Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Salinas's Achilles' Heel Mexican's Slowness to Attack Electoral Fraud Could Help Opponents of Free Trade Pact

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Salinas's Achilles' Heel Mexican's Slowness to Attack Electoral Fraud Could Help Opponents of Free Trade Pact

Article excerpt

PRESIDENT Bush and Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari used their Nov. 26 summit to sing the praises of a US-Mexico free trade agreement (FTA). If their tone seemed high pitched, it is partly because an odd coalition of labor, environment, and human rights activists may be forming in the United States to stifle the FTA.

Opposition to an FTA in the US is led by organized labor, which is wary of cheap Mexican labor. Yet, most economists believe that fears of US job losses are greatly exaggerated.

First, if low-cost labor were the most important factor in plant location decisions, then countries like Haiti would be industrial powerhouses. Second, the US is already an open economy, with average tariffs of only 4 percent. Only those industries receiving special protection in the form of quotas or high tariffs may be affected. Ironically, sectors such as textiles and horticulture already depend on Mexican labor, making it hard to argue that US jobs are at stake. Third, US manufacturers have long been battered by the Asian formula of high-tech capital and low-wage assembly capabilities. A similar US-Mexico partnership would enhance the competitive edge of US products at home and in Asian and European markets.

Since the arguments in favor of an agreement are compelling, opponents are casting about for non-economic arguments to torpedo a FTA. Hence the new-found interest of rust belt constituencies in Mexican democracy. Opponents of an FTA argue that an agreement should be conditional on ending the irregularities that have long tarnished Mexico's electoral process.

Flawed elections in Mexico will make it easier for the enemies of an FTA to distract attention from the real issues. President Salinas should not play into their hands by failing to prove as deft in the electoral arena as he has in the economic.

POLITICAL reform takes two to tango. It takes a willingness to engage in meaningful electoral reform on the part of President Salinas, and it requires a willingness to negotiate responsibly on the part of the opposition.

Salinas is a gradualist in the political arena. …

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