Mexicans rejoice over House approval of trade pact Even foes see positive elements in outcome PRESIDENT WINS NAFTA SHOWDOWN


MEXICO CITY -- Nervous up until the last vote was counted, Mexicans celebrated last night after the U.S. House of Representatives passed the North American Free Trade Agreement.

At a news conference attended by the most important members of his Cabinet, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari said: "The treaty is a good instrument -- one more instrument of the extraordinary strength of Mexicans to build a better future, richer in opportunities and sovereignty."

With a smile, the president added, "The result of today can be interpreted not only as the final step toward the approval of an agreement negotiated by the governments of three countries, but also as a rejection of protectionist visions, those that promote fear of competition and those that close the vision of the future."

"There's a real sense of triumph," said Denise Dresser, a Mexican political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "It's like riding the crest of a wave."

But, at the same time, she cautioned: "It could be quite dangerous because signing NAFTA is by no means a blank check for Mexico's future. There are still many problems ahead and NAFTA is not the answer for all of them."

Opponents of the agreement here were disappointed by the pact's approval, especially after months in which they felt that the agreement would be defeated in the U.S. legislature. But even they stressed the positive.

"The debate over NAFTA has forced the government to pay attention to many serious problems: the environment, fair elections, poor wages," said Bertha Lujan of the National Action Network Against Free Trade.

"We are not going to stop putting pressure on the government to make sure they comply with their promises to correct the problems in these areas."

Many professionals sat at their desks listening to radios or watching the congressional debate on television. Newspapers were filled with stories about the treaty and the deals President Clinton was making with legislators to win votes for the pact.

"It's the first time that the future course of Mexico is being decided outside Mexico," said said Homero Aridjis, a leading environmentalist and poet.

"It's a historic beginning."

He said Mexicans had few opportunities to express their views on the agreement. Approval by the Mexican Senate would be a mere formality because President Carlos Salinas de Gortari controls 61 of the 64 votes.

"Mexicans have no real vote," he said. "We have just been sitting on the sidelines."

Mr. Salinas, who had made NAFTA the centerpiece of his stunning economic reforms, seemed to go out of his way yesterday to appear unfazed by the vote. His aides said that he spent a "normal" day meeting with members of his Cabinet and representatives of a European trade delegation.

His enthusiasm has been toned down in the last few months when it seemed that NAFTA opponents in the United States would defeat the agreement in Congress.

But the treaty dominated so much of Mr. Salinas' presidency -- his government has spent more than $25 million in a campaign to persuade U.S. legislators to support the agreement -- that it took on significant political importance. Many political analysts said that a defeat of the agreement would have left Mr. Salinas' Institutional Revolutionary Party vulnerable as it prepares for presidential elections next year. By law, Mr. Salinas may only serve one six-year term.

"If the treaty had failed, Mr. Salinas' prestige would have been deflated and he would have been a liability to the party," said political commentator Adolfo Aguilar Zinser. "With NAFTA, he has all the power he wants and he is their biggest asset."

Every bump in the road to the passage of NAFTA was felt strongly on the Mexican stock market.

For the last two years, news about NAFTA has been the most significant influence on the Bolsa. Trading soared whenever the outlook for NAFTA was positive and it experienced tense declines whenever there was news the agreement might fail -- such as a decision in June by a district court judge that Mr. Clinton must submit an environmental impact statement on NAFTA before it is submitted to Congress for a vote. The decision was overturned by an appeals court.

After five straight days of bullish trading on the Bolsa de Valores, investors became jittery yesterday in anticipation of the vote in Washington.

By the end of the afternoon, the leading indicator had fallen by close to 11 points, a loss of .51 percent, despite considerable optimism in Washington that the treaty would be narrowly approved.

Stock analysts do not expect to see an immediate flurry of activity on the Bolsa today.

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