NEW ORLEANS — President Bush and the leaders of Mexico and Canada delivered a forceful message Tuesday to the next president of the United States: Don't mess with NAFTA.
Their warnings against tinkering with the North American Free Trade Agreement brought them into the presidential race on the day Pennsylvanians voted in a Democratic primary contest that focused on how free trade has cost their state many factory jobs.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon was particularly blunt, warning that weakening the 14-year-old pact would damage the Mexican economy and could create "even greater migratory pressure" on Mexicans to cross the border to look for work in the U.S.
"We agreed that this is not the time to even think about amending it or canceling it. This is the time to strengthen and reinvigorate this free trade agreement," he said.
Calderon said he would not meddle in the U.S. election, but would simply "speak to the person who will eventually be the president of the United States."
Although Bush spoke with more nuance, he insisted: "Now is not the time to renegotiate NAFTA or walk away from NAFTA. Now is the time to make it work better for all our people, and now is the time to reduce trade barriers worldwide."
With the U.S. economy in a slump, the Democratic presidential candidates have questioned free trade and NAFTA in an attempt to appeal to voters in states hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs to lower-cost producers in other countries.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), whose husband, former President Clinton, strongly supported the pact enacted during his first year in office, has tangled with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) over NAFTA, with each presidential contender saying he or she would look for ways to change it to help stem U.S. job losses.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, on Tuesday offered a strong pledge of support for NAFTA at a state university campus in struggling Youngstown, Ohio, where the accord is highly unpopular.
Bush, Calderon and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper completed their two-day meeting, the fourth annual North American Leaders' Summit, built around discussions of trade, border security and other common problems.
Harper, speaking with the others at a news conference in Gallier Hall, the onetime city hall here, said Canada would "be prepared for any possibility" on NAFTA's future. But he made it clear that he did not favor alterations.
"If one of our partners wants to negotiate NAFTA, we'll do it. We'll renegotiate," he said, then quickly adding, "But this is not the position that we prefer."
Bush agreed with Calderon that NAFTA works to reduce illegal immigration.
"One way to increase pressure on the border is if you do away with NAFTA, there's going to be a lot of Mexicans, more Mexicans out of work," he said. "It'll make it harder on the border."
Bush, a former Texas governor, also said Americans needed to understand how much the conditions along the U.S.-Mexican border have improved. He said it was "poor, really poor, on both sides" and that now there is "prosperity on both sides of the border."
"So," he said, "people who say 'Let's get rid of NAFTA' as a throwaway political line must understand this has been good for America and it's also been, you know, good for Mexico and Canada."
He also made a similar argument in favor of the stalled U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, which needs congressional approval. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has not scheduled a vote, in a bid to put the contentious issue off until after the election.
Calderon also offered a strong endorsement of the proposed U.S.-Colombia pact. "When you provide more opportunities for trade in the Latin American region, there will be many more opportunities for prosperity," he said.
Many Democrats oppose the deal, saying Colombia has not done enough to curtail violence against labor organizers. Pelosi has also said the Bush administration must address U.S. economic needs before any vote on a free trade accord.