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De Gortari Urges `Informed Debate' on Free Trade Pact

By Tod Robberson
and Jackson Diehl

The Washington Post

MEXICO CITY

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, signaling growing concern over U.S.-Mexican relations, urged the U.S. Congress Monday to engage in an "informed debate" over the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement and warned that prejudiced attacks on Mexico could "wreck" bilateral ties.

In an interview, Salinas prodded the Clinton administration to step up the pace on getting the free-trade accord approved by Congress, warning that the longer the process is delayed, "the better for our competitors."

The president's remarks came at a time when Mexican government officials and business leaders have begun to express concern that the new U.S. administration may not be sufficiently committed to pushing the free-trade pact through Congress, in part because of its preoccupation with domestic affairs.

He said the accord, known as NAFTA, has become a matter of extreme importance throughout Latin America and represents a "historic window of opportunity" for the United States to improve the often uneven relations it has had with its neighbors to the south.

Salinas referred to the accord as "a test of the true willingness of the U.S. to have a positive relationship" with Mexico and the rest of Latin America. "The region as a whole would feel rejected" if NAFTA is turned down by the U.S. Congress, he said.

Salinas, who met with Clinton in December in Austin, Texas, said he believes Clinton shares his view that the pact should be ratified by the end of this year. But he grew stern when asked about the current tenor of congressional opposition to the free-trade accord.

The president appeared irritated by a controversy that developed in Washington last week over reports that the Mexican government had helped establish a fund to encourage U.S. manufacturing companies to relocate to Mexico. House Speaker Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., joined a chorus of NAFTA opponents in accusing Mexican officials of participating in "stealing American jobs."

Another Mexican official, referring to U.S. news reports about the fund, which surfaced as Mexican Commerce Minister Jaime Serra Puche arrived in Washington for talks on NAFTA-related issues with U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, said Monday that "we don't believe in coincidences" and suggested that leaks about the fund were deliberately timed for Serra Puche's visit.

Salinas referred to the controversy as "a minor issue" and denied that his country sought to steal U.S. jobs. He said he believed opponents of NAFTA would use various political ploys to derail the accord, but added that such actions amounted to internal U.S. politics.

However, he said, "The only thing I hope is that any debate ... is an informed debate. That is, that it comes from facts and not from prejudice. I hope that good faith will prevail, and that the aim is to improve relations between Mexico and the United States and not to wreck them."

Salinas also sought to minimize the importance of side accords demanded by the Clinton administration to deal with bilateral problems over labor and the environment. He said Mexico already has taken adequate steps to address U.S. concerns on both issues but said he would proceed nonetheless with the side accords in order to help gain NAFTA's approval by Congress.

However, Salinas warned against attempts to use NAFTA as a lever to force changes in Mexican domestic issues, saying he would limit all negotiations to issues that "make economic sense and do not infringe on our national sovereignty."

One domestic target that Mexico critics have used in arguments against NAFTA is Mexico's lengthy record of electoral fraud and a virtual one-party electoral system in which Salinas' Institutional Revolutionary Party has controlled the presidency for the past six decades.

Salinas said his government was open to "dialogue" on political issues and is "committed to improving our democratic system." He said his government is taking several measures to help ensure fair elections, including a nearly $1 billion program to provide photo identification cards for registered voters. He added that Mexico will reverse its long-standing opposition to foreign-sponsored exit polls, which can help election observers pinpoint where potential vote fraud has occurred.