Six years ago, I was ready to conclude that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was a major success. The key argument in favor of NAFTA had been that it was the most promising road the United States could take to raise the chances for Mexico to become democratic and prosperous, and that the US had both a strong selfish interest and a strong neighborly duty to try to help Mexico develop.
Since NAFTA, Mexican real GDP has grown at 3.6% per year, and exports have boomed, going from 10% of GDP in 1990 and 17% of GDP in 1999 to 28% of GDP today. Next year, Mexico’s real exports will be five times what they were in 1990.
It is here – in the rapid development of export industries and the dramatic rise in export volumes – that NAFTA made the difference. NAFTA guarantees Mexican producers tariff and quota-free access to the US market, the largest consumer market in the world.
Without this guarantee, fewer would have invested in the capacity to satisfy the US market. Increasing trade between the US and Mexico moves both countries toward a greater degree of specialization and a finer division of labor in important industries like autos, where labor-intensive portions are increasingly accomplished in Mexico, and textiles, where high-tech spinning and weaving is increasingly done in the US, while Mexico carries out lower-tech cutting and sewing.