NAFTA Concerns Take Center Stage at Symposium on Hemispheric Integration and Global Competitiveness

May 8, 2009

By Diana Washington Valdez / El Paso Times

Kent Shingetomi Kent Shingetomi, an official with the U.S. Trade Representative, spoke at the Symposium on Hemispheric Integration and Global Competitiveness conference Friday at UTEP's El Paso Natural Gas Conference Center. (Rudy Gutierrez / El Paso Times)

EL PASO -- The White House is reviewing the North American Free Trade Agreement, but there is no indication it plans to renegotiate the pact, said Kent Shigetomi, an U.S. trade official who spoke Friday at the University of Texas at El Paso.

The U.S. government is not shrinking back from trade, because "the truth is, we need to expand trade to grow our economy," and with other regions in the world in addition to Mexico and Canada, said Shigetomi, director of the Office of Mexico, NAFTA and the Caribbean Affairs, of the U.S. Trade Representative in Washington.

He was the keynote speaker Friday, the first day of the two-day Symposium on Hemispheric Integration and Global Competitiveness at the campus.

NAFTA, a 15-year-old trade accord designed to ease trade among the United States, Canada and Mexico, ended tariffs on schedule or ahead of the timetable. The last tariffs to fall in 2008, for U.S. exports to Mexico, were for corn, beans and nonfat dry milk.

Trade proponents have voiced concerns that President Obama might renegotiate NAFTA to respond to lingering labor and environmental issues. But last month, U.S. Ambassador Ron Kirk, the U.S. trade representative, said such issues "can be addressed without having to reopen the (trade) agreement."

"I don't think NAFTA should be touched," said Manuel Padron-Castillo, a national partner with Baker & McKenzie, a law firm that lobbied for passage of the free-trade agreement.

The conference also featured representatives from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, the Border Trade Alliance, the maquiladora industry and the UTEP Center for Inter-American and Border studies.

Former El Paso Mayor Joe Wardy, vice president for strategic initiatives for Stagecoach Cartage and Distribution, said his company faces daily challenges in transporting goods across the U.S.-Mexico border. He said companies in Asia are among his company's biggest customers.

Wardy said Mexican carriers unfairly became victims of stereotypes that kept the U.S. government from giving Mexican truckers the right to travel into the interior of the United States.

But "we're committed more than ever to growth on the border," Wardy said.

Bill Gilmer, economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in El Paso, said trade affects communities in the border region. The recession in the United States, he said, "is intimately tied to trade."

For example, the problems in the U.S. auto industry have led to a downturn in the maquila industry in Juárez and other Mexican cities. Gilmer also said the Mexican peso has lost 30 percent of its value against the dollar since August.

Others at the conference at the El Paso Natural Gas Center voiced complaints about the long waits at the U.S. border crossings that hurt retail trade in El Paso.

Mike Breitinger, of the El Paso Central Business Association, which represents 500 retailers in the Downtown, said a lack of Customs and Border Protection officers to staff the crossings is responsible for the two- and three-hour waits at the international bridges.

Insecurity related to drug violence has added a caveat to the long waits on the Mexican side of the border.

Juárez resident Erika Dominguez, a graduate student at UTEP, said she had to wait 90 minutes to cross the Bridge of Americas to come to El Paso. Then she had to wait an additional 2 hours and 20 minutes after crossing into Juárez to comply with a new inspection by soldiers at the Mexican border.

"The soldiers even apologized but said they had to do it," she said.

Diana Washington Valdez may be reached at; 546-6140.


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