Former president George Bush yesterday did a devilish little impression of his onetime political nemesis Ross Perot, who predicted 10 years ago that free trade in North America would result in Mexico siphoning off U.S. jobs with a "a giant sucking sound."
"I remember not too fondly the reference to that 'giant sucking sound,' " Bush said in a remarkably good mimicking of the pugnacious Texas billionaire, drawing laughter from a crowd gathered at the Ronald Reagan Building on the 10th anniversary of the signing of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). "There hasn't been a giant sucking sound of jobs pulling away from the United States."
Bush, in an unusual appearance with the other North American leaders who signed the still controversial accord that created a giant free-trade zone from Canada to Mexico, said 350,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in the United States due to the pact, but 2 million better-paying jobs were created.
"There you go for a disaster," said former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, who signed NAFTA with Bush and former Mexican president Carlos Salinas. Mulroney said the dire predictions never happened: "All the hockey players in Canada and dancing girls in Vegas were to go to Mexico -- that didn't happen."
All three former leaders, predictably cheerleaders for NAFTA, said the next step is to create a larger free-trade zone for all of the Americas, extending it from Canada to the tip of South America. What is known as the Free Trade Area of the Americas would include 34 countries and 800 million people.
"The power of a good idea should never be underestimated," Mulroney said. "It should happen again."
A poll released yesterday by the Woodrow Wilson International Center of Scholars, which sponsored the NAFTA conference, showed opposition to free trade remains strong, especially in Mexico. Farmers there say their livelihoods are being stolen by tough competition from U.S. farmers, who are viewed as the beneficiaries of unfair subsidies from Washington.
Yesterday, in comments clearly directed at the United States, Mulroney said farm subsidies in rich nations are killing off "any hope for developing countries to compete."
Even though the pact created the richest trade bloc in the world -- the value of goods coming just over the Windsor, Ontario-Detroit border point is greater than the value of all U.S. trade with Japan -- opposition to it continues.
According to the Woodrow Wilson-commissioned poll, in the United States, 48 percent of those surveyed said their country came out a winner as a result of the accord, while 38 percent of Canadians and 30 percent of Mexicans said the same of their own countries.