Latin American Research Review 39.1 (2004) 254-272
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The Politics of North American Economic Integration
The political rhythms of pro-free trade coalitions in North and South America seem to be out of sync. After the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed, free traders looked like they were on [End Page 254] a roll towards expansion throughout the hemisphere. Chile was poised to follow Mexico into NAFTA. Mercosur began to take off. For much of the post-NAFTA period, however, most Latin American governments were more prepared to sign a hemispheric free-trade agreement than the United States was. NAFTA's persistent domestic political costs blocked President Clinton's effort to renew fast-track negotiating authority. By the time President George W. Bush scraped together a slim congressional majority to regain presidential trade-negotiating authority, the political winds in South America had shifted and were empowering skeptics in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. By early 2003 negotiations towards a Free Trade Area of the Americas had reached their late middle phase, a timely moment to review research on the political economy of North American economic integration.
Disentangling Winners and Losers
In the United States, the dominant positive view about NAFTA among Washington elites continues to contrast sharply with widespread public skepticism. 1 As one influential mainstream journalist put it recently, "NAFTA has always struck me as a huge gift from the people of the United States to the people of Mexico, if a gift that not all Americans wished to give" (Easterbrook 2002, 48). 2 In Mexico, disillusionment with NAFTA's unfulfilled expectations has been expressed more by ongoing migration than by overt resistance—the exercise of exit over voice (at least until the unprecedented peasant protest in Mexico City in January 2003). 3
The political debate before the 1993 U.S. congressional vote on NAFTA provoked a huge 'battle of the studies', thanks to lop-sided research investments by private foundations and interest groups. Economists' models shaped the terms of mainstream debate, though their conclusions were heavily influenced by their starting assumptions about how sectors actually work, such as whether Mexican agriculture should [End Page 255] be treated as a homogeneous or a bifurcated sector. 4 Critics fired back with case studies of specific factories, vivid images of toxic waste, and deformed babies at the border, as well as journalistic profiles of individual workers 'whose jobs had moved to Mexico'. The NAFTA opposition certainly had its own contingent of expert specialists, but the debate's dominant frame pitted "expert" against "local knowledges." 5
Curiously, research attention to Mexico-U.S. economic integration seemed to drop off significantly once...