For Mexicans, Trade Is Key Issue NAFTA Takes Center Stage in Perceptions Here of the US Presidential Candidates

Article excerpt

IF Mexicans could vote in the US presidential elections, George Bush would probably garner the most ss. Bill Clinton would take second. And Ross Perot, if running, would finish way back.

The determining factor? The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Sixty percent of Mexicans believe NAFTA will benefit their country, the highest approval rating among the three parties to the pact - Mexico, the United States, and Canada - according to the latest Gallup poll. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is billing NAFTA as the neon exit sign for a nation seeking a way out of its developing-nation status.

And nobody on the hustings is touting NAFTA like President Bush. The jobs created by US export-oriented industries are one of the few bright spots the Republicans can point to amid the economic gloom.

Bush and Mr. Salinas have met more frequently than any US and Mexican leaders in recent memory. The personal rapport has been good, thanks to similar free-trade, market-oriented ideals. The nation-to-nation relationship has also been close: Relations have not been derailed even by a recent US Supreme Court decision virtually rubber-stamping the kidnapping of Mexican citizens as a legal way for the US to fight the drug war.

"Ten years ago, that would have been grounds for severing diplomatic ties. But now commerce exceeds $70 billion annually. You have a commercial relationship that governs the bilateral relationship," says Roberto Salinas Leon, academic director of the Center for Free Enterprise Studies in Mexico City.

"By the year 2000 I have no doubt Mexico will be the No. 1 US trading partner," he says. "NAFTA brings order to this tremendous, inertial, commercial relationship."

While leading leftist opposition parties here argue about NAFTA's shortcomings, they do not dispute the free-trade trend. Most analysts see it as part of a global pattern.

"The single most important issue shaping the relationship over the next century is free trade. If Clinton accepts that, the Salinas administration will accept him," says Luis Rubio, a political scientist at the Center for Research for Development in Mexico City.

During the primaries, Governor Clinton and former US Sen. Paul Tsongas were the only two Democratic candidates to take pro-free-trade positions. Since then, Clinton has expressed doubts about NAFTA and conditioned his support upon reading the final document. Most analysts expect him to endorse NAFTA in some form if he becomes president. …

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