Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, said, in reference to upcoming talks to renegotiate NAFTA, that Mexico’s foreign minister is visiting the United States to “set the table.” Who, one wonders, will do the dishes?
NAFTA, negotiated by George H.W. Bush, with an important assist by Henry Kissinger, was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1993, and since then has been symbol supreme of our neoliberal age. It is, at least for the United States, probably more an effect than a cause, a consequence of the broader unraveling of the kind of Keynesian political economy that made New Deal social democracy possible, rather than a driver of that decline.
Whatever NAFTA’s actual impact in the United States, Trump has focused very narrowly on the trade of manufactured goods to stoke resentments—that is, value-added products assembled in Mexican plants for transnational corporations that are then exported into the United States. He’s careful not to mention that NAFTA has greatly benefited the US agro-industry, which, with its large-scale production, capital, and tech-intensive production, has destroyed the Mexican farming industry, transforming what is left of it into the production of specialty crops to meet the all-season US demand for strawberries, broccoli, and tomatoes. “Make avocados expensive again!” might be a good riposte slogan for Democrats.
Back in the early 1990s, when NAFTA was being pitched, the idea was that, in Mexico, rural peasant communities and agricultural workers displaced by US agro-industry would find jobs in an expanding assembly sector at the border. I once heard Mexico’s former foreign minister, Jorge Castañeda, in defending NAFTA, say that Mexico just didn’t have the resources to “subsidize” its bucolic rural communities the way that, for comparison, France does. “Globalization” meant opening up Mexico’s small corn, dairy, and pig farmers to global competition—except that their competitors were not just massive in scale and advanced in mechanization but subsidized by the trillion-or-so-dollar US Farm Bill.
The other thing NAFTA was supposed to do for Mexico was diffuse productive technology and know-how beyond the narrow assembly sector, contributing to a more robust and integrated industrialization. That never happened. Mexico remains highly dependent on the low-wage maquiladora assembly sector. More than two decades into NAFTA, Mexico’s wage scale remains among the lowest in the world. “Want cheap labor?” asked the Financial Times last year, then “head to Mexico, not China.”