One of the Clinton administration's top policy-makers on Mexico told a group of Baltimore exporters, trade experts, bankers and business people yesterday that Maryland has greatly benefited from the opening of trade between the United States and Mexico over the past few years, "and will benefit far more" if Congress approves the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.
But at the moment the agreement is in deep trouble, said Robert C. Felder, head of the State Department's Office of Mexican Affairs.
"We are very close to blowing it," he said, alluding to the apparent majority of anti-NAFTA votes in the House, which will take up the agreement Wednesday. "We are close to losing the whole thing."
Mr. Felder said that exports to Mexico from Maryland "grew 248 percent from 1987 to 1992." They supported 1,000 Maryland jobs in 1992, half of which were created in the last five years, he said.
Using the McCormick spice company as an example, Mr. Felder said that about 6 percent of the firm's total exports went to Mexico last year. He spoke of "a dramatic growth in exports [of spices] to Mexico," attributable to the expansion of a middle class in Mexico with significant purchasing power.
Mr. Felder's talk was sponsored by the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs at the World Trade Center. It followed by one day the televised verbal donnybrook over NAFTA between Vice President Al Gore and Ross Perot.
And, since the initiative for Mr. Felder's visit originated with the State Department, it indicated the administration's strong desire to get out its positive message on the agreement whenever possible.
The Maryland delegation in the House is evenly split on the agreement, by party and in number. For it are: Wayne T. Gilchrest (R), Constance A. Morella (R), Steny H. Hoyer (D), and Benjamin L. Cardin (D).
Against it are: Roscoe G. Bartlett (R), Helen Delich Bentley (R), Albert R. Wynn (D) and Kweisi Mfume (D).
The Clinton administration, Mr. Felder said in so many words, had to catch up.
He lamented that the negative interpretations of NAFTA advanced by Mr. Perot and other opponents of the trade agreement had the advantage of simplicity. He said the NAFTA opponents had stolen a march on its proponents.
"We have not been as effective as we need to be to get the word out," said Mr. Felder. "The people who are the most vocal are at the blue-collar level. The negative message is simpler."
The administration, he said, had not really been able to begin its own campaign for NAFTA in earnest until August when two side agreements on labor and the environment were negotiated in response to qualms by President Clinton.
But by then the AFL-CIO, Mr. Perot's United We Stand, America organization, and the Sierra Club had already mobilized in opposition, he said.
With regard to the Sierra Club, Mr. Felder said: "Most environmental groups support NAFTA, about 80 percent. The Sierra Club jumped out in front, giving the impression of widespread opposition from the environmental movement."
Mr. Felder generally stressed the positive aspects of NAFTA for the United States -- a three-nation trade accord which would lower and ultimately remove all tariffs on goods manufactured in the United States, Mexico and Canada. The agreement, he said, "will create the biggest market in the world -- a combined economy of $6.5 trillion and 370 million people."
He rebutted arguments by Mr. Perot and other opponents that NAFTA would cause a drain of American jobs into Mexico:
"With NAFTA, we anticipate 200,000 more export-related jobs by 1995. Wages of U.S. workers in jobs related to exports to Mexico are 12 percent higher than the national average."
Such jobs, he said, have already increased "by almost half a million" from 1986 to 1992, owing to Mexico's progressive reduction of tariffs.