NAFTA Buffeted by US Politics TOMATO FIGHT

Article excerpt

CHILE was supposed to be the fourth member of the North American Free Trade Agreement by now, leading the way for the rest of Latin America.

Mexican and American trucks were supposed to be rolling freely through the border states of both countries as the first step toward free trucking throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico by 2000.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a hemispheric free-trade zone - a speed bump called the American presidential elections is getting in the way.

"We're like the people who receive a beautiful invitation, but when we show up for the party we're told it's been postponed," says Felipe Larrain, an economist at Santiago's Catholic University. "We've done everything right to become a member of NAFTA ... but then we get caught in American politics and there's no action."

With foreign trade developing into a major issue in the '96 campaign, several Republican candidates are sounding less than harmonious notes on the country's push for free-trade accords in general and a hemispheric free-trade zone by 2005 in particular. Candidate Pat Buchanan says flatly that as president he would cancel NAFTA, tying it to the decline in US workers' standard of living.

Clinton's dilemma

President Clinton is caught between his record of support for trade liberalization and polls showing American voters becoming increasingly concerned about the effects of foreign trade on jobs and income. With key voting groups in several must-win states fighting for protection from the consequences of lowered trade barriers, the administration is taking actions that look suspiciously like electoral politics.

The proposed Dec. 18 opening of Southwest border states to Mexican trucks as called for in NAFTA was postponed by Washington - much to the satisfaction of many American truckers and some border-state highway safety groups.

Florida tomato growers - whose populous state Clinton won in 1992 - have heard encouraging words from Washington in favor of higher restrictions on Mexican tomatoes. California avocado growers are lobbying for continued protection from Mexican avocados.

The message from the administration, as Latin America hears it, is "Let's get Clinton reelected first, then we'll talk."

Mexico is "profoundly disturbed" by the support it sees the Clinton administration giving what it considers violations or proposals that would violate the two-year-old NAFTA, says Secretary of Commerce Herminio Blanco.

In a letter to US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor last week, Mr. Blanco said Mexico would use trilateral talks among the NAFTA partners that began yesterday in Washington to protest US "protectionist proposals. …