Good NAFTA?

The widely reviled trade pact may actually be benefiting Mexico

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Many progressives in the United States who oppose the free trade agreement with Mexico base their case on a parochial, even myopic, analysis of its impact.

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.