade positions. Since then, Clinton has expressed doubts about NAFTA and conditioned his support upon reading the final document. Most analysts expect him to endorse NAFTA in some form if he becomes president.

"But for political reasons, Clinton needs to put his own personal imprint on the policy - a policy designed and constructed by the previous administration," notes Delal Baer, senior fellow and director of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri advocates reopening the treaty negotiations. He sees NAFTA as seriously flawed.

Salinas has repeatedly dodged questions about whether Mexico would renegotiate the treaty if Clinton became president. But few observers expect Clinton to take that route.

On Oct. 7, the trade ministers of Mexico, Canada, and the US will initial the treaty. On Dec. 17, the presidents are expected to sign NAFTA. Then, the three nations' legislatures will have to ratify the agreement before it goes into effect. But once Bush signs NAFTA in December, renegotiating the pact would require a congressional extension of US "fast track" treaty-approval legislation. Fast track was a political battle for Bush; it is unlikely that Clinton would want to start his administration on that


And reopening NAFTA talks would put the US at a disadvantage at the negotiating table. "The US would pay a high price. Mexico would say, `You want to renegotiate? Then let's revise the rule of origin agreement or include anti-dumping clauses,'" Mr. Salinas Leon says.

Most analysts expect Clinton would leave NAFTA as is but push for separate bilateral treaties or legislation aimed at filling gaps not covered by NAFTA, such as better labor conditions, assistance for displaced workers, and the improved enforcement of environmental regulations. "That would be very acceptable to Mexico," opines Mr. Rubio.

Mexican officials privately admit to having had discussions with the Clinton camp. And they see Clinton as pragmatic, someone they can work with if necessary. But Ms. Baer at CSIS notes it is likely Clinton would be more critical of Mexico's record on human rights, democracy, and the environment than Bush has been.

The worst of all choices, from the Mexican perspective, would be Mr. Perot, the Texas billionaire. In interviews, Perot has criticized NAFTA as likely to provoke the massive loss of US manufacturing jobs to Mexico. When Perot departed from the campaign trail in July, the Mexican stock market soared. If Perot reenters the race, and is perceived as credible, investors here may again "vote" by putting their pesos elsewhere.

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