PERSPECTIVE ON TRADE : NAFTA Needs a Boost, Not Burial : The critics' concerns will remain, whatever the treaty's fate. So improve and pass it, and everybody wins.

Gloria Molina is a Los Angeles County supervisor. Antonio Gonzalez is Latin America project director of the Southwest Voter Research Institute in Montebello. NARANJO, El Universal, Mexico City

With each day, support for the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement erodes as a host of critics bang away at this historic attempt to redefine U.S.-Mexican relations. Because of important shortcomings in the labor and environmental areas, many would like to see NAFTA rejected. But killing NAFTA is both bad public policy and socially irresponsible.

Instead, critics and supporters of NAFTA should support President Clinton's efforts to enhance the benefits and minimize the negatives of the agreement by negotiating additional trinational agreements on environmental and labor standards. Support is needed also for legislation to fund comprehensive training programs for displaced workers and increase investment for infrastructural and environmental upgrading along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In doing so, President Clinton and his trade ambassador, Mickey Kantor, must advance a new vision of North America, one in which an improved NAFTA catalyzes both economic growth and social equity. They should also set the record straight. While the agreement that former President Bush negotiated is flawed, it is not a recipe for U.S. job loss. The United States enjoys a trade surplus with Mexico, in contrast to U.S. trade deficits with many Pacific Rim nations. Translation: Far more jobs are created than lost in our commerce with Mexico. And every reputable study of the impact of NAFTA finds that the trade surplus will continue. For example, a recent study by the Southwest Voter Research Institute showed that California will gain twice as many jobs as it loses over the first five years of NAFTA's implementation.

The problem is that Mexico has become the metaphor for U.S. job flight. This metaphor is false and dangerous. It exacerbates already growing ethnic tensions and xenophobia. Rejecting NAFTA and retreating into protectionism would set U.S.-Mexico relations back a generation. It would dry up much needed U.S. private investment into the Mexican economy and precipitate an economic downturn that would cause job loss on both sides of the border. For example, in Mexico's 1982-83 debt crisis, 100,000 U.S. workers lost their jobs in the collapse of industries based heavily on trade with Mexico.

Furthermore, rejecting NAFTA would not do anything for the valid concerns raised by sincere critics. Real abuses like U.S. industry-based border pollution and non-enforcement of environmental and labor standards by companies on both sides of the border would continue unabated. Chronic Mexican poverty due to underdevelopment would continue. Nor would killing NAFTA stop multinational corporations from leaving the United States. The globalization of national economies, including ours, is inevitable.

What is the solution? Only an improved NAFTA package that addresses the valid concerns while preserving the essential benefits can gather enough public and congressional support to win approval. What should it contain? To date, the best plan has been offered by a national coalition of Latino organizations initiated by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Council of La Raza and Southwest Voter Research Institute. The coalition believes that rejecting NAFTA or passing the Bush version are both unacceptable options.

They propose a third option consisting of eight proposals hinged on the creation of a North American development bank that would effectively fund much of the spending associated with an improved NAFTA. Capitalization of the bank would come from existing tariff revenue from the NAFTA countries and national subscriptions. The bank would not increase the U.S. deficit, nor would it be a foreign-aid shill, but would efficiently generate two or three dollars for every dollar of capitalization and would invest billions in NAFTA-related infrastructural, environmental and development projects over the next 10 years.

The core of the Latino coalition's plan would:

* Increase the funding and improve the eligibility mechanism for programs for displaced workers in the United States and Puerto Rico.

* Increase investment for infrastructure and environmental upgrading along the U.S.-Mexico border.

* Enhance environmental standards, including the creation of a North American commission on the environment with appropriate oversight and enforcement powers that would not impinge on sovereignty. Special emphasis would be placed on the U.S.-Mexico border region.

* Enhance labor standards, including the creation of a North American labor commission with appropriate oversight and enforcement powers that do not impinge on sovereignty.

* Create a North American commission on migration that studies problems of labor mobility and immigration and makes proposals for reform to each government within three years.

The coalition also proposes programs that would facilitate participation by small businesses in trade with Mexico and Canada; promote economic development projects for regions where communities are especially impacted by trade-related job displacement, and promote alternative development strategies for the Caribbean-basin countries so that NAFTA does not negatively impact their economies.

In sum, it is time for reason to prevail in the NAFTA debate. The United States must listen to the solid advice offered by its Latino community: Don't reject NAFTA and Mexico; instead, support President Clinton's efforts to improve NAFTA and embrace a new partnership with our North American neighbors. This option for economic growth with social equity advances all of our interests.

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