The U.S. House of Representatives' passage of the North American Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada prompted government and corporate leaders worldwide to voice praise for U.S. President Bill Clinton's first major trade victory.
The agreement would link Mexico, the United States and Canada into the world's largest trade block, lowering tariff barriers gradually over 15 years beginning Jan. 1, 1994.
The pact next goes to the Senate, where quick passage is expected.
Clinton on Thursday was enroute to Seattle, where Asia and Pacific leaders have gathered to discuss a multitude of issues, with trade taking center stage.
Ultimately, Clinton has his sights set on concluding and reaching agreement on the Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The Uruguay Round of GATT is a worldwide trade pact that has a Dec. 15 deadline for reaching agreement.
The largest sigh of relief following Wednesday's vote in the House may have come from Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who staked his country's economic future on NAFTA.
Salinas said ratification brings him one step closer to achieving his economic goals. He said the healthy margin in the 234-200 vote marked the end of U.S. protectionist attitudes.
The outcome 'should be seen not only as a final step toward ratification, but also as a rejection of protectionist views,' Salinas said in a broadcast immediately following the vote.
Clinton, who relentlessly lobbied undecided House members leading up to the vote, called the approval of NAFTA a 'big first step, but just a first step' toward expanding global trade for the United States.
Canadian business leaders enthusiastically welcomed the vote and its political supporters in Ottawa called for implementation of the controversial pact by Jan. 1.
Thomas d'Aquino, president of Canada's Business Council of National Issues, said the U.S. approval was a 'triumph of confidence over fear and of good economics over destructive protectionism.'
But the 406,000-member Canadian Union of Public Employees said it's not too late to stop NAFTA. Union president Judy Darcy said Clinton carried out 'one of the most vulgar and disgusting vote-buying campaigns in the history of western democracy' to gain the legislative victory.
Japan also welcomed the House vote, calling it an important step toward freer trade. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said NAFTA would avert the rise of protectionism in the U.S. Congress.
Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa offered accolades to U.S. lawmakers for passing the hotly debated bill. Foreign Ministry spokesman Terusuke Terada said passage of NAFTA would help prevent protectionist moves in the U.S. Congress, whose ranks include representatives from so-called 'rust belt' districts of boarded up factories that have moved to other, less costly countries.
Another major Asian trading partner with the United States also welcomed the deal.
The South Korean government said it hoped NAFTA would help promote world trade. South Korea said it should foster close cooperation with the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Seattle and should not lead to another regional economic bloc.
Australia too welcomed the agreement. Trade Minister Sen. Peter Cook says the victory gives a boost to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting this week in Seattle.
In Europe, the House's approval was warmly welcomed by Peter Sutherland, director general of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Sutherland says NAFTA's approval represented 'half a victory' for the Uruguay Round of GATT talks.
EC Trade Commissioner Leon Brittan said, 'I am sure that the commitment to open markets shown by the vote...will greatly assist the successful conclusion of the Uruguay Round' of world trade talks.NEWLN: ccccqqe