In the three years since negotiators from Canada, the United States and Mexico began hammering out the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), supporters and opponents of the deal have published a veritable mountain of technical
reports and analyses of the proposed continental trade pact. But last week, as the clock ticked down towards a crucial Nov. 17 vote on the deal in the U.S. House of Representatives, the details of NAFTA appeared to be the last thing on the mind of most legislators.
Instead, the battle over NAFTA degenerated into a political three-ring circus,
Washington-style. On television, Vice-President AÍ Gore and Texas billionaire Ross Perot traded personal barbs and waved charts and photographs at one another in a debate on CNN’S Larry King Live. On Capitol Hill, union leaders and other NAFTA opponents redoubled their lobbying efforts. In the Oval Office,
President Bill Clinton courted undecided congressmen individually and
in small groups—promising relief from Mex-
ican sugar imports here, a new university specializing in trade issues there—in the hope of securing the final two dozen or so votes that he needed to pass the pact in the 435-seat House. “People are playing the holdout game,” said one congressional aide, “waiting long and getting commitments.”
Despite the White House’s television and schmooze offensive, Clinton was still having difficulty winning converts near week’s end. Most Washington political analysts, as well as viewers polled after the Larry King show, said that Gore handily beat Perot in the debate. But the following day, only four undecided congressmen came out in favor of NAFTA. Totalling up their support, both Clinton and Michigan Democrat David Bonior, the leader of the anti-NAFTA forces in the House, said that they had close to the 218 votes needed to prevail. In the 100-seat Senate, scheduled to vote on the agreement if the House approved it, Clinton appeared to have a solid majority. But in the House, the few remaining undecided legislators were agonizing over a choice between the President on the one side, and Perot, the union leaders
and their allies on the other. With midterm congressional elections looming next year, alienating either side could be risky.
But as proand anti-NAFTA forces mounted their final lobbying pushes last week, Canadian and Mexican officials, as well as traders
in jittery international financial markets, could do little more than look on anxiously. In one of the Mulroney government’s last major initiatives, parliament approved the deal in May. In Mexico, NAFTA has yet to be
approved by the country’s chamber of deputies and its senate. But both houses are dominated by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, and they are certain to pass the pact if it is ratified in Washington.
The Gore-Perot debate produced some of the most heated—and questionable—rhetoric in the days leading up to the House vote. Perot, who earlier claimed that pro-NAFTA forces had hired
a six-man Cuban “hit team” to kill him, argued that “you don’t trade with people who oppress their workers and don’t have any money.” Brandishing a photograph of a Mexican worker constructing a shack out of cardboard, Perot said that “the big dream” of a typical Mexican employed in a U.S.owned factory “is to someday own an outhouse.” Gore, however, brought the debate down to a personal level when he said that
Perot, as a part owner of the privatized Dallas-Fort Worth airport, was in a position to benefit financially either way if NAFTA were to be approved or defeated. And in an exchange about Canada, Gore glossed over Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s campaign promise to renegotiate NAFTA, saying that only “the socialist party” had actually opposed the agreement.
Eager not to jeopardize passage of the pact, Mexican officials in Washington declined to respond to Perot’s charges. However, the morning after the debate, radio commentators in Mexico City were not nearly as circumspect. One called Perot “a little
dwarf.” Another said that he had “the face of a little lizard.” Mexican financial markets also showed signs of last-minute jitters about the trade pact. On the day of the debate, the Mexican peso declined by five per cent in a few hours, touching a low of 3.3 pesos to the U.S. dollar. But it bounced back and closed the week at 3.2 to the dollar.
In Ottawa, NAFTA also provoked some fresh controversy. The day of the Gore-Perot debate, B.C. Investment Minister Glen Clark complained that the agreement could force Canada to divert fresh water from rivers and lakes to the United States. Clark cited an Oct. 28 letter from U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor to two U.S. environmental groups in
which Kantor said that water is a good like any other, and that Canadian water exports could be reviewed by binational dispute resolution panels under the agreement. But last week, newly appointed Canadian Trade Min-
ister Roy MacLaren and Kantor said that the agreement only governs shipments of bottled water.
Meanwhile, back at the White House, Clinton continued to listen earnestly as undecided congressmen voiced their concerns about issues only peripherally related to NAFTA.
Emerging from an Oval Office meeting with the President late last week, Republican Representative Jay Kim of California said that Clinton would only get his vote if progress was made on a prisoner-exchange treaty with Mexico. Kim added: “He was very sensitive to the issue. He is going to look into this.” Regardless of the outcome of the vote, Clinton will have a lot of promises to keep.
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