NAFTA Easily Passes Mexico's Senate

Mexicans nearly saw a Gore-Perot style debate, which may set a precedent for election campaigns

AFTER a long day of speeches on Nov. 22, the Mexican Senate quietly voted 56 to 2 in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). None of the drama or rancor was evident that surrounded the United States House of Representatives vote on Nov. 17.

By law, the treaty only needs the approval of the Senate. And President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's ruling party controls the Senate. Senators from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) are not known for contradicting the policies of their president. The PRI calls it party unity. Political analysts describe it as the congressional ``rubber stamp'' or presidencialismo.

But for a fleeting political moment, it appeared Mexicans might have their own version of the televised NAFTA slugfest between US Vice President Al Gore and businessman Ross Perot.

After NAFTA's passage in the US, Mexican papers published the disdainful comments of center-left opposition presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano. He groused that NAFTA was ``poorly negotiated'' and warned thatconsequences would be ``serious'' for Mexico.

Apparently irked, the man charged with negotiating the treaty for Mexico, Commerce Secretary Jaime Jose Serra Puche, challenged Mr. Cardenas to a live debate on television.

As far as anyone can remember, the PRI has never offered to publicly debate an opposition candidate.

When queried about the general lack of debate in Mexico over NAFTA, Mr. Serra Puche somewhat testily notes that he has appeared 11 times before the Mexican Senate to discuss NAFTA. But noted columnist Sergio Sarmiento comments that given the composition of the Senate, there was about as much public interest in Serra Puche's ``informative'' sessions as there would be in a Necaxa match. The Necaxa soccer team has a reputation comparable to the hapless New England Patriots.

But Mexicans would line up for tickets to a showdown between Serra Puche and Cardenas, Mr. Sarmiento says.

Cardenas declined the challenge. His Democratic Revolutionary Party sensed a trap. Was Serra Puche really miffed and ready to defend the honor of his endeavors? Or did the PRI, after observing Perot's debating debacle, decide a mano-a-mano exchange here might provide the ruling party with a means of discrediting Cardenas. They would never admit that Cardenas was a real threat, but he may be bothersome enough to warrant a small gamble.

The conservative National Action Party presidential candidate Diego Fernandez de Cevallos opines that Cardenas could have won handily. ``Mexicans are hurting now. He could have portrayed NAFTA as a pact for the rich to the exclusion of the Mexican poor. As a presidential candidate he should have justified his statement that the agreement is bad for Mexico.''

But most analysts here say Cardenas had more to lose than to gain in a debate. Cardenas, Sarmiento says, had ``little chance of changing the course of the treaty ratification process. Whereas a defeat would have diminished his stature in the campaign.''

Cardenas made a counter offer, saying he would debate NAFTA, but only with the PRI's leader, President Salinas, ``the one who delivered this political policy.'' Cardenas sent a stand-in, deputy Jorge Calderon, to the Nov. 21 debate. But Mr. Calderon was barred from entering the broadcast building.

A spokesman for Serra Puche explained that the debate offer was for Cardenas alone. The television station broadcast the ``special program'' where Serra Puche alone fielded questions about NAFTA phoned in by the general public.

The debate that wasn't may yet produce a change in Mexican politics. For the first time ever, the live debate concept is out on the table, analysts say. Televised debates between the candidates may not make Mexican politics any more fair or democratic. But they could make next year's presidential campaign mucho more appealing for Mexican voters than in the past.

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