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Q&A: Hispanic Chamber chief fighting for NAFTA

  • Laura Murillo, president and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce shown Wednesday, May 23, 2018, in Houston  ( Melissa Phillip / Houston Chronicle ) Photo: Melissa Phillip, Staff / Houston Chronicle / © 2018 Houston Chronicle

Laura Murillo, head of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is in the fight of her career, joining with other Texas business leaders to try to stop President Donald Trump from casting away or radically changing the North American Free Trade Agreement. The former executive director of Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center reflects on what NAFTA has meant for Houston and how the debate is shaping up.

Q: As your group points out, Mexico is now Texas’ top trading partner, with exports from Houston to Mexico now exceeding $2.5 billion per year. What’s the mood among business leaders right now?

A: NAFTA has afforded businesses here an ability to get into Mexico. From people in logistics to recycling companies and large oil and gas companies to car parts suppliers, the door has been opened for them, and they have done very well. The thought of their revenue decreasing significantly because of the potential of doing away with or tweaks to NAFTA is a big concern. It would be a significant economic hit, especially for Texas.

Q: This has turned into a big political issue for the White House, critical to the larger “America First” strategy. As you try and get your message out there, are you seeing any pushback?

A: There are a lot of uninformed people who will make assumptions. I think there’s a lot of nationalist rhetoric against Mexico and Mexicans, and that message can be confusing. It puts all of us together and presents NAFTA as a form of favoritism somehow. It’s a difficult time for the conversation because of what has already been painted by our president and others.

Q: How do you react to that train of thought, that America is losing out to Mexico on trade?

A: Rather than try to change their minds, the best thing we can do is present facts and data. We cannot assume people understand NAFTA. They just hear these small quotes of “I’m doing away with it” and “It’s all about America.” The truth of it is, we live in a global economy, and we’re not going in another direction.

Q:When you hear President Donald Trump criticize NAFTA as “the worst trade deal in history,” what goes through your mind?

A: In many ways it’s irresponsible for our leader to make blanket, generalized statements. It’s misleading, and at the end of the day it hurts the business community. It makes people pause before making additional investments. Words matter.

Q: Last week Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said negotiations could drag out into 2019. Does that longer timeline present a problem?

A: Most of us see 2018 as gone. So the Mexican elections will have an impact on NAFTA negotiations. That concerns investors.

Q: The left-leaning politician Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is expected to be Mexico’s next president. He has been critical of U.S. policy toward Mexico. What do you expect from him?

A: They understand this is key to their economy, and he has a strong constituency that is pro-NAFTA. But it’s hard because until they get into the negotiating room, you don’t know. It’s going to be incumbent upon the business community to have skin in the game, to talk to their elected officials and put pressure on them. At the end of the day, we have much more to gain by working together. There doesn’t need to be a winner or a loser.

Q: That was the line of thinking that brought Mexico and the U.S. together in the first place. How receptive do you expect Trump and Obrador to be on this line of reasoning? They seem pretty dug in.

A: It’s going to be a challenge. There already have been comments and remarks that have been very disparaging. You’re coming into a conversation where there’s already a sense in both countries of mistrust and an uneven playing field. As individuals, (Trump and Obrador) will need to overcome those challenges, and it will require great restraint from our president to engage in a conversation with Mexico. You can be pro-America but cordial and respectful to Canada and Mexico. But with this president there’s no guarantee of any of those things.

As published by the Houston Chronicle