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A Spectacular Success? | The Nation

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A Spectacular Success?

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On the tenth anniversary of the NAFTA accord, mainstream media accounts have voiced muted disappointment with its relatively meager effects. Virtually none of the benefits touted by the treaty's many boosters a decade ago have come into being, while a number of disturbing developments have emerged. A Carnegie Endowment study found that while the accord generated nothing like the number of expected jobs in Mexico, it devastated hundreds of thousands of subsistence farmers there without having much impact on jobs here at home. With America's decision to support China's entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, China quickly replaced Mexico as the favored destination for multinationals looking for cheap labor. In the past three years, Mexico has lost nearly half a million manufacturing jobs, while untold damage has been done to democracy throughout the continent, thanks to the many provisions of the treaty that allow corporations to circumvent local laws.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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While the conservative Washington Post editorial page editors insist that "NAFTA is too small a factor in U.S. economic performance to make its effects accurately measurable," their soul brothers at the Wall Street Journal mock any criticism of the treaty's "spectacular success" as "protectionist bellyaching." The fact is, it was never NAFTA's direct effects that made it so attractive to corporate America. It was the leverage it gave so many corporations over their workers (though not, let's note, workers who happen to be journalists). Under a NAFTA-like regime, corporations are able to employ the threat of crossing the border to face down demands for better pay or better conditions. Indeed, between 1993 and 1995, more than 50 percent of employers contending with union organizing drives made threats to close all or part of their US plants, with the highest threat rates in mobile industries, according to a study by Cornell University's Kate Bronfenbrenner. So from their own screw-the-workers perspective, Journal editors are dead right: The treaty has returned its investment many times over--at least for the folks who paid to get it passed.

The initial debate began, according to a Times Mirror poll, with "public and elite opinion at loggerheads." While elites were unified in favor of the accord, the public, according to the poll, was "largely skeptical and disengaged from the debate." As late as July 1993, 49 percent of those Americans surveyed said they were not sure they had ever heard of the proposed deal.

Elite media opinion was virtually unanimous in favor of the treaty. This was perhaps a reflection of the socioeconomic situation of Washington journalists. No longer working-class heroes, they tended to view politics from the same perspective as that of the political class. US workers, who would now be forced to bargain for their wages and working conditions against their counterparts in Mexico--who earned a fraction of what they did and lacked health, environmental and legal protections--had provided the electoral base for President Clinton's victory. Yet the betrayal of their interests implicit in Clinton's devotion to NAFTA seemed too tawdry an issue to even bring up. The question was not one of internal political conflict, New York Times editors insisted, but "America's appetite for global leadership after the Cold War." The Los Angeles Times declared a pro-NAFTA vote to be "a vote for American foreign policy continuity." The Washington Post called the vote "a historic test of American intentions toward the rest of the world." Senator Byron Dorgan noted in 1993 that the Post had published sixty-three feet of pro-NAFTA editorials and columns between January and November, compared with only eleven feet of anti-NAFTA commentary on its op-ed page. Also in 1993, between April and July one organization tallied up forty-eight op-eds in favor of NAFTA and just eight against. News coverage was similarly skewed. Seventy-one percent of expert sources quoted in the Post were pro-NAFTA, and only 17 percent opposed. The New York Times followed with 66 percent pro-treaty quotes and only 24 percent for opponents. Even a top Administration official, whose job it was to sell the treaty to Congress and the public, said he could not remember a single issue on which the media coverage had been so biased in favor of the Administration's position. Pundit Mark Shields remarked at the time, "It's an act of courage to support NAFTA, but if you're against NAFTA, you're voting your fears and obviously bowing to pressure from organized labor."

Meanwhile, the expected benefits of NAFTA--that it would improve intra-American relations and reduce Mexican resentment toward the colossus of the North--have been more than offset by the costs of other US actions. As Joseph Stiglitz (who was part of the Administration that signed the treaty) has noted, the United States squandered any good will it might have earned by imposing barriers on Mexican products that began to make inroads into US markets, "from tomatoes to avocados to trucks to brooms." California has recently undertaken efforts to prevent illegal immigrants from getting driver's licenses and medical care. And the Bush Administration made clear, in the most petulant manner possible, that its obsession with Iraq trumped all other issues with its once crucial neighbor. In fall 2002 at a summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, Bush grew snippy with Mexican President Vicente Fox, who was withholding support for plans to invade Iraq. At the joint press conference, Bush "glowered during Fox's windup and looked annoyed at the unruliness of the camera crews," according to a Washington Post report. "The last straw was when a cell phone went off, which infuriates Bush.... In a breach of protocol, Bush cut off the translator before Fox's answers could be rendered in English" and walked away.

Bush and Fox were making nice at the recent Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, about Fox's immigration policy pretenses, with "free trade" issues pushed to the backest of burners. And no wonder. Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was demanding action on an unconscionable $20 billion in annual US subsidies to wealthy agribusiness interests that starve the world's poor while they put money in the pockets of campaign donors. Bush's response? "Hasta la vista, baby."

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