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COLUMN LEFT : Latinos Ask, With Friends Like These . . . : Their own organizations took business' side over workers' concerns about free trade.

May 26, 1991|RODOLFO F. ACUNA | Rodolfo F. Acuna is a professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge

Congress has now put negotiations for free trade with Mexico on the "fast track," giving the Bush Administration a tremendous edge that could result in a railroaded treaty. Now, anyone who raises objections will be accused of Mexico-bashing. There are, however, very real concerns that a treaty unchecked by vigorous debate could do serious damage to the interests of working-class Latinos on both sides of the border.

In the debate over "fast track" authorization, some Latino organizations, such as the National Council of La Raza, seemed more interested in assurances that Latino businesses would get export privileges than in how Latino workers would be affected. They became Administration cheerleaders, based on the President's mere promise, "Trust me."

Questions left unanswered: What kind of growth will free trade produce? What kind of development will it generate? In whose interest is it being pursued?

President Carlos Salinas de Gotari is hyping free trade as the key to Mexico's future. It solidifies his program of privatization, deregulation and attraction of foreign investment. Says Salinas, who has bought the rhetoric of globalization, "What we want is to find ourselves in rhythm with the world."

In Mexico, free trade with the United States and Canada is being sold as a new religion, packaged in a mystic nationalism that pretends to defend national sovereignty. President Bush wants to support Salinas, the most pro-Republican Mexican president in modern times. Bush and GOP leaders see free trade as an opportunity to bolster Salinas and his PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), as well as to Republicanize the Latino middle class.

Is it Mexico-bashing to observe that Salinas' and Bush's records hardly are the basis for trusting that U.S. corporations will act responsibly? The maquiladora situation suggests otherwise. These factories, where foreign (mostly U.S.) companies make goods for the U.S. market ignore the health and safety of their workers with impunity. The Rio Grande is a toxic horror. The American Medical Assn. has called the maquila zone "a virtual cesspool."

In hopes of quieting North American environmentalists, Salinas in March shut down a state-run oil refinery, one of the country's largest, in Mexico City. A government official boasted, "This proves that no one can get away with pollution." But plenty of other polluters kept contributing to the capital's worst smog season on record, when health officials reported a 20% increase in respiratory patients admitted to public hospitals.

Is it in the interest of the U.S. Latino community to shore up the PRI? This is a party that has sustained itself in power for generations through fraud and gross violations of human rights, a party that has been condemned by Amnesty International and the Organization of American State's human-rights commission.

I am concerned about Mexican sovereignty. Take a confidential memo from U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte to Asst. Secretary of State Bernard Aronson, complaining that, although Mexico did 60% to 70% of its trade with the United States, its vote in international forums is often antagonistic to U.S. interests. The memo suggests that the free-trade agreement would bring Mexico around.

Without a doubt, free trade will create jobs in Mexico. But what kind of jobs? U.S. corporations go to Mexico because it has a large, underpaid, unprotected labor pool. Can Mexican workers wait for the trickle-down effect of jobs paying $3.50 to $7.50 a day to bring about social change? Can we expect the PRI to represent the interests of workers in the final version of the treaty?

As for this side of the border, the National Council of La Raza and other Latino organizations also have done little in recent years to defend working-class interests. Where were they during a decade of plant shutdowns and a restructuring of the economy that devastated blue-collar workers? In endorsing the "fast track," believing there will be concessions for the Latino business community, the NCLR is not living up to its name.

Our community performs the manual labor that will be most impacted by free trade. Free trade will accelerate plant closures, increasing an already swollen secondary labor market at a time when spending on education and social services is being drastically cut.

Undoubtedly, given the present trend toward the globalization of the economy, a trade treaty with Mexico is inevitable. Shouldn't the role of Latino organizations be to make certain that the interests of workers on both sides of the border are not sold out? "Fast track" seriously compromises this goal.

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