SUPPORTERS OF THE PROPOSED U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement promise that the treaty will be a boon to U.S. companies. The only discernable increase in business so far, however, has taken place in the U.S. public relations and lobbying industry, in which the Mexican government has invested millions in a campaign to push the free trade agreement past popular opposition.
Over the past several years, as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has made its way through a negotiation process marked by controversy and secrecy, and has faced an increasingly skeptical and hostile U.S. public, the Mexican government has joined U.S. corporate proponents of the treaty in waging a massive public relations and lobbying campaign in U.S. history. A Multinational Monitor review of records on file at the Department of Justice reveal the Mexican government has added at least $10 million to a pro-NAFTA corporate war chest of tens of millions of dollars.
The effort by the Mexican government and its corporate allies to control the terms of U.S. public debate over NAFTA is all the more significant because of the "fast-track" procedure by which the U.S. Congress will vote on the trade pact. Under fast-track, adopted in 1991, Congress must vote up or down on the voluminous agreement and its implementing legislation - with no amendments permitted - within 60 to 90 days of their legislative introduction. Formal floor debate is limited to 20 hours. Because Congress has precluded itself from engaging in a critical and thorough analysis and investigation of the likely effects of NAFTA, only an outraged and mobilized U.S. public is likely to be able to derail the trade deal.
Free trade pushers
Under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), firms and individuals representing foreign parties, such as corporations or governments, must register with the United States Department of Justice. They must include copies of their contracts, descriptions of services to be performed and copies of any information which is disseminated on behalf of the clients, including letters, news releases, pamphlets, videotapes and press kits. FARA records are public documents, and form the basis of this article; unidentified quotations are from FARA documents.
Unfortunately, the act is so weakly worded and enforced that FARA records are far from exhaustive. "Those records are a joke," laments Charles Lewis, founder and executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a group which monitors ethics in government. As a result, it is only possible to estimate the minimum amount the Mexican government has paid public relations, lobbying and law firms. Even so, the amount is staggering, easily topping $5 million per year since 1991. Mexican Embassy officials declined to provide Multinational Monitor with an official tally.
At the center of the Mexican government's network of hired guns is the public relations (PR) giant Burson-Marsteller. The firm earned fees of $3,989,320 in 1991 and $3,855,996 last year from the Mexican Ministry of Commerce and Industrial Development (SECOFI) alone. Its current SECOFI contract runs through the end of 1993, but has yet to be filed with the Justice Department. Burson-Marsteller also has two separate accounts with the Mexican government, earning well over a total of $1 million from the Office of the President and the Ministry of Fisheries for NAFTA-related work. To secure passage of the agreement, Burson- Marsteller has prepared numerous reports, press releases and video news releases. When officials of the global General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) upheld Mexico's challenge to the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act in August 1991, sparking public outrage, Burson-Marsteller immediately issued press and video releases proclaiming Mexico's commitment to dolphin protection. Generally, the company's public relations transmissions have focused on jobs, the environment and support for NAFTA among Latino Americans. Burson-Marsteller has targeted newspapers, radio and TV stations, civic groups, public officials, press services, educational institutions and industry groups for dissemination of pro-NAFTA information.
The Mexican government hired Burson-Marsteller "basically to help get their [the Mexican government's pro-NAFTA] message out," the firm's senior vice president Richard Moore told Multinational Monitor. Critics, however, see the coordinated public relations campaign as more a distortion than a simple "message."
"There should not be a need to have an elaborate construction of smoke and mirrors and grassroots fifty-state campaigns," warns Lewis. "There becomes a political question ... [about] the process itself and whether it's being distorted."
In addition to Burson-Marsteller, SECOFI has hired several regional public relations firms, targeting key border states in the U.S. Southwest. Campos Communications, Inc., which operates out of Houston, has worked closely with Burson-Marsteller in disseminating prepared pamphlets and news releases throughout Texas, as well as "discuss[ing] the Free Trade Agreement with various civic, political and business groups." SECOFI paid Campos Communications approximately $278,000 in fees and expenses in 1992. Moya, Villanueva & Associates has performed a similar role in California. Employing seven public relations workers to "Contact business re: voicing NAFTA support to Congressional representatives," "Position NAFTA with media," "Coordinate speaking opportunities for supporters of NAFTA," and "Produce and distribute news releases and prepare briefing packages," among other activities, Moya, Villanueva earned at least $600,000 from the Mexican government in 1992. SECOFI has also hired two former governors of New Mexico, Toney Anaya and Jerry Apodaca, to hold meetings and seminars with "ethnic and racial minority groups, workers, environmentalists and other interest groups ... and help mobilize the support of those interests in Congress for the passage of a final Free Trade Agreement."
Distorting the debate
Citizens' groups maintain that the Mexican government's vast lobbying campaign distorts the debate on the agreement. A case in point involves a Princeton University study examining the relationship between different countries' per-capita income and their relative levels of air pollution. Cited by both Burson-Marsteller officials and the Mexican government's press kits as evidence that NAFTA will raise - not lower - environmental standards in Mexico, the study has been cited in major newspaper articles. A February 25, 1992 San Francisco Chronicle article, (included in a separate Mexican government press kit on the environment), for example, reported that the study by economists Gene Grossman and Alan Krueger "indicates that by enriching Mexico, the regional free-trade zone would heighten that country's sensitivity to the environment and give it the resources to manage critical pollution problems." The study was cited three months later in a May 2 Chronicle opinion piece by California Governor Pete Wilson as strong evidence that "free trade is simply the best way to ensure sustainable development for developing nations."
No mention in news reports is made of the conditions under which the study was commissioned and presented. The study appears to be an independent, academic assessment of the probable effects of a NAFTA on environmental conditions in Mexico.
The Monitor learned, however, that the study was commissioned for a conference on NAFTA held at Brown University and funded by SECOFI. "If you trace it back, that's where the money came from," Grossman acknowledges. Peter Garber, the Brown University professor of economics who first proposed the conference to SECOFI, told the Monitor that SECOFI paid participating academics' transportation costs to Brown as well as giving them stipends. According to Garber, the conference was held and participants selected as "simply a way of getting at a lot of [hemispheric trade] issues that had not yet really been studied." Burson-Marsteller's Moore ridiculed suggestions that SECOFI may have influenced the studies, telling the Monitor that direct interference is unneccessary. "It's more a matter of wading through the studies that are already out there," said Moore. "You name it, and you can find your study going in any direction you want it to go," he said. Mexican trade officials declined to comment either on the conference or on SECOFI funding of academic projects in general.
Similarly, Burson-Marsteller has prepared a slick press kit entitled "A Better Mexico; a Better Environment," which includes fact sheets, favorable press clippings (including mention of the Grossman/Krueger study), and an attractive brochure proclaiming Mexico's commitment to cleaning up the border maquiladora zone. Such cosmetic attention to the very real environmental problems facing Mexico, critics say, typifies the country's approach to such issues. Despite the Mexican government's assurances of increasing enforcement, compliance with Mexico's relatively strict environmental regulations remains low. Even by the government's own estimate, highlighted in its press kit, only slightly more than half of all maquiladora facilities "comply with [their] operating licenses." (The maquilas are manufacturing plants located along the U.S.-Mexico border which produce solely for export; they have been widely cited by NAFTA critics as examples of the environmental and labor problems which would accompany the proposed free trade agreement.) Primitivo Rodriguez, director of the American Friends Service Committee's Mexico - U.S. Border Program, put the percentage of complying factories much lower. "At least 80 percent of the maquilas do not comply with labor and environmental standards," Rodriquez told the Monitor.
The lobbyists themselves characterize their work as simply an attempt on the part of the Mexican Government to consider the concerns of a wide range of citizen interests in the United States in planning the agreement. Says Anaya, "It's been an outreach effort to do two things: one, to get Mexico more familiar with the political climate in this country and to respond to that in a positive fashion; secondly, to increase knowledge about Mexico - and the changes in Mexico over the last several years - in all sectors of the United States."
But critics describe the campaign as a deliberate attempt to defuse popular criticism. Even some supporters of the North American Free Trade Agreement agree that the Mexican government should devote its resources to doing "outreach" in Mexico rather than in the United States. Stewart Hudson, of the National Wildlife Federation, one of only five environmental advocacy groups allowed to take part as an official advisor in the negotiations, says, "I'm sorry to see that the Mexican government spent as much as it did on public relations as opposed to ... opening up to listening to their own NGOs [Non- Governmental Organizations]."
Critics charge that the Mexican government is extremely closed to NGOs and other dissenting voices, often resorting to harsh measures to silence unwanted voices. "Always from the government you will find the bad cop and the good cop," Rodriguez says. "Most of the time what the government wants to do is to be able to deal with NGOs in order to coopt [them] or in order to undermine their effectiveness....The other option - that is always there, and [which] can be used at any time - is the stick, from repression to suppression to arrest."
The lack of access for dissenting voices both in Mexico and the United States emphasizes the potential for distortion which critics see in the Mexican government's public relations effort. "The dimension of it becomes an issue," insists Lewis. "I have all the early signs that this is a major, major, possibly unprecedented effort," he says.
Hard to sell
Mexico's lobbyists defend their work by pointing to the outspokenness of their opponents. "There's a pretty good amount being spent on the other side," Moore contends. "I certainly don't think the other side has had any problem getting their message out."
The amount of money being spent in opposition to the NAFTA is comparatively low, however. The Citizen Trade Campaign, the central coalition opposed to the agreement, has a budget of only several hundred thousand dollars.
The ultimate question is the effect efforts on both sides will have on the pending trade agreement. The Mexican government is banking on the ability of the firms it has hired to overcome popular opposition to the agreement in the United States.
NAFTA's critics, on the other hand, hope that the effects of the Mexican effort will be neutralized once enough people in the United States become aware of the amount of money involved in the attempt to convince them to support the agreement. "If this thing has enough merit and substance on its own through sheer logic and weight of the ideas," wonders Lewis, "why is it that hard to sell?"
|Burson-Marsteller||Public Relations||1992: $3,855,996|
|Moya, Villanueva & Ass.||Public Relations||1992: $600,000|
|Apodaca, Sosa & Ass.||Public Relations||1992: $174,000|
|Guerra & Ass.||Public Relations/Lobbying||1992: $90,000|
|Campos Communications||Public Relations||1992: $240,000|
|Abelardo Valdez||Law/consulting||1991/92: $444,000|
|Toney Anaya||Public Relations||1992: $60,500|
|Charls Walker Ass.||Lobbying||12/90-12/92: $606,000|
|Manchester Trade||Consulting||1991: $98,000|
|Pantin Partnership||Law||1991: $642,124.70|
In fact, according to the USTR, only six environmentalists (including one Environmental Protection Agency representative) have been included in the negotiation process among the 270 official outside advisors. The Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations, the most influential of the U.S. advisory committees in these negotiations, includes only one environmentalist, one farm representative and one labor representative along with 42 corporate executives. The negotiation process "was never designed to actually incorporate any of the positions or proposals of the environmental community," says Greenpeace's Cam Duncan. "All the way around, this was a trade deal negotiated in secret."