For a summit of three countries doing nearly $1 trillion worth of business with each other every year, President Bush’s two-day meeting with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts began Monday as a decidedly low-voltage affair.
But despite the quiet start, the annual event is taking place against the backdrop of the U.S. presidential campaign, which has deepened the political sensitivity of the leaders’ efforts to expand trade and wrestle with other issues, such as immigration and border congestion.
At the end of a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Bush said that the talks came at an “opportune time” to reaffirm the trade relationship among the three countries -- an unstated reference to the campaign to succeed him.
President Felipe Calderon of Mexico was more direct, saying that the North American Free Trade Agreement “has come under criticism.” And in a photo session with Bush, he noted that although the United States was “going through an electoral process,” the two countries needed to solve immigration issues “with respect and responsibility.”
The meeting is the fourth annual conference among the leaders of the United States, Canada and Mexico to deal with mutual economic and security issues. It is the last one scheduled before Bush leaves office in January.
The summit will focus on trade, immigration, and cross-border drug and weapons smuggling, just as free-trade agreements and NAFTA in particular are under political attack more than at any time since the U.S.-Canada-Mexico agreement began eliminating tariffs and other barriers to North American trade 14 years ago.
Three-way trade among the United States, Canada and Mexico has grown since 1994 from about $290 billion to $930 billion, according to U.S. government statistics.
But Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, long an opponent of the pact, said the increase was largely the result of a “massive surge in imports” into the United States, bringing with it what the group calculated was a 691% increase in the trade deficit attributed to NAFTA.
And as fears grow that the U.S. economy has fallen into recession, supporters of the trade deal have faced calls for changes, first during the presidential primary in Ohio and now in Pennsylvania, where steel mills have closed from Pittsburgh to Bethlehem.
“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. It’s been a win-win situation,” said Dan Fisk, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs.
Tom Donohue, president and chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that Pennsylvania had benefited from NAFTA more than the United States as a whole, with 40% of its exports going to Canada and Mexico, compared with 35% of overall U.S. exports. Manufactured goods account for 94% of the state’s exports.
But Global Trade Watch said 220,000 Pennsylvanians had lost their jobs because of NAFTA and the liberalization of trade rules that accompanied the creation a year later of the World Trade Organization.
As much as the New Orleans meeting was called to promote trade with Canada and Mexico, its venue was chosen as part of the Bush administration’s effort to demonstrate the city’s readiness to host major conferences after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
With Calderon at the reopening of Mexico’s Consulate, which had been closed since 2002, Bush said he was celebrating “the comeback of a great American city.”
Bush, who was sharply criticized for his administration’s delayed response to the storm, has paid repeated visits to the Gulf Coast since 2005.
Paul Conway, chief of staff to the White House’s Gulf Coast coordinator, said the city’s convention business was about 80% of what it was before Katrina, and that tourism was at 75% of its pre-storm level.
But he said there were more restaurants than before. As if to drive home the resurgence of the restaurant business, Bush dined at Commander’s Palace, a New Orleans institution, on Monday night with Calderon and Harper.