For Many, Decade-Old NAFTA Hasn't Lived Up to Expectations

Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON - As President Bill Clinton battled for passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement a decade ago, St. Louis-based Lectro Engineering Co. was among the many companies that looked to a surge in business with Mexico and Canada.

Two executives from Lectro even took part in the showiest part of Clintons lobbying effort an event in the White House that featured endorsements from former presidents George Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.

But as NAFTA marks its 10th anniversary on Thursday, debate still abounds over its effects, good and bad.

The Administration of President George W Bush touts NAFTA’s benefits, including a near tripling of cross-border trade. But the Democratic presidential field cites steep job losses in textile, steel and other industries as proof of what went wrong.

For companies like Lectro, a specialty plastics manufacturer now based in Overland, the most striking thing about NAFTA, at least so far, is that nothing much changed.

“The effect has been minimal,” said Lee Hyde, Lectro’s chief operating officer. He said company exports to Mexico remained negligible no more than $10,000 a year. He says economic setbacks and bureaucratic obstacles in Mexico have proved more important than the reductions in trade barriers.

“I don’t think NAFTA has had an effect either way as much as people had thought,” Hyde said. “I don’t think it’s been as tragic as Ross Perot thought it was going to be,” he said, referring to the independent presidential candidate who spoke of the “giant sucking sound” of American jobs draining south.

“But on the other hand,” Hyde added, “if things with NAFTA were so good, why are so many Mexicans still coming (illegally) to the United States.”