As Congress fails to move on new NAFTA, UTRGV hosts discussion on regional trade

EDINBURG — A timely conversation about the new North American Free Trade Agreement, which has been signed by the three large North American countries but has not yet been approved by the U.S. Congress, was held at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley on Wednesday featuring scholars, educators and government officials from both sides of border.

On display in a room called “Borderlands” on campus, the conversation about the U.S-Mexico-Canada Agreement, what the new NAFTA has been labeled, touched on the importance of NAFTA, how the trilateral treaty transformed South Texas and what the new agreement could mean for the region.

“The idea of making America great again is understandable,” professor Maria Cristina Rosas of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México said in a nod to President Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. “The U.S. has lost business to the world and is facing a number of economic problems.”

In hopes of overcoming those issues, the position in which the U.S. has found itself recently in the world of international trade has been a combative one. An ongoing trade war with China was not lost in the conversation on Wednesday, nor was the monumental growth over the last two decades in South Texas due in part to NAFTA, enacted in 1994.

A boon of manufacturing plants, distribution facilities and storage centers have all sprouted on both sides of the border. Thousands of trucks criss-cross the border daily, including more than 50,000 over the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge in April. Also crossing the border each day is $1.7 billion in goods and services, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with roughly $65 billion through the bridge in Pharr, according to the bridge director, Luis Bazan.

This all is not because of NAFTA, according to Matt Z. Ruszczak, executive director of Rio South Texas Economic Council, which works on economic development in South Texas and promotes the region internationally.

“There are certain aspects that you can directly pinpoint and say: ‘Uh huh, NAFTA did this,’” Ruszczak said, adding an example about manufacturing. “The maquila program was around since the 80s in full force, but NAFTA really jump-started that effort. So people started making more money, which means more money to come over and spend, which helped build our retail our industry, our restaurant industry.”

The new agreement, signed by Trump and the leaders of Canada and Mexico during a G20 economic summit in Buenos Aires, has been dubbed a modernization of NAFTA, but Congress has had some hesitations.

Rosas on Wednesday outlined some new included provisions, such as security, labor, environment and digital trade, something that hardly existed in the early 1990s. But those at the UTRGV conversation weren’t privy to the prospect of congressional action on the agreement, and Trump offered some fodder the night before Wednesday’s conversation.

On Tuesday, the eve of a meeting about infrastructure with the top Democrats in the U.S. Senate (Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer) and the U.S. House (Speaker Nancy Pelosi), Trump sent them a letter that he wanted Congress to first act on the trilateral trade agreement.

“Before we get to infrastructure, it is my strong view that Congress should first pass the important and popular USMCA trade deal,” Trump’s letter read. “Once Congress has passed USMCA, we should turn our attention to a bipartisan infrastructure package.”

But Wednesday morning’s meeting with Pelosi and Schumer ended within minutes, with Trump unhappy about House Democrats investigating him before the president held a news conference in the Rose Garden where he demanded Democrats to “get these phony investigations over with.”

Officials such as those gathered at UTRGV on Wednesday, which included Socorro Jorge Cholula, Acting Consul of the Mexican Consulate in McAllen, have been left in strange public positions. Cholula did not touch much on Trump in remarks, but Rosas praised Mexico’s new ambassador to the U.S., Martha Barcena Coqui, hopeful that the new agreement can be ratified quickly.