WASHINGTON -- President Bush Thursday formally signed the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement simultaneously with leaders of Mexico and Canada and predicted the 'time will come when trade is free from Alaska to Argentina.'
Promptly afterward, President-elect Bill Clinton reaffirmed his support of the accord with some reservations. But some members of Congress were more critical.
Bush signed the document, which lowers trade barriers with the United States' neighbors and integrates markets, at the ornate headquarters of the Organization of American States.
At the same time, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari signed the previously initialed treaty in their respective capitals.
'The North American Free Trade Agreement is the first giant step toward fulfillment of a dream of a hemisphere united by trade and free competition,' Bush declared.
'With what we've begun here today,' Bush said, 'I believe the time will soon come when trade is free from Alaska to Argentina....I hope and trust that the North American free trade area can be extended to Chile, other worthy partners in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Free trade throughout the Americas is an idea whose time has come.'
'My talks with the hemisphere's leaders in recent weeks show a strong consensus that relations between the United States and its neighbors have never in our history been better and that this development is working to benefit all of our peoples,' he added.
'I believe that in the future, America's relations with Latin America and the Caribbean will grow even stronger,' he declared. 'I was pleased to hear our new president-elect, Bill Clinton, affirm that same goal.'
Promptly after the ceremony, Clinton issued a statement in Little Rock in which he lauded the trade pact but said he would seek stronger environmental and workforce protections.
'I want to reaffirm my support for this agreement,' Clinton said, but he called NAFTA 'only one piece of the strategy necessary to ensure that we move wisely toward an integrated region,' a reference to his support for broader regional agreements.
At a news conference in Little Rock, Ark., Clinton said he hoped to meet with Salinas before taking over from Bush on Jan. 20.
Salinas tried to address some of these worries in his signing ceremony in Mexico City, saying, 'We are resolved to fight pollution and damage to nature, and to prevent those who pollute from trying to take advantage of the agreement by settling in Mexico.'
House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt, a frequent critic of the trade negotiations, said the agreement signed by Bush 'is incomplete and defective, and there will be opportunities to refine and improve it in the months ahead.'
'New policies are needed to protect our environment, health, and labor rights, and to provide the necessary training and retraining of our workers,' Gephardt said. 'The defects in the NAFTA cannot be solved easily or quickly,' he added and decried 'the president's decision to rush completion of the agreement that could jeopardize jobs and growth in our economy.'
But Gephard said there remains substantial support in the Congress and the country for reduced barriers to trade throughout our hemisphere, so long as trade agreements like the NAFTA create growth and opportunity in all three countries.
OAS Secretary General Joao Clemente Baena Boares hailed the treaty saying it would lead to greater inter-American cooperation. But he added that the underdeveoped nations were 'guardedly cncerned with the new conditions of competition it implies.'
Still, he said they look at the pact as 'one hopeful promise' for future expansion of trade.
The signing paves the way for officials to begin codifying the language of the pact and to prepare enabling legislation which will permit Congress to vote on the treaty within 90 days.