For the so-called “alt-right,” Jaime Zabludovsky Kuper may seem like a ready-made stereotype.
A scion of one of Mexico’s most prominent Jewish families, Zabludovsky is a longtime member of Mexico’s elite. Holder of a doctorate in economics from Yale University, he is a former under secretary for international trade negotiations and a former senior economist for Banco de México and the Mexican president’s Economics Council.
Most important of all, Zabludovsky was the deputy chief negotiator for Mexico in the North American Free Trade Agreement.
That’s the 1993 trade agreement signed by the United States, Mexico and Canada that is now being demonized — and not just on the “alt-right” — for having opened the floodgates to a slew of cheap goods from Mexico, for having sent manufacturing jobs south of the border, and for loosening the gates at the border for immigrants that President-Elect Donald Trump has vowed to stop with an impregnable wall. NAFTA is damned, as well, for offering a template for trade deals that have followed, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership between the United States and 11 other countries that now hangs in the balance as Trump comes to office.
In a phone interview from Mexico City, Zabludovsky, who is 60, voiced no illusions about what may lie in store for the trade pact he helped midwife, and for the world itself.
“I think we will have some hard years ahead,” he said. “It’s going to be an open question whether Trump will be willing to stand behind his positions. We are concerned…. [But] hopefully, he’ll understand.”
NAFTA’s record, based on empirical data, is far from the caricature Trump drew of it, though substantive debate about its effect on inequality and on various sectors of all three countries’ economies continues to rage. A 2012 survey of leading economists conducted by The University of Chicago Booth School of Business found that 85% of them supported the notion that, on average, U.S. citizens benefited from NAFTA. Still, the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank linked to the union umbrella federation AFL-CIO, estimates that nearly 700,000 manufacturing jobs have been “lost or displaced” due to the agreement.
Zabludovsky staunchly upholds the pact, which he considers one of his great life achievements. It’s a treaty that has brought enormous mutual benefit to both his country and the United States, he argues. Moreover, the greater openness and transparency it promotes economically in all three countries has a cultural spillover effect.
“Generally, Jews do better in open societies,” he said. While reluctant to say that Jews specifically benefit from such trade pacts, he emphasized that societies that are more open, as the provisions in such pacts require, “tend to be more tolerant of minorities in general.” Trump’s campaign, with its fusillades against free trade, was also “very xenophobic — not just anti-Semitic, but also anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim. That’s the kind of thing that ends up harming all minorities.”
For Zabludovsky, NAFTA has never been only about the pact’s mutual benefits. It has been about contributing to an international commercial architecture that American leaders first erected after World War II to help prevent horrors like the nightmare from which the world had just emerged.
“One of the great achievements of the postwar era was to have countries working among themselves, having interdependent fates,” he said. “When you cave to protectionist policies, you start to have nationalist policies generally. That’s what happened in the 1930s.”
Zabludovsky’s own roots in Mexico date back to that very period. His paternal grandfather arrived in Mexico from Poland in 1924, fleeing poverty and discrimination. After marrying another Polish Jewish immigrant, he established himself in business, and soon enough the family ascended to become a prominent part of Mexico’s liberal intelligentsia. Zabludovsky’s parents were friends with people like novelist Octavio Paz and the artistically radical sculptor and painter Jose Luis Cuevas, whose home was designed and built by Zabludovsky’s brother, Abraham Zabludovsky, one of Mexico’s premier architects.
His uncle, Jacobo Zabludovsky, was a famous TV journalist and, as the virtual face of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party regime, a controversial figure. Gina Zabludovsky Kuper, his sister, is a noted sociologist and a teacher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, which is regarded widely as the leading university in the Spanish-speaking world.
Zabludovsky himself returned from Yale to become part of the group of mostly U.S.-trained high-level, neoliberal government advisers and bureaucrats known collectively as “Los Technicos.” Retired from government today, he works as an international trade consultant and is the executive president of Mexico’s Consumer Goods Industry Council.
Zabludovsky’s family epitomizes the up-from-poverty climb to the ranks of an international elite that defines the arc of many prominent Jews who trace their beginnings to an escape from Eastern Europe before, or even after, World War II. It is an elite now under severe attack as out of touch and heedless of their own countrymen’s plights in many countries, ranging from the United Kingdom, which voted for Brexit, to France, where the chances of the xenophobic radical right, led by Marine Le Pen, for the presidency, are a real prospect.
For Zabludovsky, the trade pact he helped negotiate was supposed to be a guardrail against all this. Economic openness and political freedoms, he argued, rise and fall hand in hand. He cited as an example Mexico, where, just seven years after NAFTA came into force, Vicente Fox, a presidential candidate from the country’s opposition National Action Party, broke the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s 71-year lock on power. In this view, the freer information flow and increased transparency that international investors and businesses demand — and that the agreement itself mandates — have a spillover effect that washes over a country’s politics and culture.
“In that sense, I’d say NAFTA has allowed Mexico to move from a relatively closed political system to a much more open society,” Zabludovsky said. “I tend to think for Jewish people that’s much better than living under a closed society.”
Of course, not all Jews see NAFTA that way. Bernie Sanders, the Brooklyn-born U.S. senator from Vermont who railed against NAFTA, launched a credible threat to Hillary Clinton’s march to the Democratic nomination, based in no small part on his opposition to the trade treaty and others like it. His candidacy helped push Clinton to turn against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she had strongly supported as secretary of state under President Obama. But Sanders, who advocated a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere, upheld basic democratic norms, social tolerance and minority rights unwaveringly.
Trump, who during his campaign promised to round up and deport some 11 million Mexican immigrants by raising a federal force for mass deportations if necessary, is someone far different.
“I’m willing to wait and see,” Zabludovsky said hopefully about what comes next. “I’m hoping to see important differences between Trump the candidate and Trump the president. I’m also hoping that checks and balances in the United States will work to limit him.” But Trump’s appointments so far — combined with the Republican Party’s control of both Houses of Congress — are not good portents, he acknowledged.
“I’m very concerned the United States might decide to walk away from the leadership role it’s played for the last 50 or 60 years,” he said. “That’s what’s really at stake; instead of having the largest country in the world leading a world based on rules and interdependency, I’m afraid that the United States may become an island. America sets the tone for the world. And trade liberalization has been one of the instruments for international order based on laws.”
So how did things come to this state? Might the NAFTA treaty he helped craft have played a role in bringing this all down rather than in shoring it up, by leaving those hurt by the changes that followed to stew angrily for years and, finally, revolt?
“Obviously, there have been some bad developments,” he said. “In any liberal process, you have winner and losers. Obviously the challenge is how you deal with the losers.”
But that was not within NAFTA’s responsibility, he said. “This has to be done internally,” he explained, with each country putting measures in place to care for its own citizens who may lose out. “The United States has some measures, but obviously it has not been enough. It’s not just a matter of trade, but technological change and changing demographics…. You must put in place adjustment programs — give people instruments and elements to face adjustments, which don’t all just come from trade.”
He cited Germany as a country that has “been much more successful in dealing with this, at retraining people who would otherwise see their jobs going elsewhere.”
But then, Germany, it’s suggested to him, has a history that has burned into its DNA the dangers of what can happen when whole sectors of a population are simply left behind to fend for themselves.
For better or worse, Zabludovsky’s prescription for our moment in time is more of the same, on the two fronts that he sees as inescapably linked. “I think we must keep pressing for an open society and economy,” he said.
*Contact Larry Cohler-Esses at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story "The Mexican Jew Who Helped Negotiate NAFTA Remains Proud of It. Is He Just An Elitist?" was written by Larry Cohler-Esses.
Larry Cohler-Esses was the Forward’s senior investigative writer. He joined the staff in December 2008. Previously, he served as Editor-at-Large for the Jewish Week, an investigative reporter for the New York Daily News, and as a staff writer for the Jewish Week as well as the Washington Jewish Week. Larry has written extensively on the Arab-Jewish relations both in the United States and the Middle East. His articles have won awards from the Society for Professional Journalists, the Religious Newswriters Association, the New York Press Association and the Rockower Awards for Jewish Journalism, among others.