The leaders of Canada, Mexico and the United States meet here Monday for the annual summit of the North American Free Trade Agreement, amid sharp criticism of the pact in the US presidential race.
As US President George W. Bush meets with his Mexican counterpart, Felipe Calderon, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in New Orleans, US workers' unions and the Democratic White House hopefuls have lambasted NAFTA.
Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who are battling for the Democratic nomination, have warned that they are willing to re-negotiate parts of the agreement if elected president in November.
NAFTA, which aims to eliminate tariffs on products traded between the three countries, came into effect on January 1, 1994 under Clinton's husband, then-president Bill Clinton.
The trade pact has been a frequent target of labor union charges that it has helped bleed the United States of manufacturing jobs.
"The leaders will probably use the event to underscore the importance of NAFTA at a time when the agreement is coming under fire from the Democratic candidates in the primary race," said Peter DeShazo at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Dan Fisk, the US National Security Council's senior director for the Western Hemisphere, defended NAFTA.
US officials "are aware that some of the statements that have been made (by Clinton and Obama) have made actually bigger headlines in Canada and Mexico than they have here," Fisk said.
"We think NAFTA works," Fisk added. "We think the record of its past 14 years shows that it works. There's nothing broken. Why fix a success?"
Canada is the main US trade partner, and Mexico is its third, Fisk said.
"In terms of three-way trade, as of last year, it was 930 billion dollars," he said.
"That comes to about 2.5 billion dollars in trade in goods and services on a daily basis. We expect that number to reach the one-trillion-dollar mark by the end of this year."
Trade with Canada and Mexico "is 30 percent of the total global trade of the United States," said Fisk.
DeShazo said the leaders will probably "also use the occasion to express support for regional free trade, including the US-Colombia trade agreement pending ratification," he said.
Colombia signed the trade pact with the United States, but it is stuck in the US Congress, whose Democratic majority has demanded that President Alvaro Uribe improve union protection and investigate links between government officials and far-right paramilitaries.
Bush on Saturday urged US congressional leaders to reconsider their opposition to the Colombia trade deal, arguing that there is "a strategic imperative" to approving the measure.
"By obstructing this agreement, Congress is signaling to a watching hemisphere that America cannot be trusted to support its friends," Bush said in his weekly radio address.
On the margins of the main event the three leaders will also likely discuss issues including intellectual property and the safety of trans-border commerce. Immigration may also be on the table, Fisk said.
Bush and Calderon are scheduled Monday to inaugurate a new Mexican consulate in New Orleans, a city still recovering from the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The population of Mexicans in the state of Louisiana, where New Orleans is located, is currently around 83,000 -- a 55 percent increase in the last two years, largely due to the flow of Mexican laborers helping rebuild the city.
Bush and Calderon may also discuss details of 1.4 billion dollars in US aid for the Merida Initiative, a plan to battle drug trafficking in Mexico and Central America.
Copyright AFP 2008