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AU Examines NAFTA at a Crossroads

An American University conference will examine NAFTA at a crossroads, including where the trade agreement should go from here.

An American University conference will examine NAFTA at a crossroads, including where the trade agreement should go from here.

American University’s Center for North American Studies (CNAS) is holding a two-day conference on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), titled “The NAFTA Promise and the North American Reality: The Gap and How to Narrow It.” The events take place on October 31 and November 1, and include an impressive array of top government officials, researchers, and journalists.

In Mexico City, Vice President Joe Biden recently called on civil society in the United States, Mexico, and Canada to support a new blueprint for North American prosperity. With the 20th Anniversary of NAFTA’s implementation approaching, CNAS is offering a timely response to Biden’s challenge.

The conference is largely the brainchild of Robert Pastor, the outgoing director of CNAS and a former national security advisor for Latin America to President Jimmy Carter. Below are edited remarks from Pastor and AU School of International Service professor and economist in residence Manuel Suárez-Mier.

GS: Why did you organize this conference now?

Pastor: “I decided that I was going to step down as the director of the center, and I wanted to do one last conference. There’s a concern about the state of the economy, the state of immigration reform, and a North American strategy is a good way of dealing with both of those issues.”

GS: Has U.S. policy changed towards Latin America? Since the end of the Cold War and the onset of the War on Terrorism, it seems like Latin America gets lost in the debate over U.S. foreign policy.

Pastor: “That’s true, but I also think that the major change has not been in U.S. policy, it’s been in Latin America. Latin America has become more democratic, more middle class, less unstable. In the United States, we tend to give attention to crises, to overlook the important in favor of the urgent. And I would say that the most important change of all is that North America now is an entity. South America actually has moved into a different orbit to a great extent. The problem here has been the failure to disaggregate Latin America from North America, in which our interests are central.”

GS: How do you balance the need for cooperation between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, with domestic concerns about free trade, border security, and immigration?

Pastor: “Ross Perot said that NAFTA would lead to a sucking sound and a loss of jobs. In fact, the first seven years of NAFTA coincided with the largest expansion of American jobs in our history. Secondly, what people don’t understand is that our trade with our neighbors is fundamentally different than our trade with China or Europe. 40% of all of our imports from Mexico are from exports to Mexico. They’re parts that are being assembled in Mexico. We are jointly producing, not competing. With regard to immigration, the best way to reduce undocumented migration from Mexico is for the income gap between the United States and Mexico to be reduced. And the truth is that there are now, in the United States, more Mexican origin people than there are Canadians in Canada. That means that we are becoming a different nation ourselves.”

Suárez-Mier: “From 9/11 onwards, it became rather difficult to answer ‘how can you have more open borders for the trade that you want to do legally and openly?’ And at the same time preclude the ones that you don’t want. That includes all sorts of illegal trade, including that of human beings. Every country has a sovereign right to decide how to manage its territory, and the entry to its territory. In Mexico, we have the same problem, not only from South America and Central America, but even from the U.S. Did you know that the largest number of expatriate Americans lives in Mexico? And many of them are not ‘legal’ in the legal sense of the term.”

GS: What was your role for the Mexican Embassy in Washington during NAFTA negotiations?

Suárez-Mier: “I was the top economic diplomat in the U.S. selling and promoting NAFTA. We didn’t expect the amount of anti-NAFTA forces that arose—from the left and from the right. Perhaps we were very naïve. So we mounted a campaign nationwide of all the congressional districts in which we had undecided congressmen, something like 250. And then we tried to say, ‘how will NAFTA affect Wichita, Kansas, in terms of employment, in terms of economic activity, in terms of trade?’ We were doing speeches, we were doing radio and television interviews. We were asking businessmen to ask their workers to write to their congressmen. So we were doing the sort of economic diplomacy which is very seldom seen in any country.”

GS: What is the view of NAFTA in Mexico, if you had to generalize?

Suárez-Mier: “The latest polls taken show that Mexicans are very positive about NAFTA, which is exactly the opposite of what public opinion was when it was revealed that Mexico was going to pursue free trade talks with the United States in 1990.”

GS: What’s the biggest challenge in supporting NAFTA?

Suárez-Mier: “The coalition of opposition that became anti-NAFTA remained working when we, the pro-NAFTA forces, left and went home. And they became a very strong anti-trade coalition. These guys remained in the field bad-mouthing NAFTA in particular, and every trade agreement in general. There are many parts of the deal that can be improved, but undoing the whole thing would be a terrible mistake.”