CHILE was supposed to be the fourth member of the North American
Free Trade Agreement by now, leading the way for the rest of Latin
Mexican and American trucks were supposed to be rolling freely
through the border states of both countries as the first step
toward free trucking throughout the United States, Canada, and
Mexico by 2000.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a hemispheric
free-trade zone - a speed bump called the American presidential
elections is getting in the way.
"We're like the people who receive a beautiful invitation, but
when we show up for the party we're told it's been postponed," says
Felipe Larrain, an economist at Santiago's Catholic University.
"We've done everything right to become a member of NAFTA ... but
then we get caught in American politics and there's no action."
With foreign trade developing into a major issue in the '96
campaign, several Republican candidates are sounding less than
harmonious notes on the country's push for free-trade accords in
general and a hemispheric free-trade zone by 2005 in particular.
Candidate Pat Buchanan says flatly that as president he would
cancel NAFTA, tying it to the decline in US workers' standard of
President Clinton is caught between his record of support for
trade liberalization and polls showing American voters becoming
increasingly concerned about the effects of foreign trade on jobs
and income. With key voting groups in several must-win states
fighting for protection from the consequences of lowered trade
barriers, the administration is taking actions that look
suspiciously like electoral politics.
The proposed Dec. 18 opening of Southwest border states to
Mexican trucks as called for in NAFTA was postponed by Washington -
much to the satisfaction of many American truckers and some
border-state highway safety groups.
Florida tomato growers - whose populous state Clinton won in
1992 - have heard encouraging words from Washington in favor of
higher restrictions on Mexican tomatoes. California avocado growers
are lobbying for continued protection from Mexican avocados.
The message from the administration, as Latin America hears it,
is "Let's get Clinton reelected first, then we'll talk."
Mexico is "profoundly disturbed" by the support it sees the
Clinton administration giving what it considers violations or
proposals that would violate the two-year-old NAFTA, says Secretary
of Commerce Herminio Blanco.
In a letter to US Trade Representative Mickey Kantor last week,
Mr. Blanco said Mexico would use trilateral talks among the NAFTA
partners that began yesterday in Washington to protest US
"protectionist proposals. …