A panel of international arbitrators will hand down a decision soon on whether the United States violated the North American Free Trade Agreement by not opening its border to Mexican trucks.
An adverse decision, which most observers consider a virtual certainty, would drop into the Clinton administration’s lap a political hot potato that would aggravate divisions within the Democratic Party over free trade shortly before a closely fought presidential election.
The United States refused to make good on its NAFTA promise to let in Mexican big rigs beginning in December 1995 on the grounds that Mexican trucks were unsafe. The move prompted charges that, with one eye on the 1996 election, it was pandering to the union truck drivers in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Mexico, fed up with the delays, took the United States to court last year, and a decision is expected “anytime now,” a senior U.S. official said.
“We are clearly violating our own agreement,” said Rep. Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican who is a leader on trade issues. “We are doing something that is not one whit better than what we criticize in other countries.”
But NAFTA rules require that the United States open its door to Mexican trucks, without any caveats regarding the safety of those vehicles. As a result, the United States is facing a loss in the arbitration proceeding.
“We are in absolute violation of the NAFTA,” said Gary Hufbauer, a trade specialist at the Institute for International Economics. “There is just no doubt.”
A decision before the election would be a thorn in the side of Vice President Al Gore, who has struggled to win over union members skeptical of free trade and particularly hostile to NAFTA.
The Teamsters, who have endorsed Mr. Gore’s bid for the White House, say they expect the administration to stand firm, even if the United States loses in arbitration. And observers say the Teamsters may be able to extract such a commitment from Mr. Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate, if a decision comes down before the election.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican nominee and an avid NAFTA supporter, has called for inspections of Mexican trucks as they enter the United States, but believes that the border must be opened, Bush campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan said.
“Since NAFTA requires cross-border trucking, the United States should live up to the agreement,” Mr. Sullivan said.
Opponents of the NAFTA rule, an assortment of automobile-safety groups, insurance companies and consumer advocates, charge that it threatens to unleash a wave of accidents on American highways. They are already demanding that the Clinton administration keep the border closed.
“All users of our roads and streets, whether Mexican or American, deserve nothing less than the highest degree of safety from the operation of heavy trucks anywhere in the United States,” said Gerald Donaldson, an official with Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Rep. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who has fought all of President Clinton’s free-trade initiatives, has introduced a congressional resolution calling on Mexican trucks to live up to American safety standards before they gain access to the United States.
A U.S. loss in arbitration would put Mexico in a commanding position, able to apply greater political pressure and, eventually, trade sanctions, to get the United States to permit Mexican trucks to cross the border. But organized labor sees no reason to comply with the agreement.
“What dollar amount is worth the lives that are going to be risked by opening the border?” said Bret Caldwell, a Teamsters spokesman.
The United States agreed in NAFTA to open the border states Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California to Mexican trucks by 1995. By last year, 48 states were to have been fair game for big rigs carrying the fruits of NAFTA to markets north of the Rio Grande.
Currently, Mexican trucks can travel only a narrow strip of the border that lets them get between two and 20 miles into the United States.
A report by the Department of Transportation last year found that most Mexican vehicles are not inspected at the border. Other surveys have found that they do not measure up to safety standards.
Critics see this evidence as the prime reason not to abide by the NAFTA rule. But the trucking industry, which wants an open border so it can provide end-to-end service between the United States and Mexico, says things would be different under NAFTA.
Mexican companies use only their oldest trucks on the border because the vehicles typically spend most of their time sitting in traffic and at border crossings. It only makes sense to use newer, safer trucks if Mexican drivers can go outside the current limits.
“These are not the trucks that would be coming into the United States if the NAFTA were implemented,” said Martin Rojas, who handles trade issues for the American Trucking Association.
Opponents of the rule also argue that Mexican safety standards have to rise if NAFTA is to gain the confidence of Americans, who are already wary of the pact’s effects over the last five years.
“A major preventable truck accident will turn the public against NAFTA,” said Dave Snyder, assistant general counsel at the American Insurance Association.