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   Vol.65/No.33            August 27, 2001 
Protectionism marks U.S. dispute over Mexican trucks
(feature article)
As part of the ongoing debate in big-business circles over allowing Mexican truckers to cross into the United States, the U.S. Senate voted August 1 to approve a $60 billion transportation bill that imposes stringent safety checks and insurance requirements on Mexican trucking companies. Such access by trucks from Mexico is one provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Citing "safety violations," sponsors of the legislation have included 22 restrictions that would delay open access on U.S. highways. The U.S. House of Representatives had already passed a measure in June that prohibits Mexican truckers from traveling beyond 20 miles into the United States.

U.S. president George Bush said he would veto the bill if it contains any such restrictions because they violate NAFTA.

President Vicente Fox of Mexico responded to the Senate vote by declaring at a news conference that no commercial U.S. trucks will be allowed into Mexico "unless we reach a mutual, equitable, and well-thought-out agreement on the issue."

Under the NAFTA agreement between the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican governments, which took effect in 1994, long-haul trucks from Mexico were supposed to be allowed to travel into California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico by the end of 1995 and throughout the rest of the United States in 2001.

President William Clinton, however, blocked those provisions and imposed the 20-mile restriction. A five-member NAFTA arbitration panel has ruled that Washington is in violation of the pact's trucking provision by imposing the travel restrictions.

Most of the debate over blocking the Mexican trucks from U.S. highways has focused on "safety" concerns. "There's going to be blood on the highway," declared Rep. Peter DeFazio, one of the Congresspeople who backed the 20-mile limit. The Teamsters union officialdom, tying the fate of truck drivers to the profit interests of the U.S. trucking barons, have carried out a protectionist campaign under the pretext that "unsafe trucks coming up from Mexico" could cause an "untold number of catastrophes." They and Democratic politicians have cited statistics involving inspections of Mexican trucks that supposedly prove them unworthy of crossing the 2,100-mile border and carrying cargo across U.S. roads.  
What about safety of U.S. trucks?
Proponents of limiting Mexican trucks assert that 36 percent of those vehicles failed safety checks last year compared to 25 percent of U.S. trucks. They failed to mention, however, what should be done about those thousands of U.S. trucks that came up short on the safety inspection.

The day after the Senate approved its restrictions on Mexican trucking firms, the New York Times noted in an article that the safety statistics cited are "misleading or incomplete." It reports that "there appear to be little or no data to prove that Mexican long-haul trucks and truckers are far more dangerous than their American counterparts, experts say." Those trucks that cross the U.S. border are short-haul trucks used solely to travel short distances from terminals in Mexico to depots in the United States.

In fact, the Times article states, the U.S. "trucking industry has its own safety problems. Accidents that involve heavy trucks have killed an average of 5,000 people a year for the past 15 years." And the 25 percent of U.S. trucks that failed roadside inspections were mostly long-haul trucks, it adds.

The bulk of the $250 billion in annual trade between Mexico and the United States is conducted through trucking across the border. All goods crossing the Mexico-U.S. border are handled by short-haul drayage companies. Long-haul trucks transfer their trailers to short-haul trucks, which transport the goods across the border. If the 20-mile restriction was lifted, fewer than 20 long-distance trucking companies in Mexico would be prepared to enter the U.S. market to compete with thousands of U.S. firms.

Over time, U.S. trucking companies may buy up Mexican carriers, said Duane Acklie, chairman of the American Trucking Association, which represents 3,000 trucking firms.

Meanwhile, despite the Bush administration's pretensions about "free trade," the U.S. Commerce Department announced August 10 that it was slapping a 19 percent tariff on softwood lumber from Canada. U.S. lumber industry bosses claim the measure is needed to combat "illegal subsidies" provided by Canada's provincial governments to lumber firms in that country, reported the Reuters news agency. In a trade conflict that has been going for at least 20 years, they claimed the subsidies have caused U.S. mill closings and job losses.

If the duty is upheld, it would cost lumber companies in Canada an estimated $2 billion a year in lost business. Last year Canada shipped 18.3 billion board-feet of softwood lumber to the United States, which was worth about $6.4 billion and accounted for one-third of the U.S. market.

Canadian international trade minister Pierre Pettigrew weighed in on the side of lumber bosses in that country. He condemned the Bush administration for "bowing to protectionist interests.... On one hand they're talking free trade, on the other they're proceeding" with the duty. He said Ottawa would "continue to defend the rights of the Canadian softwood lumber industry."
Related article:
Mexico peasants demand government relief  
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