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San Antonio

The gateway for 60 percent of US exports to Mexico, this cultural and commercial crossroads has the potential to become the `NAFTA capital'

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ON his first state visit to the United States in October 1989, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari confronted Washington with a bold proposal - a trade agreement between his country and the US similar to the one Canada and the US were implementing at the time.

Even though President Bush had promised during his presidential campaign to seek such an agreement, President Salinas's idea was politely dismissed as unlikely given the colossal disparity in the countries' economies. ``Any free-trade agreement between the two countries is a long way off, if ever,'' a Bush administration trade official remarked at the time.

Wrong. Three Octobers later, the presidents and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney met to watch negotiators initial the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

It was no coincidence that the ceremony took place in San Antonio - for five centuries a cultural/commercial crossroads for Anglos, Hispanics, and others. Its string of Spanish missions and shady Paseo del Rio (River Walk) imbue the city with Old World charm. Bilingualism comes naturally to San Antonio, since more than half of its nearly 1 million citizens are of Hispanic heritage.

Until World War II, it was the state's largest city, anchoring one end of a trade corridor with Monterrey, the large industrial city in northern Mexico. ``All roads feed into San Antonio'' from various border cities, says Alfonso Martinez-Fonts, San Antonio branch president of Texas Commerce Bank. San Antonio is a conduit for 60 percent of American exports to Mexico. The city's goal is to add value to the traffic, Mr. Martinez-Fonts says.

One firm doing that is MSAS Cargo. Working for the American Telephone & Telegraph Corporation, it receives from all over the world telephone equipment needing reconditioning. It matches equipment with repair kits from US manufacturers, packages them, and ships them to 11 maquilas (Mexican factories) for reconditioning. Then it takes back the equipment for resale.

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