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Nothing is tougher for politicians and editorial writers than admitting a mistake.

Two years ago, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was ratified by the Congress amidst a tidal wave of propaganda and promises from corporate America and the Clinton Administration and echoed on the editorial pages of many of the nation’s most powerful publications. There seemed to be little that was wrong that would not be put right by NAFTA.

But, few of the promises stand up against the cold hard reality of NAFTA. Already there has been a net job loss of over 400,000 U. S. jobs to Mexico and Canada, according to the criteria of pro-NAFTA private economists in Washington, D. C.

Take the case of the Maquiladoras, the flimsy factories that dotted the Mexican border in recent years as U. S. companies scrambled to maximize profits with cheap labor and non-existent environmental standards. As Congress prepared to vote in 1993, the nation was told that the concentration of Maquiladoras and their threats to the environment and health would be dispersed throughout Mexico under NAFTA and that the massive pollution along the border would be a thing of the past.

But, the Maquiladoras have multiplied, not diminished. Pollution continues to run rampant.

As the Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin, wrote earlier this month:

“In the two years since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect on January 1, 1994, the unregulated stampede by U. S. businesses to open factories just south of the Mexican border has turned an environmental danger zone into North America’s cesspool.”

NAFTA’S BROKEN PROMISES: THE BORDER BETRAYED, a report prepared by Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, notes that the work force at the border Maquiladoras has increased by 20 percent since NAFTA went into effect while promises to improve water, sewage disposal and infrastructure have largely been postponed or abandoned.

For example, raw sewage was dumped into the Rio Grande River at Juarez at the rate of 55 million gallons each day in 1993. As a selling point, NAFTA proponents promised that the area would get a new sewage facility that would cure the problem. But that promise, like so many of the bland assurances about NAFTA, remains unmet as raw sewage continues to flow down the Rio Grande.

As a result, the river remains so contaminated by fecal matter in the El Paso-Juarez area that even skin contact is dangerous because of possible exposure to cholera and hepatitis.

Dr. Laurence N. Nickey, Director of the El Paso City-County Health and Environmental District, estimates that by the time children are eight years old in colonies on the U. S. side of the border “approximately 35 percent have been infected with hepatitis-A and by the time they are 35 years old, 85 to 90 percent have it”.

The chasm between the promises and the reality of NAFTA are immense, even by the standards of Washington where promises have a notoriously brief shelf life. But, NAFTA is no ordinary issue. Its impact on U. S. jobs, health and the environment touches every sector of the nation.

Some of the promises for NAFTA undoubtedly were the rawest form of political propaganda based on the imperative of ramming the agreement through Congress before the issues of health and environmental safety became too widely known. Other promises may have been sincere, if misguided, hopes.

Whatever the motivation for the Clinton Administration and the Congress to link arms with corporate America in 1993, the need now is for a different agreement that will protect health and environmental standards in both the U.S. and Mexico and provide an ongoing mechanism for public oversight of the agreement and its impact on people.

It may be traumatic for politicians to admit error. But political egos need to be laid aside when the health and prosperity of the nation is at stake. It is not too late to adopt new agreements that will recognize people’s rights in Mexico, Canada and the U.S.

Let’s challenge those who tossed out so many rosy promises in 1993 to gain passage of NAFTA. Lets challenge them to come up with agreements that make those promises realities–realities for people, not just for corporations looking for a one-way, all-expense trip to Mexico.

This is one of those even-numbered years, and this means that you will be seeing a lot more of your elected officials in coming months. This is a chance to find out where they stand on protecting health and the environment–on changing NAFTA to a people’s pact or getting out of this agreement before more South American nations get in.