Union Tribune

December 10, 2002 

Mexico's Salinas begins rehabilitation role at NAFTA reunion


WASHINGTON For former President George H.W. Bush and
former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, yesterday's
conference on the North American Free Trade Agreement was
an opportunity to celebrate free trade.

For the third "father" of the 10-year-old agreement, the
conference had a more personal meaning. For Carlos Salinas de
Gortari, the proud former president of Mexico, it was a step
toward rehabilitation of his badly bruised image.

"This is his coming out in a statesmanlike way, for the Mexican
people to see," Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, an expert on
Mexican politics, said of Salinas.

The former president is widely despised in Mexico for the
economic and political crises that shook Mexico after he left
office in 1994.

"If you're going to come out, you want to come out with a bang,"
said Peschard-Sverdrup, who directs the Mexico program at the
Center for Strategic and International Studies. "This was a bang."

Peschard-Sverdrup noted that Salinas, 54, is widely believed to
have studied the long self-rehabilitation of former U.S. President
Richard Nixon.

After resigning in disgrace in 1974, Nixon gradually emerged,
with books and speeches, to reclaim some respect as a senior

"Salinas has a better chance than Nixon to recover his reputat
ion because he . . . has a lot more time to rejuvenate himself
politically," said Peschard-Sverdrup.

Sharing the podium with Bush and Mulroney, Salinas basked in
the revived fellowship they forged as they carried NAFTA past
intense opposition in all three countries. Bush said he felt "not
only respect, but great affection" for Salinas and Mulroney.

Bush drew a big laugh when he mocked one of NAFTA's most
outspoken critics, Texas businessman Ross Perot, who warned of
"a giant sucking sound" that would be made by millions of jobs
draining into Mexico.

"I remember, not too fondly, the reference to that giant sucking
sound," Bush said, with an exaggerated imitation of Perot's nasal
tones. "There hasn't been a giant sucking sound of jobs pulling
away from the United States," he said, contending that NAFTA
has created more jobs than it lost.

"There is a trade-off in some ways a painful trade-off for many,
but one I believe we simply must endure if we want America to
compete for and win new business in this increasingly
interconnected and competitive global economy," Bush said.

In his speech, Salinas hailed NAFTA, which Mexican critics had
warned would make Mexico an economic lackey of the United
States. Salinas said NAFTA had revitalized the Mexican

He said the agreement had not only caused Mexico's export
industries to surge, it had also attracted billions of dollars of
job-creating investment from foreign investors who wanted to
capitalize on Mexico's privileged access to the United States.

Salinas also weighed in on Mexico's current international and
domestic agenda. For example, he praised President Vicente
Fox's efforts to negotiate a deal with the United States to benefit
illegal immigrants, saying such a deal "is as inevitable as it is

Salinas' 35-minute speech was much shorter than the 20-page
printed version that was distributed yesterday morning here
and in Mexico. In the longer version, which Mexican news
reports began citing immediately, he warned against the
increasingly militant demands of Mexican farmers for a
renegotiation of NAFTA. 

"If we renegotiate NAFTA, what will our partners demand?" he
asked, adding his voice to those who caution that new talks
would endanger Mexico's NAFTA-fueled trade surplus with the
United States.

The printed version also included a direct attack on Salinas'
successor in the Mexican presidency, Ernesto Zedillo. Without
mentioning Zedillo by name, Salinas blamed the Zedillo
administration for the peso devaluation.

He first made that charge, which has been received skeptically in
Mexico and elsewhere, in his 2000 memoir, "Mexico: The Policy
and Politics of Modernization," which recently came out in

The book did little to quell Mexican criticism of Salinas, who has
appeared in public only rarely in recent years.

His appearance yesterday drew a large contingent of Mexico
City-based journalists.

"There's still an aura about him," said Peschard-Sverdrup of the
man who once embodied his nation's hopes and was hailed
internationally as a visionary economic reformer.

Copyright 2002 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.