The NAFTA Superhighway | The Nation


The NAFTA Superhighway

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But NASCO is just one part of what Corsi and his ilk view as a grand conspiracy. There's also a federal initiative called the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), which they portray as a Trojan horse packed with globalists scheming to form a European Union-style governing body to manage the entire continent. The reactions of those in SPP to this characterization seem to range from bemusement to alarm. "There is no NAFTA Superhighway," Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Market Access and Compliance David Bohigian told me emphatically over the phone. Initiated in 2005, the SPP is a relatively mundane formal bureaucratic dialogue, he says. Working groups, staffed by midlevel officials from all three countries, figure out how to better synchronize customs enforcement, security protocols and regulatory frameworks among the countries. "Simple stuff like, for instance, in the US we sell baby food in several different sizes; in Canada, it's just two different sizes."

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Christopher Hayes
Christopher Hayes
Chris Hayes, Editor-at-Large of The Nation, hosts “All In with Chris Hayes” at 8 p.m. ET Monday...

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Another star in the constellation of North American Union conspiracies is the Mexican deep-water port of Lázaro Cárdenas. Located on the Pacific coast of the state of Michoacan, the port is undergoing a bonanza of investment and upgrades. According to a 2005 article in Latin Trade, the port is adding a terminal that could provide enough capacity to process nearly all of the cargo that comes into Mexico, making it "the logical trade route connecting the United States and Asia," in the words of the Mexican officials overseeing its overhaul. Since it's the only Mexican port deep enough to handle Super Panamax container ships from China--the most efficient means of shipping products across the Pacific--it's an attractive alternative to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which are unionized and increasingly congested. (More than 80 percent of Asian imports come in through these two ports.)

Of course, if cargo switches from Los Angeles to Lázaro Cárdenas, more and more manufactured goods will have to travel through Mexico to reach their US destination, and there will be a significant uptick in the northbound overland traffic. The Kansas City Southern Railroad company is already betting on that eventuality, spending millions of dollars to purchase the rail routes that run from the port up to Kansas City. At the same time, a business improvement group called Kansas City SmartPort, whose members include the local chamber of commerce, is pushing for Kansas City, which is already a transportation hub, to transform itself fully into a "smart port," a kind of intermodal transportation and cargo center. The group recently advocated a pilot program that would place a Mexican customs official in Kansas City to inspect Mexico-bound freight, relieving bottlenecks at the border. The notion of a Mexican customs official on American soil fired the imaginations of those already disposed to see a North American Union on the horizon, and SmartPort staff have been fending off angry inquiries ever since.

In his essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," Richard Hofstadter famously sketched the contours of the American tradition of folk conspiracy--a tradition that has, at different times, seen its enemy in Masons, Jesuits, immigrants, Jews and Eastern bankers. There's certainly a strong continuity between that tradition and the populist/nationalist ire that drives the NAFTA highway myth. Hofstadter's original essay was motivated in part by the activities of the John Birch Society, which today is one of the leading purveyors of the highway myth.

But there's something more. The myth of the NAFTA Superhighway persists and grows because it taps into deeply felt anxieties about the dizzying dislocations of twenty-first-century global capitalism: a nativist suspicion of Mexico's designs on US sovereignty, a longing for national identity, the fear of terrorism and porous borders, a growing distrust of the privatizing agenda of a government happy to sell off the people's assets to the highest bidder and a contempt for the postnational agenda of Davos-style neoliberalism. Indeed, the image of the highway, with its Chinese goods whizzing across the border borne by Mexican truckers on a privatized, foreign-operated road, is almost mundane in its plausibility. If there was a NAFTA highway, you could bet that Tom Friedman would be for it--what could be more flattening than miles of concrete paved across the continent?--and Lou Dobbs would be zealously opposed. In fact, Dobbs has devoted a segment of his show to the highway, its nonexistence notwithstanding. "These three countries moving ahead their governments without authorization from the American people, without Congressional approval," he said. "This is as straightforward an attack on national sovereignty as there could be outside of war."

Though the story of the highway has been seeded and watered in the fertile soil of the nationalist right wing--promoted by Birchers and Corsi, co-author of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's book about John Kerry--it also stretches across ideological and partisan lines. Like immigration and the Dubai ports deal, it divides the Republican coalition against itself, pitting the capitalists against the nationalists. And more than a few on the center-left have voiced criticisms as well: Teamsters president James Hoffa wrote in a column last year that "Bush is quietly moving forward with plans...for what's known as a NAFTA superhighway--a combination of existing and new roads that would create a north-south corridor from Mexico to Canada.... It would allow global conglomerates to capitalize by exploiting cheap labor and nonexistent work rules and avoiding potential security enhancements at U.S. ports." Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Boyda, from eastern Kansas, invoked its specter early and often in her improbably successful 2006 campaign against Republican incumbent Jim Ryun. A campaign circular inserted in local newspapers warned that "if built, this 'Super Corridor' would be a quarter-mile wide and longer than the Great Wall of China." Boyda told me that her attacks on the highway "hit a real nerve because enough people had the same concerns."

What might at first have been a niche obsession has bled, slowly but surely, toward the mainstream. "The biggest problem of these conspiracy theorists," says Robert Pastor, a professor of international relations at American University and a leading proponent of increased North American integration, "is that they are having an effect on the entire debate."

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