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Improving Relations with Latin America

Politicians and Scholars from Both Hemispheres Discuss Economic, Social Issues

by D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
posted December 09, 1998

A rare gathering of United States congresspersons and Latin American dignitaries was held on campus Dec. 7 to discuss sensitive economic and social relationships between nations of the Americas and to explore possible ways to improve conditions.

"Alternatives for the Americas: A Dialogue" got underway after a brief interruption from AGSE strikers, who shouted at Chancellor Berdahl as he began to welcome the visiting delegation to the day-long conference sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies.

More than 400 people squeezed into Barrows Hall's Lipman Room to hear the first of two panels, focusing on Mexican economic integration, particularly the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Panelists were virtually unanimous in their opinion that NAFTA, instituted five years ago to make trading between Canada, the United States and Mexico less restrictive, has not fulfilled many of the promises made by its supporters, leaving a wider economic gap between North and South in its wake.

"Trade has increased between our countries, but at what expense?" asked Vicente Fox, governor of Guanajuato and candidate for president. "Because wages are so low, the people of Mexico cannot afford to purchase the products they are making."

NAFTA was created to protect the economic interests of corporations, not the financial viability of workers, said David Bonior, Democratic Whip in the U.S. House of Representatives. "We have to re-do the rules of NAFTA so that everyone can enjoy prosperity," he said. Bonior suggested changing the labor provisions of the agreement to make it easier for workers to unionize.

"The integration between our two countries cannot be defined only by economics. It must include social and cultural issues as well," said Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a Mexican senator with the Independent Party and a visiting scholar at Berkeley. "If we are to fix the trade agreement, we must redefine who is fixing it, where it is fixed and how it is fixed to ensure it is a collaborative effort."

NAFTA was supposed to stem Mexican immigration to the U.S., but Mexican citizens continue to cross the border because of poor conditions in their own country and the demand for cheap labor in our ours, said Congressman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.). "U.S. policy is framed by the notion that we can stop immigration, and this just isn't feasible," he said. "Immigration isn't going to stop. Once we come to terms with that, we can use our resources in more productive ways."

Amalia García, a senator with Mexico's PRD party, suggested that the European Union be used as a model for North America. "We need a relationship that is a partnership, an alliance that gives us access to the technology, education and information so crucial to globalization," she said. "We must be able to compete as a block."

After making their presentations, the panel was questioned by Berkeley faculty members Lydia Chávez, School of Journalism; Alex Saragoza, Department of Ethnic Studies; and José Canela, Goldman School of Public Policy.

The second panel, "Policies for a New Social Agenda," included scholars and politicians from Mexico, Brazil and Chile as well as U.S. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

"Globalization has created new hopes as well as new fears," said Harley Shaiken, chair of the Center For Latin American Studies. "We hope to address these with the advancement of fresh ideas and the forging of new partnerships."


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