By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
NEW ORLEANS, April 21 -- With the North American Free Trade Agreement taking a pounding on the campaign trail, President Bush met here Monday with the leaders of Mexico and Canada to defend the pact and to seek new ways to cooperate on border, economic and regulatory issues.
After meeting with Bush, Mexican President Felipe Calderón touched on the recent criticism of NAFTA from both Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who have promised to revisit the treaty if elected president.
Without mentioning the candidates by name, Calderón said, "I do not believe that people are realizing how many benefits NAFTA has brought both to the United States and to Mexico." He said the agreement has meant more jobs and economic growth and is "decreasing the flow of immigration."
White House aides have also defended the trade pact in recent days. "We want to find ways to, frankly, convince the American people . . . that this is an arrangement that's worked for us, and it's also worked for our neighbors," Dan Fisk, the top White House staffer on Latin America, said before the summit. "There's nothing broken. Why fix a success?"
The two-day meeting here is the fourth in what has become an annual summit among the leaders of the three nations. Bush met separately with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the three heads of state were planning to dine together Monday evening.
Relations between the United States and its two neighbors have been good in recent years, with both Calderón and Harper sharing Bush's devotion to free trade and, in Canada's case, the commitment to the war in Afghanistan. But the Mexican side has been disappointed that Bush has not liberalized the U.S. immigration system, a big priority for Calderón and his predecessor, Vicente Fox.
After their meeting Monday, Bush called for U.S. congressional approval of a $550 million package to help Mexico fight drug traffickers who have threatened to destabilize the country in recent years. A House Democratic aide said the package is likely to pass this year, possibly as part of the funding bill for the war in Iraq.
By far the most sensitive topic in the trilateral relationship is trade, which amounts daily to a three-way exchange of about $2.5 billion in goods and services, Fisk said.
Both Democratic candidates have said they would try to amend NAFTA to better protect the environment and labor rights. Obama has said he was against the 1994 agreement from the start; Clinton says that she, too, was a critic, though she says she muted that criticism because she was part of the administration of her husband, who pushed the agreement through Congress.
Thomas J. Donahue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who is attending the meeting, said he believes that the candidates have softened their rhetoric because they are fishing for votes in Pennsylvania, which he said is a big exporter of goods to Mexico and Canada. In the end, he said, "I don't think we are going to screw up the NAFTA deal."