Mr. Volpe prefers the time-tested method of transferring goods across the border. First, U.S. trucks arrive at the 20-mile-wide border commercial zone. They deliver their cargo to a “drayage” hauler who ferries it across the commercial zone to the border, where it is picked up by a Mexican truck that takes it to freight yards or warehouses in the interior. Then the hauler tries to find something to bring back to deliver in the United States. When these Mexican products reach the border, the process works in reverse.
“That is the way it worked before, during, and after NAFTA,” says Volpe. “Why do we want to change it now?”
Earlier this year, a bipartisan coalition in the House of Representatives prevailed in the 285–143 vote to reject a measure that would give Mexican trucks safety permits to operate in the United States. Subsequently, President Bush threatened to veto any Senate bill that upholds the ban. Political observers say the two sides remain deadlocked, and if the issue isn’t resolved, the Mexican government may retaliate by not allowing U.S. trucks into Mexico. Moreover, the truck issue forebodes a debate over TPA. If Congress doesn’t support TPA in 2001, its chances for passage will dim as the 2002 elections heat up.
The votes of three leading Hispanic congressmen from Texas are not in question. Henry Bonilla, a Republican from San Antonio, Ruben Hinojosa, a Democrat from the lower Rio Grande Valley, and Mr. Silvestre of El Paso support allowing Mexican trucks into the United States. Mr. Bonilla, the only Hispanic Republican in the Texas delegation, represents an area that has boomed since NAFTA. “Tens of thousands of people who work for small businesses in the district benefit from free trade,” he says. “In cities like San Antonio, these include auto supply firms, construction, housing, parts suppliers, custom brokers, and shipping companies. With the boom in small business, I can’t imagine why anyone would not support this.”
Mr. Bonilla remembers 20 years ago, when unemployment in border towns like Laredo hovered between 20 and 30 percent.
Today “it is under 10 [percent],” he says. “That may be high compared to the national standard, but we have seen the benefits of trade.”
“Our district has paid a disproportionate price initially in terms of infrastructure and worker displacement [for NAFTA],” says Mr. Reyes, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “But now it is a definitive plus in terms of jobs created, and we make the argument of how NAFTA has helped the border in general and El Paso in particular.” On the question of trucking, he maintains that “both sides will have to invest to make sure the trucks are safe and comply with load limits.”
At one point, Mr. Bonilla asked his congressional colleagues why they didn’t object to Canadian drivers crossing the border. Mr. Volpe answers that Canadian truckers are welcome because they speak English and because their salaries and their trucking laws are similar. When testifying before Congress, the president of the American Trucking Association set the record straight on these discriminatory issues. Duane W. Acklie stated that since 1991, the Department of Transportation has recognized Mexican standards for issuing truck drivers’ licenses as equivalent to U.S. standards. He rejected the idea that drivers must speak the language of the country they drive in by citing how European drivers traverse many countries with different languages on a regular basis.
For Mr. Mohatarem of General Motors, the battle over details isn’t surprising. In the past, much of the NAFTA debate dealt with how many jobs would be gained or lost. Now, he says, people associate NAFTA with one of the greatest economic booms in U.S. history and significant economic gains in Mexico. But exposure to different business practices and new competitors presents a challenge.
And in the automotive industry, it’s a welcome one. Facundo Bravo, CEO of Uni-Boring Inc., an auto part supplier with revenues of $115 million (to rank number 33 on the HISPANIC BUSINESS 500), has seen his business increase as more cars are exported to Canada and Mexico. NAFTA “has made the process of doing international business easier, less expensive, and less cumbersome,” Mr. Bravo reports, but he believes the best is yet to come. NAFTA’s real impact will hit in 10 to 15 years when many more small and minority companies have gone global in their search for profits. It’s an eventuality, Mr. Bravo says, that all CEOs should prepare for.
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