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Richardson’s appointment as Secretary of Commerce

Is Richardson’s appointment as Secretary of Commerce good news for NAFTA’s revitalization? It certainly is good news for the region’s self-esteem

Enthusiastic free trader could mean cosmetic fusting of NAFTA and big boost for Bush’s Colombia free trade measure

President-elect Barack Obama’s designated appointment for Secretary of Commerce, Bill Richardson, was welcomed with gusto on Thursday, December 4, after a visit by him to Mexico. Richardson, currently New Mexico’s governor, spoke out during a visit to the city of Puebla, where his mother has lived for 95 years. He then attended a meeting with businessmen at the private University of the Americas in Cholula, a town close to Mexico City, a day after Obama appointed him to his new cabinet position. Richardson had been invited to speak to the university audience by Mexico’s former foreign minister, Luis Ernesto Derbez, now the university’s president. Richardson, who grew up in Mexico, said: “It’s great to be back in Mexico, great to be at this great university which I’ve had a long association with.” He also underlined the importance of the Latino community during Obama’s campaign: “Obama is well aware of the importance of Mexico and the Hispanic community because it was very important in his victory, especially in states like New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Florida,” Richardson observed in Spanish.

A man for these times
Another important aspect of Richardson’s personality profile is his open style, his personal integrity and his progressive attitudes. Perhaps more so than any other member of the Obama administration, Richardson supports the launching of a political process that could lead to the normalization of relations with Cuba and the immediate augmentation of unfettered trade with the island. In fact, Richardson is likely to be the only member of the Obama cabinet who has ever talked with Castro, which took place a number of years ago during Fidel Castro’s last trip to New York. With Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, the danger is that U.S. regional policy under Obama will be pushed in a contrasting direction and that Washington will not be inclined to take into adequate account the new directions that the region has taken when it comes to autonomy and the plurality and diversification of Latin America’s attitude to the rest of the world and the diffusion of its relationships. More so than anyone in the Obama cabinet, probably even Obama himself, Richardson is in touch with these hemispheric trends and could be of inestimable value to the new administration, in presenting a new face to the region and a definitive end to the fallow relations that Washington has had towards the region.

As Secretary of Commerce, Richardson will succeed another Latino, Carlos Gutierrez, but are of a far different stripe. Richardson in particular has had a broad and brilliant career, having served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Energy Secretary under President Bill Clinton. When nominating him last week in Chicago, Obama characterized Richardson as “a leading economic diplomat for America.”

Will a pro-free trade Democrat Richardson advance the cause of NAFTA’s renegotiation?
Derbez, during the gathering at the Mexican university, deflected questions directed at Richardson about the future fate of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). “We won’t give any answers to those questions,” he was quick to say.

President-elect Obama’s choice of Richardson, once invidiously described as a NAFTA “cheerleader,” as his Secretary of Commerce, alongside Rahm Emmanuel’s appointment to be the White House’s Chief of Staff, means that two key survivors from Bill Clinton’s unsuccessful battle to obtain the ratification of the FTAA and the bilateral trade deals with Colombia and Panama are now available to get the new administrations trade deals -if that is the way it chooses to go- through Congress.

Bill Richardson
Richardson has been an enthusiastic backer of NAFTA since Bill Clinton’s strong initiative in favor of the U.S. trade pact with Canada and Mexico. This is in marked contrast to the average Democratic legislators typical reluctance to back the measure in Congress during his first term in 1993. In August of that year, Democrat David Bonior of Michigan announced that he would use the staff and facilities of the House Whip’s office to marshal opposition to the free trade pact with Mexico. Richardson, a congressman at the time, broke with Bonior and the House leadership, and sided with the White House.

Indeed, Richardson served with Rahm Emanuel, now the president-elect’s chief of staff, as Clinton’s point-man on the NAFTA legislation in the House. The free trade agreement narrowly passed and it became law in spite of the fact that a majority of the House and Senate Democrats voted against it. As a result of his stalwart performance, Richardson’s profile rose and Clinton rewarded the New Mexico Congressman by naming him U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The appointments of Emanuel and Richardson, along with Obama’s choice of Timothy Geithner as U.S Treasure Secretary and Lawrence Summers as head of the National Economic Council are seen as solid indicators that Obama will likely ignore protectionist pressure from Democrats in Congress and move away from his campaign pledge to investigate renegotiating the U.S.-Canada-Mexico deal, a possibility Obama raised at a Feb. 26 debate during the Democratic primaries.

Obama’s choice of Xavier Becerra: A step back from the NAFTA agreement’s renegotiation?
But a different signal is being sent by Obama’s choice of Xavier Becerra as U.S. trade representative. Becerra, a Democratic congressman from California, was reported to be scheduled for a meeting with Obama in Chicago last week and is expected to emerge as the top trade official in the president-elect’s administration. While he voted to back NAFTA in 1993, Becerra emerged as a leading opponent of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) and recently joined with other Democrats to block the pending free trade measure with Colombia.

“Getting a U.S. trade representative who is on record against the NAFTA trade model … is a huge change from both the Bush administration and the Clinton administration,” wrote author and liberal political commentator David Sirota. “The selection suggests Obama is serious about reforming our trade policies, and it should be applauded.”

Bill Richardson: A real free-trader
The Secretary of Commerce, along with other responsibilities, is heavily charged with, promoting U.S. international trade. As such, he is charged with for developing this nation’s trade policy and for advising the president on trade issues. Obama, in explaining his appointment of Richardson, stated that: “[Richardson] understands that the success of today’s business in Detroit or Columbus often depends on whether it can sell products in places like Santiago or Shanghai.”

The 61-year-old Richardson has said on occasion that he thought NAFTA should be renegotiated, but he never followed the lead of Obama’s, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, or the thinking of former North Carolina Senator John Edwards in using the pact as a “punching bag” to appease his labour constituency. “I voted for NAFTA,” he said in one pre-primary season interview. “I thought it was healthy. I’m generally a free-trader. On the whole, I believe NAFTA was positive, but NAFTA failed to adequately deal with three issues,” Richardson said. It proved disappointing when it came to dealing with environmental protection and workers’ rights and wages. He never apologized for his support of NAFTA, but said he thought future trade pacts should include better labour and environmental standards. Richardson maintains that NAFTA’s record shows a “slight plus” due to the jobs it had created along the border. At the same time, he said, NAFTA has cost plenty of jobs in the Midwest. Also, the side agreements have been a “joke.” He moderated these remarks by saying he was a “free-trade Democrat,” which is an “endangered species” in the Democratic Party.

Moreover, Richardson’s recent remarks to the Council of Foreign Affairs placed some of his main concerns within the context of the Mexican economy and the border region’s commercial ties. Currently, an estimated 11-12 million undocumented workers, most of them Mexicans, live in the United States, and each year means another 5 or 6 hundred thousand “illegals” cross the border.

Richardson and Calderon’s point of view about NAFTA
Richardson attributed the recent concentrated wave of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. to a failure to implement side agreements into the core of NAFTA which should have then led to job creation, environmental protection and infrastructural development in Mexico, other than pressuring them to join those attempting to migrate to the U.S.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s conservative government strongly opposes reopening NAFTA to possible revisions. With spirit, he recently defended free trade before APEC’s 21 Pacific Rim summit leaders on November 21, which included outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush, who banded together against a discernible drift to protectionism amid the current financial crisis. The Mexican government’s view on free trade is clear: “If you eliminate the benefits of free trade, you eliminate many of the opportunities for jobs and for growth for both Americans and Mexicans,” President Calderon told reporters after the summit in Lima, Peru. “I will make sure that we re-negotiate in the same way that Senator Clinton talked about,” Obama said a few days ago, referring to the trade pact. “I think we should use the hammer of a potential opt-out as leverage to ensure that we actually get labor and environmental standards that are enforced.”

On the other hand, Mexican Agriculture Secretary Alberto Cardenas said he thought it was “a little remote” that the United States would actually try to renegotiate the trade agreement, implemented in 1994. “If in the campaign, at some given moment in some American state, the president-elect was heard to make such a statement, I think we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves,” an incredulous Cardenas announced to reporters. “I see it as a little remote that such a re-negotiation would actually take place.

U.S. labor groups adamantly insist that the trade accord has cost American jobs, but many Mexican and U.S. officials have expressed their conviction that NAFTA and other free trade pacts have had a positive effect in terms of boosting trade and employment on both sides of the border. Calderon also appealed to Obama’s leadership team to help it resolve the global financial crisis and its effects in Central and South America, imploring that developing economies aren’t made to suffer too much during these economic hard times.

Bill Richardson’s main challenge will be to become the ambassador for a new U.S plan for economic recovery. The perspectives are complex and will be difficult because any U.S. economic malaise is likely to be accompanied by a significant popular thrust for the NAFTA agreement. Meanwhile, Obama’s team most likely will look to improve U.S.-Mexico relations in the areas of trade, drug trafficking, environmental protection and workers’ rights and wages. Obama’s choice of the gentle caudillo Bill Richardson, for all these reasons, can be easily argued as representing a spectacular step in the right direction.


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