- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

TUXTLA GUTIERREZ, Mexico

Leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took his hardest line yet against free trade with the United States, saying for the first time Saturday that he would not honor Mexico’s commitment under NAFTA to eliminate tariffs on U.S. corn and beans.

Tariffs on all agricultural products must be removed in 2008 under the North American Free Trade Agreement, but Mr. Lopez Obrador said he would not eliminate tariffs on U.S. white corn and beans if elected, showing no allegiance to a deal that he sees as harmful to Mexican farmers.

“We are not going to accept this clause that they signed,” Mr. Lopez Obrador told supporters in Chiapas, a destitute farming state.

He also promised to provide the farmers with guaranteed prices, subsidies and loans on favorable terms, some of which may be questionable practices under NAFTA rules.

With two weeks to go before the July 2 election, the fiery former Mexico City mayor is running about even with his main opponent, Felipe Calderon of the conservative governing National Action Party, or PAN.

Mexican farmers say hefty agricultural subsidies in the United States give American white corn and beans an unfair advantage over the Mexican market, which depends in large part on small-scale and mostly subsistence farmers. As Mexico’s staple crops, corn and beans also carry immense symbolic importance.

Mexicans worry that if these farmers can’t sell the nation’s signature crops at a price that competes with trucked-in produce from the United States, they will go out of business.

That could damage Mexico’s agricultural economy, which farmers say has suffered since the trade deal went into effect in 1994, forcing many to migrate to the United States.

Mexico’s agriculture minister pleaded with Canada and the United States this month to reconsider the removal of the corn and bean tariffs, but U.S. Undersecretary for Agriculture J.B. Penn flatly rejected the appeal, saying, “We have no interest in renegotiating any parts of the agreement.”

Despite the concern, the administration of outgoing President Vicente Fox has stood by NAFTA, saying Mexico honors its trade commitments.

Mr. Lopez Obrador said Mr. Fox and the “technocrats who govern our country badly … do nothing more than copy the bad from abroad.”

In contrast, Mr. Lopez Obrador has promised to raise the income of poor families by as much as 20 percent by providing them with subsidized power and basic goods and to extend nationwide the free pensions he established for Mexico City’s elderly.

Mr. Lopez Obrador said he is confident that many Mexicans will vote against his rival Mr. Calderon because they are angry with Mr. Fox for not fulfilling his campaign promises, which included creating millions of jobs.

Mr. Lopez Obrador, who lives modestly in a small Mexico City apartment, has said the handouts — estimated to cost about $7 billion — would be funded by cutting the salaries of Mexico’s army of government workers, particularly of the top earners. He also has promised to draw half the salary of Mr. Fox, who received $238,000 last year.

Mr. Calderon and other critics say Mr. Lopez Obrador’s promised social programs would push Mexico into an economic crisis, and in a series of attack ads, compared him to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an authoritarian socialist. Mr. Lopez Obrador says the comparison is ridiculous.

His Democratic Revolution Party has never held the top office, but many say victory was stolen from the party in 1988 through fraud perpetrated by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which was in power at the time.

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