Candidates balance competing views of NAFTA


Democrats /*Barack Obama*/ and /*Hillary Rodham Clinton*/ roundly condemn/* NAFTA*/, the North American Free Trade Agreement, as they campaign across Ohio, which holds its primary Tuesday. But the candidates are relatively silent about the matter in Texas, another delegate-rich state holding a primary the same day -- one that has seen an economic renaissance along its southern border since the agreement came into effect in 1994.

Signed into law by /*President Bill Clinton*/, NAFTA opened up trade between the U.S., Canada and Mexico by eliminating tariffs on most goods moved back and forth across those countries' borders. But the deal established no labor standards, encouraging manufacturers in Ohio and elsewhere to ship jobs to Mexico in order to produce goods more cheaply there.

NAFTA is highly unpopular in Ohio, where blue-collar workers are a pivotal force. But the agreement is widely praised in Laredo and other Texas border towns for bringing new life into a once poor and struggling region.

The border area -- Laredo, the Rio Grand Valley -- has been one of the areas most benefited by NAFTA. "There's no doubt about it," said Andres Rivas, an economics professor at Texas A&M International University who studies trade. "It's had a big, positive impact. I really don't see any down side."

/*President Bush*/, a former Texas governor, even stepped into the political fray this week to defend NAFTA.

"Those of us who grew up in Texas remember what the border looked like when we were kids, and it was really poor. And you go down to that border today, it is prosperous on both sides of the river, to the credit of those who proposed NAFTA, and to the credit of those who got NAFTA through the Congress," he said.

The NAFTA paradox produces an odd balancing act for the /*Democratic candidates*/ who hope to claim victory in both Texas and Ohio next week.

Clinton, who must win both contests to save her struggling candidacy, hammered NAFTA in a campaign appearance in Ohio Thursday while acknowledging its positive impact on South Texas.

"I'm well aware that many parts of our country have different views about trade," she told an audience in Hanging Rock, Ohio. "I was in Laredo ... which has greatly benefited from the increase in trade."

It's a sentiment shared by business leaders in the city, many of whom were working in the area and saw firsthand the changes to the local economy after NAFTA was enacted.

"For years, the border towns had mostly retail and government-type jobs," said David Trevino, a vice president at Daniel B. Hastings, a Laredo-based customs brokerage house. "With the emergence of NAFTA, the brokerage community has expanded along with transportation, logistics, warehousing and distribution. NAFTA definitely had a large part in that explosion."

In fact, Laredo's biggest challenge has been managing its eye-popping growth since the agreement came into law. The city has swelled to 250,000 residents, up from about 72,000 before NAFTA. Four major bridges now carry traffic across the Rio Grande from Laredo into Mexico, up from just one in 1994. Plans for a fifth are under way.

Locals still complain about the endless bottlenecks on the freeways and bridges caused by the lines of tractor-trailers waiting to cross through the customs check points. And the housing market is thriving, apparently immune to the foreclosure crisis hitting other parts of the state.

Still, not everyone is bullish about NAFTA's affect the Texas economy as a whole.

"When you go up 150 miles from the border it's very different," said Becky Moeller, president of the Texas AFL-CIO. "We've lost a lot of jobs in the state because of NAFTA -- manufacturing jobs, air conditioning plants. I'm elated some folks have found jobs on the border but if we didn't have NAFTA, we could have lured many plants down there."

Moeller also pointed to the staggering poverty among many low-wage service workers who have flocked to Laredo seeking jobs. Thousands live in so-called colonias, cramped enclaves along the border that lack paved roads, adequate water and sewer systems and sanitary housing.

"It's been a race to the bottom," Moeller said.

If the critics of NAFTA are relatively rare in South Texas, they are a majority in Ohio, whose manufacturing sector has all but collapsed since NAFTA and other trade agreements were enacted.

The industrial downturn is most acute in the northern part of the state, stretching from Youngstown in the east to Toledo in the west. In just the last seven years, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a loss of 257,600 manufacturing jobs in Ohio -- roughly a quarter of all such jobs in the state.

Trade issues broadly and the debate over NAFTA specifically have emerged as flash points between Obama and Clinton as they campaign across Ohio.

At a debate in Cleveland last week, the candidates pledged to renegotiate the trade deal if elected president and threatened to opt out of it if changes weren't made. But Obama has taken Clinton to task for her husband's strong support of the agreement and for her past comments praising it.

"The fact is, she was saying great things about NAFTA until she started running for president," Obama told an audience at a Lorain, Ohio, factory.

Fighting back, Clinton has been running a TV ad featuring Gov. Ted Strickland saying "She's got great plans to create new jobs in every part of Ohio."

A radio ad in Ohio takes an even more direct approach to NAFTA with men lamenting the loss of steel mills and casting plants as well as jobs going oversees. "Hillary has gone on record saying that NAFTA was a mistake," a woman says. A man adds: "Hillary does have a plan to fix NAFTA. She wants to change it from free trade to fair trade."

For his part, /*John McCain*/, the likely GOP presidential nominee, bemoaned the flight of manufacturing jobs while campaigning in Ohio even as he asserts his support for free trade agreements. He told an audience that rather than lament NAFTA, it was time to come to grips with the changing economy.

"Now, I've got to give you a little straight talk, my friends. Some of those manufacturing jobs are not coming back, and you know that and I know that," McCain said. "But there is enormous opportunity in green technologies and innovation. The present displaced worker programs do not work."

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