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Free-Trade: Expectations at Dizzy, Possibly Dangerous Heights

July 3, 1991

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ The idea of a continental common market is getting a hard sell in Mexico. Too hard, some say.

The media is marching in faithful lockstep with the government, preaching the gospel of free trade as the answer to Mexico’s economic malaise.

Glowing stories about the proposed accord with the United States and Canada have crammed the airwaves and the newspapers for a year.

Night after night, it has been the lead story on television. Major newspapers routinely run a dozen or more articles a day about a North America without trade barriers - a single market of more than 360 million people.

Skeptics get short shrift in the mainstream media, and only a handful of mostly opposition publications air their doubts as to whether the treaty will bring widespread prosperity or just help the rich get richer.

In recent weeks, however, there has been a subtle change in the rhythm of the pro-pact drums in Mexico. Mexico’s business and political leaders are quietly moving to crank down expectations a notch.

Will a place in what would be the world’s largest economic bloc, with an annual output in the $7 trillion range, make Mexico more democratic? Or powerful? Or rich? Or free?

A new message from the government is wafting softly through the air: Don’t expect too much too soon.

″They are beginning to worry about oversell. They realize they have raised expectations that don’t coincide with reality,″ said Sergio Aguayo Quezada, a political scientist at the highly respected Colegio de Mexico.

The administration of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is espousing the virtue of patience as a corollary to the doctrine of free trade.

″The free trade treaty is a commercial instrument, not something that will resolve all our problems ... ,″ Commerce Secretary Jaime Serra Puche cautioned recently.

The benefits of the accord won’t be clear for a decade, he said. ″Nothing will change from one day to the next.″

The business community is also moving to shape people’s thinking with a broad campaign run by the National Advertising Council.

″It’s sad, but some people back free trade without knowing much about it,″ said the council’s director, Horacio Navarro. ″Others think it will mean overnight change.″

The slogan for the $30-million pro-treaty campaign stresses the effort needed to compete in the international marketplace.

Why the move to bring down expectations?

Unrealistic - and unfulfilled - hopes carry huge political risks. The blame for disappointed dreams would fall squarely on the party that has ruled Mexico for six decades and on Salinas, the party leader.

Salinas is the prime mover behind of Mexico’s hoped-for entry into a North American common market. His decision to pursue the trade accord reverses decades of Mexican protectionist trade policy.

The irony is that the oversell was unnecessary. The idea doesn’t need a sales job. In the tradition of Mexican presidents, Salinas simply told 81 million Mexicans he was going to negotiate the treaty.

End of discussion.

Moreover, Mexicans are so desperate for a taste of prosperity, they seem to widely favor the free trade idea.

The depth of that desire - and the pain behind it - was laid bare in the debut issue of the new public opinion magazine Este Pais.

It published results of a poll commissioned by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

The survey contained a bombshell that shattered the officially nurtured myth of a Mexican nationalism so fervent that the United States is a perpetually suspect neighbor.

When asked whether they would favor merging Mexico with the United States if it wpi;d mean a better quality of life, 59 percent said yes.

Carlos Fuentes, one of Mexico’s most respected writers, said the poll ″reflects the pain of an open wound,″ the agony of a country that enjoys neither democracy nor development.

″We are living a national failure side by side with modernity’s biggest success story: the democratic, powerful, rich and free North American empire,″ he wrote in Este Pais.

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