The Americanization of Mexican Law: Non-Trade Issues in the North American Free Trade Agreement

Article excerpt

In general, Americans have not looked for Mexico in Mexico;

they have looked for their obsessions, enthusiasms, phobias, hopes,

interests--and these are what they have found. In short, the history

of our relationship is the history of a mutual and stubborn

deceit. . . . Octavio Paz.(1)

The 1980's will be remembered in Mexico as the decade everyone would like to forget. Mexicans spent most of the period after 1982 grappling with external debt crises, deep economic recession, high rates of inflation, and natural disasters (from earthquakes in Mexico City to hurricanes in Yucatan). They suffered these difficult times with a surprising degree of resignation and with a level of social cohesion that would not have been maintained in many other countries.

In characteristic Mexican fashion, the hard times were made bearable by healthy injections of self-deprecating humor. So, when the debt crises shook the economy, Mexicans began to swap "debtor jokes." Here is one example, told to me in 1983 by a Mexican friend:

A year after assuming the Mexican Presidency, Miguel de la Madrid began to despair of finding a solution to the debt crisis, so he called President Ronald Reagan on the telephone. "President Reagan," he said, "we have decided on a plan to pay off our foreign debt. We are willing to sell you the northern half of our territory if you will cancel the debt." "That sounds great," Reagan replied, "I'll check with my advisers and get back to you." Two weeks went by without response, and a worried President de la Madrid called President Reagan: "Mr. President, what response do you have to our proposal?"

President Reagan replied, "Well, we think it's a great idea, but we just have one question before we go ahead . . . How soon after the sale will the Mexicans be able to leave?"

The joke is embarrassing, and not particularly funny, but it serves to point out a deeply ingrained sentiment, shared by many Mexicans, that is not usually addressed in a straightforward manner-the feeling among Mexicans that people in the United States do not sufficiently value or appreciate Mexican culture or society. Mexicans' perceptions in this regard are based partly on intuition and partly on harder evidence. Several years ago, I attended a conference sponsored by the American Bar Association's Committee on Law and National Security concerning the national security implications of U.S.-Mexican relations.(2) Almost all of the speakers addressed the national security problems that resulted from perceived shortcomings in the Mexican political and economic system. There was little discussion, even by the Mexican participants, about shortcomings in the United States that posed problems for Mexico: our insatiable demand for drugs; our need to import capital to finance our federal deficit; our dependence on cheap agricultural labor; and our support of the Contra movement to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. The conference might as well have been called "What Is Wrong With Mexico."

I have been reminded of these incidents by the statements and actions leading up to the negotiation of a North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). International trade may be the major item on the NAFTA agenda, but the United States, Mexico and Canada have not simply been negotiating a trade agreement. Rather, the United States and Mexico are involved in negotiating a relationship--with Canada appearing as an interested third party.(3)

To say that the U.S. and Mexico are negotiating a relationship is not to pretend that NAFTA is a step towards a political and economic union. The NAFTA negotiations have not contained a single reference to the conclusion of a free trade agreement as a step towards a more complete unification.(4) It might be interesting to speculate in this regard, but there is little evidence pointing towards such a denouement. Future historians will have to decide the long-term geopolitical significance of NAFTA, should the agreement be concluded. …