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The Birth of NAFTA


The best defense, some say, is a good offense. Hilllary’s “Shame on you, Barack Obama” performance deflected attention from the fact that the Clinton Administration did indeed get NAFTA through a resistant Congress. NAFTA was conceived under Reagan and then pushed by Poppy Bush, who got an extension of fast-track negotiating authority from Congress. (Meaning Congress couldn’t revise the text, just vote yes or no.) Agreement with Canada and Mexico was reached in August ’92.

As a candidate for president Bill Clinton supported NAFTA with the proviso that side agreements (that would not involve renegotiating the NAFA text) might be needed to protect the environment and the rights of workers. After taking office, Clinton negotiated the side agreements, ignoring the majority of Democrats in Congress whose preference was to scuttle the pact altogether.

In July ’93, according to a National Association of Manufacturers’ chronology, “Lawmakers returning home to their districts in August were barraged by anti-NAFTA sentiment. Many supporters of NAFTA returned to Washington publicly undecided on the pact. Convinced that NAFTA’s passage was contingent upon a strong push by the White House, dozens of House Republicans–led by Minority Leader Newt Gingrich–said they would withhold their support until the President demonstrated his commitment to the issue.

“That commitment came September 14, 1993, when President Clinton accompanied by former Presidents Ford, Carter and Bush, issued a strong statement of support for NAFTA.” At this point the Archvillain of the American Century, David Rockefeller, weighed in with a Wall St. Journal op-ed explaining why passage was so important to him, personally:

“I can’t help seeing the current debate over NAFTA in the context of my own half century of work with the people of Canada and Latin America, an interest I shared with my late brother, Nelson. It seems ironic that many of the things we had hoped to witness in Latin America–and worked hard to accomplish–are threatened by a rejection of NAFTA by the U.S.”

The Archvillain’s brother Nelson had toured Latin America at Nixon’s behest in the late ’60s and was greeted by riots in every city. At the time the Rockefellers owned a ranch in Venezuela five times the size of New York City and controlled Creole Petroleum.

The entire hemisphere, the Archvillain wrote in the WSJ, now has “a whole new vision of economic organization … This revolutionary process started with the profound economic transformation undertaken by Chile [under Pinochet]. It accelerated rapidly with Mexico’s decision to join the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade; to unilaterally reduce tariffs; and finally to work toward a radically new trading system with the signing of NAFTA. This not only brought Mexico into the game … it also held out the promise of extending the new trading system to the entire hemisphere.” [Rockefeller used the word “revolutionary” four times and “radical” twice to describe the move towards One Big Market. No wonder the Birchers mistake him for a Communist!]

The Archvillain singled out some faithful lieutenants for special praise: George Bush, Carlos Salinas de Gortari (“a young, Harvard-educated economist”), the Peronist Menem in Argentina, Perez in Venezuela … Rockefeller must have wanted to credit Pinochet for turning around “the game” in Chile, but he refrained from doing so by name: “Under what were special circumstances, Chile had already moved in the direction of a market economy under the military government that replaced President Allende’s disastrous Marxist experiment in the early 1970s … ” Rockefeller gloated that there was no longer opposition to privatization in Latin America: “Traditional ‘labor’ parties carried out the economic revolution because they felt that the changes being encouraged would result in economic growth and job creation …

“I never expected to see such a transformation in my lifetime. It would be a terrible pity to see such a historic opportunity pass by us now because of a failure on our part to ‘grasp the moment … ‘ I truly don’t think that ‘criminal’ would be too strong a word to describe an action on our part, such as rejecting NAFTA, that would so seriously jeopardize all the good that has been done –and remains to be done– to improve the lives and fortunes of so many people.”

Rockefeller’s lifelong gopher, Henry Kissinger, weighed in at the same time with a piece in the LA Times calling NAFTA “the single most important decision that Congress would make during Mr. Clinton’s first term … . the most creative step toward a new world order taken by any group of countries since the end of the Cold War … not a conventional trade agreement but the architecture of a new international system.”

Meanwhile, on the legal front, Public Citizen, the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth had sued the Bush Administration for not completing an environmental impact statement on NAFTA. On June 30, 1993, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Richey ruled that the White House did indeed have to complete an EIS before sending NAFTA to Congress. The Clinton Administration asked a U.S. appeals court to reverse the decision. Solicitor General Drew S. Days III argued that the Environmental Protection Act applies to federal ITAL agencies, END ITAL not to the president, who would be in charge of implementing NAFTA. (George W. Bush’s advisors didn’t invent the imperial presidency.) A three-judge panel overruled Richey and Clinton sent an implementing bill to Congress in November ’93.

According to the NAM history, “Anti-NAFTA forces claimed they had enough votes to defeat the bill in the House, but as the House vote scheduled for November 17 approached, intense lobbying efforts by the White House and by the NAM and its members proved successful … In the end, the House approved NAFTA by a 234-200 vote.”

The difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, some say, is that the Democrats do it to us with lubrication. Poppy Bush probably could not have forced NAFTA through Congress. It took the Clinton side agreements to slide it through.

FRED GARDNER edits O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at





Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at

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