The current debate, like those that raged when NAFTA was being considered in Congress, gives scant consideration to the agreement's effects south of the border. On the rare occasion when Mexico does get factored into the formula, left-leaning opponents generally present NAFTA as harmful to the economic interests of most Mexicans. Now a revisionist view is emerging among progressive commentators on both sides of the Rio Grande. This reappraisal, encompassing political as well as economic aspects, suggests that in both realms the pact may prove beneficial to the Mexican majority.
Betsy Reed notes in Dollars and Sense (Sept./Oct. 1995) that unionization campaigns in Mexican workplaces are routinely countered by threats of violence and mass firings. The pressure of U.S. public opinion, significantly heightened in the NAFTA era, is often the only effective defense available to Mexican organizers, Reed writes.
This influence is heightened by the direct stake that U.S. unions now have in the fate of Mexican labor. Reed offers the example of U.S.-owned Kirkwood Industries, which last spring fired 100 Mexicans who supported a union drive. The Teamsters protested and publicized this action, prodding pro-labor congressional representatives to condemn Kirkwood's tactics. The unionization effort still failed -- by only eight votes -- but the incident points to the possibility that NAFTA may be altering the terms of labor-capital relations in Mexico.
A few commentators on the Mexican left are also offering a tentatively hopeful evaluation of NAFTA's potential. Foremost among them is Jorge G. Casta?ada, a leading opposition activist and author of The Mexican Shock (The New Press, 1995). In this assessment of the tumultuous events of 1994, Casta?ada gives NAFTA a generally negative review. But he contends that the pact can yet be transformed into 'an instrument for growth with justice, for democracy within the rule of law, to help consolidate whatever sovereignty we have left, and to struggle against the intolerable corruption that plagues the country more than ever.'
Providing a perspective unfamiliar to most U.S. critics of NAFTA, Casta?ada asserts that 'under certain conditions' the trade treaty affords 'an opportunity to build a more prosperous, democratic, and equitable nation.'
NAFTA is a particularly vivid illustration of the law of unintended consequences. Elite advocates of free trade -- on both sides of the border -- almost certainly did not anticipate that the agreement would destabilize Mexico's perennial ruling party, the PRI, and provoke the sort of social upheavals that accompany a transition to genuine democracy. But a growing body of evidence suggests that NAFTA is having exactly these effects.
'Mexican society is now in the midst of a citizens' revolt not unlike the broad-based political opening seen in Central and Eastern Europe,' declared Christopher Whalen, publisher of Mexico Report, in a March 1995 speech before the Council on Foreign Relations.
A source no less authoritative than Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos has stated that the most dramatic manifestation of that citizens' revolt, the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, was sparked in part by the implementation of NAFTA. The spark, writes Leslie Ann Horvitz in Insight on the News (Aug. 29, 1995), was the fear that peasants' livelihood will be threatened when NAFTA eventually causes the selling price of Iowa-grown grain to fall below that of crops raised in Chiapas.
The Zapatista insurrection, timed to coincide with NAFTA's implementation date, has in turn prompted countrywide concessions on the part of Mexico's autocrats. It is generally accepted that electoral reforms introduced in the past year would not have been forthcoming were it not for the Zapatistas.
Some analysts contend, too, that Chiapas may have been spared from wholesale slaughter at the hands of the Mexican state because of close scrutiny from the north prompted by the linking of North America's economies. NAFTA can indeed increase outside pressure on Mexico to respect human rights and democratic norms, argues Wayne A. Cornelius in Foreign Policy (Summer 1994).
Only two years into the age of NAFTA, its political ramifications are just beginning to be felt. It is possible, however, to view the treaty as, in the long term, a catalyst for Mexican democratization. But 'in the short term especially,' as Casta?ada argues, 'the accord as it now stands may only exacerbate the country's already stark disparities and dislocations.'
Are today's shocks a necessary prelude to a tranquil tomorrow? The answer remains to be seen, but it's already clear that NAFTA is helping to produce a very different sort of Mexico.