The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has two faces: the real and the symbolic. Although the “real” NAFTA—tariff-free trade, increased investments, and new mechanisms for cooperation on environmental protection within North America—has been substantially successful, NAFTA as a symbol of disappointed hopes for a better life and fear of globalization continues to resonate in the popular discourse. Because the NAFTA experience is shaping the debate over future trade policy, this Article distinguishes the symbolic NAFTA from the real NAFTA. With respect to environmental conditions along the U.S.-Mexican border, two examples of the importance of this distinction are maquiladora factories in northern Mexico and the recent cross-border development of power stations and other energy facilities.
This Article argues that the popular link between NAFTA and border area maquiladoras is based on several faulty beliefs, including that maquiladora growth since NAFTA has been confined to the border area. Rather, maquiladora development and location, and the environmental and social problems associated with rapid industrialization, are manifestations of global processes and Mexican policies that began long before NAFTA. NAFTA provides new mechanisms that have improved some of the worst environmental conditions along the border. Nevertheless, serious maquiladora problems persist and make up part of the symbolic NAFTA. Major responsibility for correcting those problems, however, lies with Mexican national policy and administration; the United States and the maquiladora businesses can contribute to this effort.
Intensified energy development in the border area could place additional stress on environmental conditions in the form of air pollution, demand for scarce water supplies, and construction of energy facilities in sensitive coastal areas. The real NAFTA leaves energy subject to many national and local restrictions, and the legal status of electricity trade remains ambiguous. This presents an opportunity for federal, state, and local governments to capitalize on NAFTA as a positive symbol of closer economic integration and political cooperation in order to develop comprehensive transboundary energy planning and regulation for the region. The North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, a NAFTA institution, has pointed the way with an important study of cross-border transfers of electricity under NAFTA. The governments of all three NAFTA countries need to work in closer partnership to overcome the problems contributing to NAFTA’s negative symbolic power and to realize the benefits of NAFTA as a positive symbol of our shared continental enterprise.