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NAFTA: Hard Sell in the Big Easy

PRESIDENT Clinton made a hard pitch for the North American Free Trade Agreement on Wednesday in a state where many say there are just as many local reasons to oppose the controversial treaty as there are to support it.

Speaking before a rain-drenched crowd of Democratic supporters at the port of New Orleans, Mr. Clinton called NAFTA a ``job winner'' for blue-collar workers because it would create more employment in the state's port and trade industries.

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The president won a rousing roar of applause when he added: ``It is not only a job winner for the United States, but an opportunity for us to get off the defensive in our economic policies and go on the offensive and try to build a world in which there are more opportunities for Americans not only for good jobs, but also for growing incomes.''

Far away from the taunts of union members, who, along with Ross Perot's supporters, are leading the charge against the trade treaty, Clinton received warm applause from traders and port industry officials who overwhelmingly back NAFTA.

``This is a treaty that will be good for our port, good for Louisiana, and good for the US,'' said J. Ron Brinson, president of the port of New Orleans. ``It will help us all grow.''

But other Louisianans are not so sure. The state's sugar industry, for example, fears that it will lose millions of dollars in government subsidies if less expensive Mexican sugar is allowed to flood the American market.

For members of Louisiana's congressional delegation, the decision may come down to giving short shrift to the state's $500 million sugar-cane industry in favor of the larger port industry, which in New Orleans alone is worth more than $3.7 billion.

``Those are tough choices for anyone from Louisiana,'' said Scott Hansen, executive director of the Southern US Trade Association here. ``But, ultimately, anyone who studies the economic picture here will soon realize that any document that encourages trade with Louisiana is good for Louisiana. And I don't think many people here yet really know how much of our economy is supported by trade.''

Louisiana is already one of the top 10 states in exporting to Mexico. In 1991, its exports to Mexico totaled more than $618 million - far greater than larger states such as Ohio ($582 million) and Florida ($579 million), but still well behind the leader, Texas ($15 billion).

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Those exports to Mexico have powerful benefits for specialized segments of Louisiana's economy, particularly its vast port system. ``Our trade with Mexico is absolutely vital,'' says Glenda Jeansonne, assistant director of the port of South Louisiana in LaPlace. ``We've had upwards of $200 million in exports from just this one port alone to Mexico. For us, NAFTA will only make a good thing better.''

But Charles Melancon, president of the American Sugar Cane League, sees a darker side to NAFTA. As the treaty now reads, Mexico could begin exporting upwards of 150,000 tons of sugar into the US annually, thus undercutting domestic prices. That could threaten the jobs of up to one-quarter of the 20,000 people currently employed by Louisiana's cane farms and refineries. ``I'm not kidding when I say it could be devastating for us,'' Mr. Melancon says.

With pressures both for and against NAFTA, Louisiana's congressional delegation is divided. While several congressman openly support the treaty, J. Bennett Johnston, the state's senior Democratic senator, has said he will vote against it because of its impact on the sugar industry.

As he sat near a stack of containers on the port of New Orleans's wharf, though, Clinton received one positive piece of news. Sen. John Breaux (D) of Louisiana, who had previously been thought to be leaning against NAFTA, praised the program Wednesday. Senator Breaux said it would build bridges to other countries instead of ``building walls around the US.''

But Breaux stopped short of endorsing the treaty wholeheartedly, and his hesitation may symbolize the work Clinton still has before him. Louisiana has a lot to gain from NAFTA, Breaux concluded, ``if we can get rid of some of the little problems we still have with it.''

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