ByAlan Beattie in Washington and Adam Thomson in Mexico City
Published: March 16 2009 20:53 | Last updated: March 16 2009 23:30
A long-simmering trade dispute boiled over into sanctions on Monday after Mexico said it would raise tariffs on $2.4bn of US exports in retaliation for ending a pilot programme to allow Mexican trucks on American roads.
President Barack Obama, who has sought to tread a fine line between assuaging his domestic constituencies and upholding the US’s international obligations.
Mexico said it would increase tariffs on 90 industrial and agricultural goods, likely to include politically sensitive farm products, after Congress last week killed a pilot programme allowing a limited number of Mexican trucks on American highways. Mexico obtained a judicial ruling in 2001 under the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) allowing it to impose such sanctions, but has held off since the US introduced the pilot scheme.
The sanctions, which Mexican officials say are set to be imposed later this week, will be one of the largest acts of retaliation against US exports. US goods exports to Mexico totalled $151.5bn last year. On Monday, Gerardo Ruíz Mateos, Mexico’s economy minister, said: “We believe that the action taken by the US is wrong, protectionist and in clear violation of Nafta.”
The White House said on Monday it would seek to create a new programme that would address what it called the “legitimate concerns of Congress” while meeting the US’s Nafta commitments. But Mexican officials said they would not be bought off with promises.
The pilot programme has been opposed by many lawmakers and by the Teamsters Union, which says that Mexican trucks are unsafe. Because they are largely restricted to short-run hops over the border, most Mexican trucks entering the US are run by so-called “drayage” operations that use older vehicles more likely to fail inspection tests. But a study funded by the US Department of Transportation found that when comparing like with like, Mexican trucks were often safer than their US counterparts.
“The Mexicans have been extraordinarily patient on this,” said Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The pilot project was enough to give them glimmerings of hope for a long time.”