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Talking Free Trade CORPUS CHRISTI SENATOR Carlos Truan began a speech in San Antonio recently with an anecdote -of a time when Preston Smith was governor of Texas and the commissioners of Val Verde County refused to make U.S. government surplus food available to what they considered the undeserving poor. Truan’s account of Smith’s response was not surprising. The grandfatherly governor from Lubbock first didn’t understand why Truan showed up in his office to, protest. And once the Governor did understand, he was unsympathetic. It required a people’s march to Del Rio, in which Truan and other MexicanAmerican legislators participated, to end an ideological boycott of the county’s distribution of surplus food. Food that cost the local government nothing. I don’t know whether this was his intent, but the subtext of Senator Truan’s comment, in the context of a meeting on the North suggested two things. One is that the economic consequences of NAFTA include the potential of putting a number of people back into lines, if not for surplus government food, then for food stamps or unemployment compensation. The other is that MexicanAmerican political leaders, at least in the Southwest, no longer speak in a plaintive voice in fights over surplus food. NAFTA has the potential to change that, too. The trade talk at the San Antonio meeting, sponsored by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Southwest Voter Research Institute, can best be described as an attempt at building a “Latino consensus” on NAFTA. While the debate did not deny the potential danger of what is called free trade, but is actually managed trade within three integrated national economies, neither did it suggest that anyone panic and bolt. “When we began to look at the treaty,” said Andy Hernandez, director of the Southwest Voter Education Registration Project, “we began to see that Mexican Americans living on the border are going to be the most affected by NAFTA. If we’re the most affected by NAFTA, we should have the most to say.” Hernandez said it also was obvious that there was something of a vacuum in the formulation of policy. Whether by exclusion from the process, or lack of interest or organization, most Americans had no say in the debate. “We weren’t invited. We invited ourselves,” Hernandez said. To crash the party, Southwest Voter sched uled a series of town meetings, informed by a fundamental question: Under what conditions will NAFTA work for Latinos? Their point of departure was polling in Latino communities across the Southwest, where they found that most Latinos support NAFTA but with conditions, according to Hernandez. “In our polls and focus groups, we found that Mexican Americans support NAFTA because they see It as doing something for Mexico,” Hernandez said. He added that Mexican Americans also recognize that “doing something for Mexico” could mean they lose something themselves. To make NAFTA work for Latinos, several things will be required, according to the pollsters and thinkers of the Southwest Research Institute, and of the several other groups in the Latino Coalition. Into the debate to which they were not invited, Mexican-American political and business leaders have injected the following suggestions: Investment in border infrastructure. Social services, highways, and communications systems along both sides of the border have lacked public and private investment for decades. The maquiladora “twin plant” boom of the past 15 years has heightened competition for scarce public services on the Mexican side of the border. The Texas Industrial Areas Foundation Network estimates that over the next 20 years $20.7 billion to $30 billion in public spending will be required along the border. Employment and job training investment. If those who live along the border, where the population is predominantly Latino, are to benefit from the increase in jobs that is predicted to occur there \(losses will occur in other training will be required. Hernandez cited San Antonio, where health care providers were searching out of state for skilled employees because of a lack of adequate job-training programs among unemployed and underemployed, largely Mexican-American population in the area. Environmental protection. Lax environmental standards, the absence of sewagetreatment facilities on the Mexican side of the border, and the extensive use of agricultural pesticides on both sides of the border have altered the ecological climate in the border regions. A parallel environmental agreement could bring enforced Mexican environmental standards into line with U.S. standards. The agreement would include the creation of a North American Commission on the Environment and mandate U.S. access to information about the environmental impact of all U.S.-based companies operating in Mexico, within 100 miles of the MexicoU.S. border. Labor agreement. Capital flight to Mexico has much to do with low Mexican standards and wages \(standards are more advanced in Mexico than in the United States but are age the translation of American investment in Mexico into higher wages and higher labor standards, thus improving conditions for Mexican workers while slowing capital flight from the United States. A North American Labor Council would be established to implement tri-national labor accords. North American Development Bank. The trade agreement, if approved, will be implemented at a time when “government fiscal capacity is strained and deficit reduction is the order of the day.” A “NADbank” could provide direct funding to local governments, the private sector, and community-based organizations. As envisioned, it would fund projects based not only on financial viability, but environmental quality, effect on infrastructure and on employment \(including labor in other words, serve as a mechanism to implement the investment, labor standards, job training, and environmental policy goals proposed by the Coalition and other progressive forces working to amend the current trilateral agreement. UCLA economist Raul Hinojosa, a proponent of the bank who has been working with the Industrial Areas Foundation and the Coalition, recently was named to serve as an economic advisor to the Clinton Administration, where he will be in a better position to promote the bank. “Bentsen is the key to this actually happening,” Hinojosa said of the creation of the bank. By neither rejecting the treaty outright, nor, as Raul Hinojosa said, accepting the Bush Administration’s prescription of “lowering barriers and letting it rip,” the Coalition stakes out something of a progressive middle ground in the debate. Which is probably not a bad position, even for NAFTA opponents who would avoid having no influence whatsoever if the NAFTA train pulls away and they’re left watching it depart. It might even serve to keep some people out of food stamp lines. L.D. 4 APRIL 9, 1993