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

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.

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