NAFTA in Transition

by Stephen J. Randall, Herman W. Konrad,
450 pages,
ISBN: 1895176638

Post Your Opinion
by Alexander Craig

It's difficult to keep NAFTA out of the headlines. A truck plant closing in Quebec, medicare under threat from private U.S. companies in the West, farmers protesting in Ontario, unrest and uncertainty all over the country. Its economic, political, social, and cultural impact can only grow.

This book's twenty-four chapters are divided into five sections. The first looks at "Historical Context and the Politics of Emerging Trilateralism", while the second is entitled "Economic Perspectives on Free Trade". One of the many underlying themes in the book is the growing importance-as opposed to the historical lawlessness and relative insignificance-of border areas, and so the third section is appropriately called "Borderlands, Industry, Labour, and Immigration". (Women, who one has every reason to believe hold up half the Mexican as well as Chinese and other skies, are dealt with in any detail only in the chapter within this section on "Gender, Work, and Politics in Mexico's Maquiladora Industry".)

"Energy and the Environment", the fourth section, treats these important topics. The fifth and last, "Public Policy and Culture", looks at various aspects of the cultural industries in Canada and Mexico, such as growing academic links between the two countries, co-production in film and television, and converging changes in values. Here, as elsewhere, a number of the contributors are Mexicans, and thus offer valuable fresh perspectives.

There's a great deal covered here, then, but inevitably a lot isn't. Much lies, at best, between the lines. The book does not, for instance, directly address questions about stability and democracy in Mexico. But as the editors delicately put it, "Whether the rest of the l990s has as many unpredicted economic and political surprises as the first fifteen months of the post-NAFTA era, when this introduction was first written, remains to be seen."

Many Canadian readers will be acquainted with some of the problems, such as unrest in Chiapas, and, to a lesser extent, in other states such as Guerrero, but they will find some valuable background information here. In a chapter on NAFTA and agriculture, for example, the authors point out that "Chiapas represents one of several regions where land redistribution has never been carried out and where inequality has created severe social and political problems. There are large backlogs of petitions for land, and the regularization of land titles will be an extremely bitter process."

In another chapter, Paul Ganster, who directs the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State, underlines the long-term implications of short-term gains: "Mexican development and social policies over the last half-century have produced one of the most inequitable societies in the world in terms of income distribution. These policies have produced the concentration of enormous wealth in the hands of the few, and poverty along with lack of adequate social investment for the masses."

In global terms, probably the most important aspect of NAFTA is that it is the first major economic agreement between developed and developing countries. There's an awful lot of material in this book, but probably its most significant statistic is that the Mexican labour force grows each year by 900,000 people, while its economy creates only 300,000 jobs.

Enormous changes are on the horizon, together with ever-increasing pressures and conflict to ensure that change benefits specific groups. Whole sectors and patterns of behaviour have had of necessity to be overlooked. The entire drug trade gets only one reference (no more, no less, than the National Film Board). Nor is the even more significant, even more addictive matter of corruption addressed directly.

NAFTA means modernization. Modernization means change. The wide range of specialized studies in a book such as this helps indicate the likely form some of these changes will take. Modernization of agriculture in Mexico will for instance mean increased rural displacement, and thus international migration. Migration "humps", a "worldwide and relatively common phenomenon," will result from "policies that accelerate economic growth-including privatization, land reform, and freer trade...." A "hump" or temporarily increased migration "accompanies industrialization in countries with an emigration tradition or in which workers are recruited to go abroad."

And while national factors will remain important, various contributors point out that international forces are becoming increasingly powerful. Michel Duquette, one of Stéphane Dion's erstwhile colleagues in political science at the Université de Montréal, believes that "the almighty market forces, with their slide from expansion to recession and back to expansion, as well as the geographical proximity of neighbours, do more for the sharing of wealth and resources than does, on a domestic scale, the political agenda of states and provinces.... International factors are paramount; domestic factors, as intricate as they may be, usually follow suit...."

Bradley J. Condon, director of the Centre for North American Business Studies at Simon Fraser provides a chapter on "The Impact of the NAFTA, the NAAEC, and Constitutional Law on Environmental Policy in Canada and Mexico". The Secretariat of the North American Agreement on Environmental Co-operation (NAAEC) is based in Montreal. Condon states that NAAEC will receive complaints "from persons or non-governmental organizations from all three countries, providing environmentalists from all three countries with a new forum in which to be heard. This is particularly significant for Mexican environmentalists, who have complained that they do not have adequate access to their own government in such matters."

"Where there's a will, there's a way" can work for or against progress. Dixon Thompson of the University of Calgary's Faculty of Environmental Science concludes his assessment of "The NAFTA Parallel Accord on the Environment" by saying, "What remains is the question of the political will to make the Agreement work. Off the record, some of those involved in the evolution of the accord have expressed disappointment in the political nature of some of the appointments made to date. This suggests that effectiveness and efficiency may not be regarded as very important...."

The consequences of NAFTA are developing, of course, within a legal framework of incredible density. Researching some possible trends, for example, involves looking at precedents, such as those offered by GATT documents on U.S. restrictions on tuna imports, or Thailand's restrictions on the import of, and internal taxes on, cigarettes. Most contributors seem to agree that fundamental change will be slow because of various underlying factors, among which vested interests are central. Yet as Herman Konrad points out in his introductory chapter, neither Mexico nor Canada had any real alternative: there's such enormous competition from Europe and from Asia that each country has just had to get even closer to their giant neighbour.

Equally inexorable seems to be the lumbering move towards the South & North American Free Trade Agreement (SNAFTA). Anti-NAFTA forces died, in effect, in the cradle. Everyone's getting ready for the next stages. In April this year, for instance, the Canadian Labour Congress initiated its campaign to provide protection for workers and the environment in the Canada-Chile free trade negotiations. The month before, the two sides of the CBC, French and English, in an unusually co-operative fashion, held a large-scale conference in Montreal, with Latin American, not just Mexican, participation, on "Press and Power under NAFTA".

There are all sorts of dimensions to globalization, but this book gives some idea of how it is affecting us, and if your particular interest, vested or otherwise, has to with the economy, the environment, energy, cultural sovereignty, or identity, you're bound to find ideas and information here that'll make you part of informed public opinion. l

Alexander Craig est un journaliste écossais-québécois.


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