MEXICO CITY -- In a meeting that he characterized as being like "a reunion between old friends," U.S. Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown met here yesterday with Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to reaffirm the Clinton administration's support of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"There's been some alarmist reporting in the Mexican press," he said. "Things that would be on page 12 of the American press are probably on the front page here."
Among the stories that might have concerned the Salinas administration were reports from Washington, where trade negotiators from the United States, Mexico and Canada were holding their first meeting to discuss complex side agreements.
Some stories said U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor said he would be willing to walk away from NAFTA if he was unable to secure agreements that would protect labor and the environment.
"One of the things I've attempted to do is provide reassurance," Mr. Brown said. "Since November, everyone has known there would be negotiations on side agreements. Nothing new has been said in recent days."
The NAFTA would over time eliminate all tariffs on goods passing among Canada, the United States and Mexico, creating the world's largest free trade zone, with 370 million consumers.
Opponents of the measure have raised fears that American firms would rush south of the border to take advantage of cheaper labor and Mexico's lax enforcement of labor and environmental laws.
President Clinton has demanded side agreements to NAFTA that he hopes would appease these opponents by creating a mechanism to compel all three countries to maintain high environmental standards and humane labor practices. A third side agreement would deal with the possibility of import surges and its impact on domestic industries as tariffs between the three countries are eliminated.
Mr. Brown said the issue of enforcement could intensify the negotiations, but he remains confident the deals would be signed in time for NAFTA to be acted upon by Congress.
The target date for implementation of the treaty is Jan. 1.
"Do I think there are going to be serious negotiations on some issues? Yes," he said at a news conference. "Do I think there is going to be a sticking point that would derail negotiations? No, I don't."