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Former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico: Anti-NAFTA Rhetoric 'Really a Shock'

U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Earl Anthony Wayne speaks in Mexico on Dec. 1, 2011. (EL UNIVERSAL/Michael Narváez/GDA via AP Images)

WASHINGTON – The North American Free Trade Agreement is not the negative deal the Trump administration has portrayed it to be, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico said Thursday.

Ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne, who served under Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, described 20-plus years of positive efforts in improving U.S.-Mexico relations through NAFTA.

Trump called NAFTA the worst trade deal in history during his presidential run, vowing to eliminate or radically overhaul the 23-year-old pact between the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

“So when we started having this very critical rhetoric coming out of first the campaign and then the new administration, it was really a shock, and it was a shock also because it wasn’t reflective of the reality of the relationship, and then we saw in Mexico the resurrection and response of anti-Americanism that we had seen in the past,” Wayne said Thursday at the Brookings Institution. “So that was very worrisome to all of us who had spent years working on this.”

According to a Public Citizen report from 2014, NAFTA has resulted in the net loss of 1 million American jobs. The Midwest has been particularly devastated, losing tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs since the deal was signed in 1994. Wayne on Thursday said that this disillusioned segment of the population has incorrectly blamed NAFTA. Like many other trade experts, Wayne blamed automation and trade with China for the job losses.

Former Mexican ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan, who appeared alongside Wayne, said that Trump during his campaign seized on the narrative that NAFTA is to blame for all the woes in the Midwest. The Mexican ambassador noted that out of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., 5 million are Mexican.

“That provides an easy platform to scapegoat Mexico and use Mexico as an electoral piñata, which is what I think Donald Trump did in a deplorable and demagogic way during the campaign,” he said.

In the early days of NAFTA, Sarukhan said the U.S. and Mexico were able to strengthen the bilateral relationship by focusing on the facts, most notably that the two countries trade more than $1 million in product a minute and that there are legal border crossings every day without issues – “things that tie people together.” Those who benefited from the program, particularly farmers, started speaking out, he said. Corn is one product that is heavily exchanged, with the U.S. holding 98 percent share of market imports for the crop in Mexico.

Wayne said that people have been drawing different conclusions about NAFTA, citing a Gallup poll released this week showing 64 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Mexico.

Mexico’s current ambassador to the U.S., Gerónimo Gutiérrez, spoke separately at the Brookings Institution on Thursday and reiterated his refrain that the U.S.-Mexico relationship is at a critical juncture with NAFTA re-negotiations looming. He said that the relationship has evolved positively for about 25 years, but there has been a fundamental shift under Trump. Suddenly, it appears the U.S. is not sure it wants to remain a partner, he said.

“I think there is a possibility of having a major setback in the relationship still, but I also think that it’s at hand the possibility of surpassing this face on the bilateral relationship and actually having a much more mature relationship between Mexico and the United States,” he said.

The former ambassadors were asked who is going to pay for the estimated $20 billion to $70 billion wall the Trump administration has proposed building at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Mexico and the U.S. have done a lot of great stuff together,” Sarukhan said. “We will continue to do a lot of great stuff together. The one thing that we’re not going to do together is build a wall.”