WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Western Hemisphere Affairs Subcommittee had harsh words for the handling of the uprising in the Mexican southern state of Chiapas and warned that unless a peaceful settlement is reached, it could threaten the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“I think the record is clear that the U.S. as a defender of human rights will not allow its good name or reputation to be used in relationships with other governments that don’t recognize human rights,” Rep. Robert Torricelli (D., N.J.), said during a hearing before his panel.

“Indeed, the Chiapas events have shaken the confidence in Mexico City and drawn considerable attention in Washington…American business needs to know and the U.S. government needs to understand what the uprising means to our economic future.

“This is the beginning of a long and continuing debate over whether NAFTA is consistent with our basic values,” said Torricelli, a longstanding NAFTA opponent. U.S. participation in NAFTA is subject to periodic review, and a country can withdraw from the agreement with six-months notice.

Assistant Secretary of State Alexander F. Watson told the subcommittee that the early January uprisings in Chiapas were a “limited phenomenon” and involved a relatively small group of people. He acknowledged that the Mexican military, in attempting to quell the riots, committed some human rights abuses and might have killed civilians.

The uprising is the result of the extreme poverty faced by the residents of Mexico’s southern state and is not the result of NAFTA, Watson said.

“The United States is confident that the Mexican government has responded to the situation in Chiapas in a forthcoming and responsible way,” Watson said. “We hope that developments since the Chiapas uprising will further enhance democratic reform, rather than jeopardize it.”

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