USMCA Becomes a Reality

 Wilson Center, June 29, 2020
Luis Rubio

Fellows and staff from the Wilson Center’s Canada and Mexico Institutes answer questions about the impact of the July 1 implementation of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).

Luis Rubio
Global Fellow & Advisory Board Member, Mexico Institute, Wilson Center; President, COMEXI
June 29, 2020, Mexico City, Mexico

NAFTA provided certainty for investors both through its specific investor protections and because it forced Mexican leaders to commit to stay the course on economic reforms. Can the USMCA provide similar certainty today?

The only true similarity between NAFTA and the new USMCA is the fact that both establish rules for trade and investment across the two North American borders. Beyond that, these are two quite distinct legal documents. NAFTA was meant to be a mechanism whereby the United States provided guarantees for investors in Mexico with the objective to accelerate Mexico’s development while deepening the economic ties across the three nations. The ulterior objective was to strengthen America’s border, which stemmed from the notion of Mexico as a primary national security interest. A prosperous Mexico, the then American president argued, is in the best interest of the United States. The primary objective of NAFTA was strategic and political. USMCA is above all a compromise on trade.

USMCA not only eliminates the guarantees for investors but creates disincentives for new capital to flow into Mexico through a series of mechanisms, including very tight rules of origin, severe penalties for labor practices, and (very high) minimum wages for a series of industrial processes. In addition, the agreement incorporates a sunset clause after every six years, a circumstance that hinders long-term projects from being contemplated. Clearly, the two documents pursue different objectives.

Most of the emphasis of the USMCA is placed on both updating the old agreement to incorporate the novelties of one of the fastest-changing periods in history, especially with the introduction of the Internet, online commerce, just-in-time delivery (as part of dynamic industrial supply chains that crisscross the region), and all things digital. On the other hand, the agreement incorporates a series of measures to introduce political change in Mexico, particularly as it attempts to dismantle the old labor-union structures that for decades were one of the staunchest support mechanisms of political stability. Whether the pretense of introducing democracy into the labor arena will deliver what the two governments want (which most likely is not the same thing) remains to be seen. What the López Obrador administration certainly wants is to replace the existing labor structures with his own, to then bring them over as social control systems within its own coalition.

To answer the question in one line, there is no way that the new USMCA will provide for long-term economic growth and political certainty because it is not meant to accomplish that. At best, it will protect, for a while, Mexico’s foremost engine of growth, namely exports of manufactured goods, and not even that is certain. Much ado about nothing wrote Shakespeare. Something similar may well be waiting for USMCA, albeit with much bigger, probably dire, consequences.