WASHINGTON — MEXICO CITY -- While the furious debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement reaches its deciding moment in the United States, the debate in Mexico has only recently begun to heat up.
The sort of intense criticism of NAFTA in the United States has not been allowed in the news media here. However, over the last week, opponents have succeeded in getting their voices heard.
Their successes may seem small compared with the efforts of NAFTA opponents in the United States. And the messages of opposition may be too late to have any effect on the vote in the U.S. Congress today.
But in Mexico, where newspapers and television stations limit coverage to those groups that share the government's viewpoint, the opposition's achievements seem remarkable.
"These have been tense days for us," said Sen. Porfirio Munoz Ledo, a NAFTA opponent. "It is a shame that all of our work until VTC now has had to be clandestine. But finally we are finding ways to make our views known.
"The lessons may serve us well in future struggles."
One victory was the release of a book Monday that criticizes each segment of the proposed trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada.
The book argues that Mexico will become a country of consumers, while small and medium-sized manufacturers will be forced out of business by more competitive U.S. rivals. This, in turn, will produce higher unemployment and increased immigration to the United States, the authors argue.
Though the text was finished eight months ago, its "politically sensitive" subject caused two establishment publishers to turn it down. The Mexican Network of Action Against Free Trade, a coalition of citizen groups, launched a fund-raising campaign and published the book on its own.
"This is a celebration," said Jorge Arroyo Picard, one of the authors at a ceremony attended by about 300 people. "It is a celebration because we have finally been able to break through the blockade that the government has set up to keep out any opposition to this treaty."
On Friday afternoon, a prominent Commerce Department official and an environmentalist debated NAFTA on a radio station.
Out of the three dozen callers to the show, more than half said they were opposed to NAFTA because they didn't believe it would raise wages or provide money to clean the environment.
"I was very surprised that the government agreed to have the debate," said Ignacio Peon, the environmentalist. "There has been almost no debate on television or radio. It was totally strange."
Ruben Barrios, an auto parts manufacturer who also studies the condition of Mexico's small and medium-sized businesses, has stopped speaking on the radio. He is opposed to the agreement but says he has been forbidden from expressing anti-NAFTA views on the air.
"[NAFTA] is a policy of the government," he says. "And anyone who speaks against it is called a traitor."
That indeed appears to be the strategy of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
The PRI bought one-page ads in Mexico City daily newspapers Monday that linked NAFTA opponents with Ross Perot. The multibillionaire Texan has become the symbol of U.S. racism toward Mexico after his debate last week against Vice President Gore.
Mr. Perot has been assailed in newspaper columns, television programs and on the floor of the Mexican Congress for describing Mexicans as poor people living like farm animals.
"Alliance Perot-PRD Against Mexico," read the headline of the PRI's newspaper ads. The PRD or Democratic Revolutionary Party is a leftist opposition party. The ad quotes various members of the party and says, "Together with Perot, they have struggled actively against our country."
"It is very disturbing," said Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a well-known newspaper columnist and NAFTA opponent who was cited in the PRI's ad. "It is an institutional decision to assassinate our characters."
"If NAFTA passes, the PRI will say that they won despite the efforts of 'bad' Mexicans. And if it fails, they will say that Mexico lost an important opportunity because of traitors."
News from Washington that President Clinton had lined up enough votes in the House to pass NAFTA left most people confident of the agreement's success.
Trading on the Bolsa de Valores, the Mexican stock market, rocketed -- the fifth consecutive day of record-high trading.
It is here that effects of the the House vote will be felt immediately, with speculation that many investors would abandon the market if NAFTA were defeated.