Salinas Must Pay for Free Trade

Article excerpt

NESTLED in the diplomatic language of the Jan. 8 meeting in Austin, Texas, between President-elect Clinton and Mexican President Carlos Salinas were signs of an important change in Washington's relations with Mexico City. As expected, Mr. Clinton restated his intention to supplement the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with additional agreements on labor and the environment. Just as significant was his inclusion of human rights on the bilateral agenda. Unlike President Bush, who ignored Mexico's authoritarian practices for fear of undercutting President Salinas, Clinton is signaling he will push for political reform.

The need for such reform is being underscored on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is replacing Lloyd Bentsen as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Though committed to NAFTA, Senator Moynihan will ask difficult questions along the way. "We are still being asked to approve a free-trade agreement with a country that isn't free," he said recently. "We have a free-trade treaty with only two nations, Canada and Israel, both free nations.... Due process under law is not assured in Mexico. To think this is not relevant to a free-trade agreement denies an elemental problem."

The change in tone cannot come too soon. Though the Salinas administration continues to enjoy a reputation for economic reform, its reformist image has been badly tarnished by efforts to preserve authoritarian rule through electoral fraud, repression of labor, and institutionalized torture.

Mexico's electoral system is in disarray. Mexicans are no longer willing to accept the rulings of electoral commissions stacked in favor of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In the central states of Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, and Michoacan, mass protests recently forced the removal of PRI governors despite officially certified "landslide" victories. With preparations under way for next year's presidential election, concern is mounting that the turmoil at the state level will spread to the national level.

Though Salinas has promised electoral "reform," he continues to rule out the only reform that could make Mexican elections credible: balanced electoral commissions. Independent commissions would change the electoral rules and open up the possibility that the PRI could lose the national elections.

HE Mexican leadership faces a similar dilemma in its treatment of labor. Despite guarantees of labor rights in the Mexican constitution, the government continues to control labor unions through rigged elections, bribes, appointment of labor bosses to high public office, and the selective use of goon squads against dissidents. Whenever this proves insufficient, the regime arrests labor leaders on trumped-up charges, declares strikes "nonexistent," and calls out the army and police to "restore order. …