- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The Bush administration filed a case at the World Trade Organization yesterday over Mexican taxes on soft drinks amid criticism from Democrats that the White House does too little to enforce trade agreements.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick brought the case against Mexico to dispute a 20 percent tax on sales and distribution of sweetened beverages that do not use cane sugar. The long-running fight has especially hurt U.S. corn farmers, who help supply Mexico with high-fructose corn syrup, a common ingredient in soft drinks such as Coca-Cola.

“Mexico’s beverage taxes are discriminatory and protectionist,” Mr. Zoellick said.

The restrictions have cost the U.S. sweetener industry millions of dollars in revenue, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative said. In 1997, the year before trade restrictions began, U.S. exports of high-fructose corn syrup to Mexico were valued at $63 million. In 2003, exports were valued at $1.5 million.

Mexico erected the barriers to help its sugar industry and to pressure the United States into buying more Mexican sugar.

Mexico’s government said it may fight the U.S. complaint, Bloomberg News reported.

“At some point, we’ll have to defend it. It’s a Mexican law, and that is our obligation,” said Ricardo Ramirez, deputy general counsel for the economic minister, speaking at a press conference in Mexico City.

The United States and Mexico failed at efforts to reach a settlement in the dispute.

“Now it is time to enforce our rights in the WTO,” Mr. Zoellick said.

Democrats have been especially critical of the Bush administration for not cracking down on countries that compete unfairly, even as it negotiates new trade pacts.

Rep. Sander M. Levin, Michigan Democrat, last week lamented what he called “the administration’s failure to use the tools at its disposal” in trade disputes.

“The Clinton administration brought an average 10 cases per year in the WTO against foreign market access barriers. The Bush administration has brought less than three cases per year,” Mr. Levin said at a House Ways and Means Committee hearing.

The campaign of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, last week reiterated charges that the administration has failed to enforce trade agreements.

The U.S. trade office said there was no link between Democratic criticism and the latest case.

“We believe we can walk and chew gum at the same time. Stay tuned later this week and you will get some more evidence of that,” Mr. Zoellick said Monday.

He also warned recently that the United States would soon file a WTO case against China over trade restrictions on semiconductors if negotiations fail.

And another high-profile U.S. case, against European Union restrictions on genetically modified crops, is slowly advancing through WTO courts.

Mr. Zoellick this week also noted a recent win at the WTO against Mexican restrictions on long-distance telephone service.

The process of settling disputes takes about 18 months.

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