In Mexico, NAFTA is up to president Citizens' division has little impact

MEXICO CITY — MEXICO CITY -- In a working-class neighborhood on the south side of town stands the world's largest Wal-Mart store. It is the size of an airplane hangar and its shelves are neatly stocked with practically everything any customer could want, from flavored coffees to rowing machines.

Some 70 percent of the items are imported from the United States. Some of the products are slightly less expensive than Mexican products. Many cost more. Still, because of Mexicans' fascination with anything from the United States, the store is often bustling with customers.


Federico Lopez, shopping at Wal-Mart last weekend, said he likes having access to specialty items such as live lobster. He is an accountant who lives in a neighborhood of mansions on the other side of Mexico City.

"We come about once a month," he said, standing next to the lobster tank while the salesman fished six of the critters -- each cost $20 -- for him to take home for a dinner party. "It's the novelty."


The nervous Mexican government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari hopes that profitable ventures such as Wal-Mart will stick in the minds of U.S. lawmakers as they prepare to vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement on Wednesday.

Government officials say they are encouraged by the better-late-than-never effort by President Clinton to secure enough House votes to pass the agreement. Keeping close count of the trickle of legislators joining the pro-NAFTA coalition, they are confident that NAFTA will be ratified.

"It is unusual to see an American president speaking out so strongly on behalf of Mexico," a government official said. "We have the perception that things are going well."

Opponents to the treaty admit they have lost ground over the past few weeks, but they have not surrendered.

Bertha Lujan, leader of a citizen's action group opposed to NAFTA, said hundreds of members of her group plan to stage a protest tomorrow in the border city of Ciudad Juarez.

"We are going to keep on the pressure until the end," she said. "I still have hope that the treaty will be defeated."

Across Mexico last week, opponents and supporters of NAFTA were united in their outrage over the tone of the discussions about NAFTA in the United States. Mexicans were particularly angered by comments during the debate between Ross Perot and Vice President Al Gore.

One senator called Ross Perot racist and malicious because of his comments about poor Mexicans living in shacks with dirt floors. The senator urged his colleagues to pass a law that would prohibit "offensive" people from entering the country. And nationalistic pride was bent by Mr. Gore's comments that likened NAFTA to the Louisiana Purchase.


But opponents of NAFTA are frustrated most because such public debates have not occurred here.

"The president's word is the final word," said Salvador Garcia Linan, consultant to small businesses. "The government would never debate with small-business owners, farmers or poor workers."

One of the most visible opponents to NAFTA is Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who will challenge the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in next year's presidential elections.

Like many Mexican opponents to NAFTA, Mr. Cardenas does not oppose opening trade relations with the United States. But the agreement being considered now, he said, does not provide mechanisms to address the wide disparities between the U.S. and Mexican economies.

Mr. Cardenas has proposed that mechanisms or funds be established that would allow Mexico to substantially increase minimum wages and modernize its industries so that they are better able to compete. "I am not opposed to a trade agreement with the United States," he said. "I am opposed to this agreement."

But newspapers give little coverage to such politicians or nongovernment groups whose point of view clashes with the government's, and opposition viewpoints are almost never explored on television.


In Mexico, the agreement is considered a treaty and so it will be considered by the Senate, not by both chambers of Mexico's legislature.

But the vote in the Mexican Senate is considered a mere formality because 61 of the 64 senators are members of Mr. Salinas' Institutional Revolutionary Party.