Bush in Mexico: Whatever Happened to NAFTA?

  • Share
  • Read Later
President Bush spent the past four years snubbing and otherwise alienating his supposed amigo, Mexican President Vicente Fox, because Mexico didn’t back Bush’s invasion of Iraq. So Bush’s critics in this hemisphere find it fitting that he’s now knee-deep in a policy mess over illegal Mexican immigration into the U.S., looking to Fox for any help he can provide. But when Bush, Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper meet today in Cancún to discuss the continent’s dysfunctional immigration situation, they might consider that one solution lies not so much in guest-worker programs or a 2,000-mile-long border fence, but in trade—namely, a revision of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Perhaps they should ask why NAFTA—which took effect 12 years ago amid promises to raise the fortunes of Mexico’s beleaguered workers—hasn’t done more to reduce desperate labor migration over the U.S. border. That illegal flow, about a million migrants a year, is as heavy as ever. (Just ask CNN's Lou Dobbs, who’s broadcasting live from Cancún this week because he’s so aggravated about it.) NAFTA has not been an altogether bad deal for Mexico; it has buoyed the economy and improved opportunities for workers in the more technologically advanced north. But it has only exacerbated their plight in the nation’s south and midsection—states like Oaxaca and Zacatecas that are hemorrhaging workers to California lettuce fields, North Carolina poultry plants and Chicago restaurants.

The big reason, say critics, is that NAFTA all but sold Mexico’s campesinos up the Rio Grande by failing to challenge lavish U.S. and Canadian agricultural subsidies—the kind that all too often shut Third World farmers out of First World markets. Moreover, free trade has also failed to generate enough U.S. and other foreign investment in new industries and small- and medium-size businesses—and, as a result, hasn't created enough new Mexican jobs. Even when new jobs do appear, the nation’s unforgiving low-wage business culture—the dark shame of Mexico's political and economic leaders, which NAFTA was also supposed to reform—makes sure that they still often pay in a day what similar work would pay in an hour in the U.S. Add the recent deluge of dirt-cheap Chinese imports into North America that are taking business previously provided by Mexico, and the urgency for Mexican workers to head north only heightens.

It's no wonder then that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist former mayor of Mexico City whose platform focuses on the poor, is the heavy favorite to win Mexico’s July 2 presidential election. López has not been shy about suggesting that Mexico may need to renegotiate NAFTA, especially with regard to U.S. agriculture subsidies, a prospect that alarms the Bush Administration. In a recent stump speech, López called unabated Mexican migration "proof of the Mexican economic failure" in the NAFTA era, and he called for a "new cooperation accord with the U.S." to address Mexico’s development.

López hasn’t yet made clear what that "cooperation accord" would entail. But his likely victory points up an undeniable reality: whether or not NAFTA is really to blame for continued rampant illegal immigration into the U.S., it certainly hasn't delivered on its promises to help curtail it. To destitute farmers in Oaxaca, that is reason enough to renegotiate at least parts of it. And if the U.S. is really serious about reducing illegal immigration, it might eventually be reason enough for Bush, too.