ON his first state visit to the United States in October 1989,
Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari confronted Washington
with a bold proposal - a trade agreement between his country and
the US similar to the one Canada and the US were implementing at
Even though President Bush had promised during his presidential
campaign to seek such an agreement, President Salinas's idea was
politely dismissed as unlikely given the colossal disparity in the
countries' economies. "Any free-trade agreement between the two
countries is a long way off, if ever," a Bush administration trade
official remarked at the time.
Wrong. Three Octobers later, the presidents and Canadian Prime
Minister Brian Mulroney met to watch negotiators initial the North
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
It was no coincidence that the ceremony took place in San
Antonio - for five centuries a cultural/commercial crossroads for
Anglos, Hispanics, and others. Its string of Spanish missions and
shady Paseo del Rio (River Walk) imbue the city with Old World
charm. Bilingualism comes naturally to San Antonio, since more than
half of its nearly 1 million citizens are of Hispanic heritage.
Until World War II, it was the state's largest city, anchoring
one end of a trade corridor with Monterrey, the large industrial
city in northern Mexico. "All roads feed into San Antonio" from
various border cities, says Alfonso Martinez-Fonts, San Antonio
branch president of Texas Commerce Bank. San Antonio is a conduit
for 60 percent of American exports to Mexico. The city's goal is to
add value to the traffic, Mr. Martinez-Fonts says.
One firm doing that is MSAS Cargo. Working for the American
Telephone & Telegraph Corporation, it receives from all over the
world telephone equipment needing reconditioning. It matches
equipment with repair kits from US manufacturers, packages them,
and ships them to 11 maquilas (Mexican factories) for
reconditioning. Then it takes back the equipment for resale.
Loop Cold Storage Company is another example. It used to store
locally grown vegetables for consumption in San Antonio, says
company president Jack McGuire. But it added processing and
repackaging to its activities and now doesn't compete in the San
Antonio market at all.
Instead, it receives frozen vegetables from around the world -
peas from Poland, pineapple from Costa Rica - and distributes them
to grocery chains in the US. To take advantage of NAFTA, Mr.
McGuire has formed a joint venture with a cold-storage firm in
Mexico City. It will offer sophisticated logistics for US food
companies, eliminating the duplication and hassle of international
San Antonio "was doing things with Mexico before NAFTA was a
gleam in anybody's eye," says Southwestern Bell Corporation
spokesman Steve Drake. The firm, which has bought a stake in
Telephonos Mexicanos, relocated corporate headquarters here from
St. Louis last year.
Southwestern Bell was drawn by the city's location on the
doorstep of Mexico. …