NAFTA and Mexico Washington Should Support Reforms a Modified Treaty Could Prompt

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ONE of the more insistent arguments being made on Capitol Hill for rapid approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is that it is needed to ensure stability in Mexico.

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is nearing the end of his six-year term, and is ineligible to succeed himself.

Later this year, he will name an heir-apparent who will run on the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ticket in August 1994. Since Mexico's leadership has staked its future on NAFTA, that candidate's prospects will be hurt if the trade agreement is postponed.

That, it is suggested, could spell the end of reform in Mexico and threaten political and economic chaos.

There are many reasons to question this assessment. In the first place, none of the alternatives to the PRI threaten the country's political stability. Mexico has no armed insurgencies. Its remaining hard-line leftist parties lack popular support and, ironically, survive only because they are subsidized by the government as a counterweight to the moderate left.

Far from seeking to curtail reform, both of Mexico's major opposition parties are calling for wider reforms.

The centrist National Action Party (PAN) supports President Salinas's free-market initiatives and now seeks matching political reforms. Similarly, the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has made electoral reform its overriding priority.

Like the PAN, the PRD proposes a "democratic revolution" to replace one-party rule with a genuine multiparty democracy.

Though the PRD and large segments of the PAN are unhappy with NAFTA in its present form, most of their objections parallel those of a majority of the United States public and members of Congress. They are concerned about the lack of protection for labor rights and working conditions.

Like Ross Perot, they do not want their country to serve as a low-wage platform that sucks jobs from the north by denying decent incomes in Mexico.

They also want guarantees that their environment will not become a dumping ground for toxic wastes. Mexico's democratic opposition is, therefore, a natural ally to reformers on Capitol Hill.

So why fear Mexican democracy? There is concern in Washington that a setback for the PRI would lead to a Cardenas presidency.

As the son of the president who nationalized the Mexican oil industry, PRD leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano evokes the prospect of a return to nationalism and state intervention in the economy.

Yet the fears are greatly exaggerated. While Mr. Cardenas would doubtless adopt a more independent foreign policy, his primary strategy for raising incomes would be to dismantle the present government's draconian controls over labor unions and wages.

Cardenas' commitment to democracy, moreover, would limit his freedom. The man Mexicans call "Cuauhtemoc" is far more popular than his party. Should the PRI falter, Cardenas would almost certainly have to share power with a Chamber of Deputies dominated by the PAN, which is far better organized at the state and local level, and a Senate still run by the PRI, since only half the Senate is up for election in 1994. …