UNTIL House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri recently made formal his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the trade pact had a good chance of winning a majority in both the House and the Senate. It may still be approved, but Americans should question how defeating NAFTA would or would not affect Mexico.
Representative Gephardt says his main reason for opposing NAFTA is concern that the pact will cause a net loss of manufacturing positions in the United States. Fears about job losses due to lower wages in Mexico are justified, but not for the reasons cited by Gephardt and Ross Perot.
In fact, NAFTA will not cause American jobs to go south to Mexico. Rather, the current economic policies of the Salinas government already are stealing jobs from both American and Mexican workers, even without having NAFTA in place.
Since 1982, the proportion of Mexican manufacturing wages to comparable US pay has slid from one-third to almost one-tenth. Low wages come from the lack of democracy in Mexico, and for this reason Americans should say no to NAFTA.
Ninety million Mexicans live and work in an over-regulated economy where private cartels and government monopolies allied with Mexico's ruling party dominate many industries.
Mexicans cannot vote freely nor organize into labor unions, thus they cannot use the leverage of the ballot box or collective bargaining to seek higher wages.
The pro-NAFTA chorus claims that ``free trade'' under single-party rule will lead to greater democracy, a unique and post-modernist perspective. A commitment to democracy and the rule of law are the basic foundation for a free and open market. Yet more participants in the NAFTA debate avoid this fundamental political issue. In fact, the current situation inside Mexico offers a compelling refutation of the pro-NAFTA position. Mexicans stagger under a maze of arbitrary regulations and taxes that take roughly 35 percent more annually from Mexican firms than a similar US company would pay in the US.
The ``free market'' economic policy followed by Salinas includes such socialist components as an over-valued currency and wage and price controls, which inhibit exports and deprive Mexico of badly needed hard-currency income.
Some suggest that failure of NAFTA could damage US states by ``destabilizing Mexico.'' Just the opposite is true. ``Instability'' is what democracy is all about, and political change is long overdue in Mexico.
The dangerous and erroneous argument for supporting ``stability'' under single-party rule in Mexico has been perpetuated by successive administrations in Washington, the American intelligence community, and the US business establishment, all of which are accustomed to doing business with Mexico's corrupt government.
Contrary to the message being broadcast by the pro-NAFTA corporate propaganda apparatus, however, allowing the agreement to take effect as it currently stands today will endorse and strengthen the corrupt political status quo in Mexico, reinforcing the very tendencies and practices that American government officials publicly oppose.
Signing NAFTA with Mexico's current government will simply validate single-party rule, making Americans partners in oppression and blocking democratic change in Mexico for another decade or more.
The Bush administration intervened following the abortive 1989 election to save Salinas and his decrepit ruling party. Now Washington needs to adopt a new, hands-off position on Mexico's important national election in August 1994.
Congress should vote down NAFTA not because of false fears about jobs losses in the US, but because Mexico's workers are not free. If we sign a ``free trade'' agreement with a country that does not recognize the rule of law, then we make a mockery of our own legal principles and democratic pretensions. 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 by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.