- The Washington Times - Friday, August 3, 2001

Mexican President Vicente Fox raised the stakes yesterday in a blossoming trade dispute with the United States over permission for Mexican trucks to operate on American highways.
Noting that the North American Free Trade Agreement requires open borders, Mr. Fox said American trucks would remain barred from access to Mexican markets as long as Mexican truckers faced the same hurdle in the United States.
"There won't be any U.S. trucks here until there is an agreement to let Mexican trucks travel there," he said.
Mr. Fox made the comments one day after the Senate approved legislation that would submit Mexican trucks to tough safety inspections before they could travel U.S. highways, but would also violate NAFTA's requirement to open the border without extensive conditions.
In June, the House voted to ban Mexican big rigs from U.S. roads altogether.
The White House downplayed the threat, saying it still wants to hammer out legislation that will keep the roads safe while also complying with NAFTA, something it has so far been unable to do.
"The president is committed to ensuring that we have both safe highways and open border to our friends in the south," White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said.
She also reiterated that Mr. Bush would veto the legislation if it reaches his desk unchanged.
Mr. Bush has made close relations with Mexico and Latin American a central part of his foreign policy.
He has developed close ties to Mr. Fox, whom he will host during Mr. Fox's state visit to Washington in January.
Under NAFTA, the United States was to have opened its highways to Mexican trucks fully by the end of 1999.
But the Clinton administration, citing safety concerns, refused to take this step, a move cheered by organized labor, which feared job losses to lower-paid Mexican drivers.
Currently, Mexican trucks can travel only a narrow strip along the border, as can American rigs in Mexico.
The administration said in May that it would open the border to Mexican big rigs by the end of 2002, and that it would wait up to 18 months before auditing the safety practices of Mexican trucking firms.
The prospect of Mexican trucks operating in the United States without first being subjected to a safety inspection touched off a firestorm of criticism on Capitol Hill.
The Teamsters union, which has fought the border opening vigorously, dismissed Mr. Fox's threat, noting that American firms have little to lose.
"Our drivers are not going there now," said spokesman Rob Black. "There's no loss here."
But Willard Workman, vice president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that Mexico also has the option of retaliating against up to $1 billion in U.S. exports if the border remains closed to its trucks.
"The stakes have just been raised beyond a simple little trade agreement," Mr. Workman said. "This isn't chump change."
Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a safety-advocacy group, argued that Mr. Fox's threat is empty because the United States, under NAFTA, can adjust its safety regulations freely.
"This provision [passed by the Senate] represents nothing different for Mexican trucks than for others," she said.
In February, an arbitration panel concluded that the United States was violating NAFTA by not opening the border.
Miss Claybrook argues that the United States still has enough flexibility to conduct safety inspections of Mexican trucks without violating NAFTA.
Philip Potter, president of the NAFTA Institute, a strong backer of the agreement, said that Mr. Fox is under pressure from Mexican lawmakers to take action if the United States does not open the border.
"Governments can do anything they want for a while," Mr. Potter said. "Sooner or later, it catches up with them."
Mr. Potter said that a real escalation of the dispute would come if Mexican officials begin leaking lists of U.S. products against which they would retaliate.

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