MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico will cut in half retaliatory duties on more than $2 billion of U.S. farm and industrial goods this week after signing a deal with Washington on Wednesday to allow Mexican truckers onto American roads.
The action signals the end of a 16-year-old cross-border dispute in coming months, unless the U.S. Congress intervenes again to keep Mexican trucks off U.S. roads.
"The agreements signed today are a win for roadway safety and they are a win for trade," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement after a signing ceremony with counterparts in Mexico City.
"By opening the door to long-haul trucking between the United States and Mexico, America's third largest trading partner, we will create jobs and opportunity for our people and support economic development in both nations," LaHood said.
The United States agreed under the North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into force in 1994, to allow Mexican long-haul truckers to operate in the United States.
However, opponents in Congress have thrown up repeated roadblocks to keep Mexican truckers off U.S. roads.
U.S. lawmakers voted in 2009 to defund a pilot program created by the administration of former President George W. Bush, prompting Mexico to retaliate.
The deals signed on Friday follow an agreement in principle announced by U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon in early March.
Mexican officials said they would cut duties on 99 U.S. products such as pork, apples and consumer care products in half on Friday and remove the rest when the first Mexican trucker crosses into the United States.
COST TO U.S. BUSINESS TOPPED $2 BILLION
"Potentially, we're looking at a total lifting of the punitive tariffs in as little as 45 days," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.
Vilsack said the dispute had cost U.S. businesses more than $2 billion and had cut U.S. exports to Mexico of affected agricultural commodities by 27 percent.
U.S. officials said the deal requires Mexican trucks operating in the United States to comply with all Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and to have electronic monitoring systems to track hours-of-service compliance.
The U.S. Department of Transportation will review the complete driving record of each driver and require all drug testing samples to be analyzed in U.S.-certified laboratories located in the United States.
The deal also requires drivers to undergo an assessment of their ability to understand the English language and U.S. traffic signs. It also ensures that Mexico will provide reciprocal authority for U.S. carriers to engage in cross-border long-haul operations into that country.
U.S. farm and business groups cheered the deal and urged Congress not to block it.
"It's a good first step toward resolving the trucking dispute. Now we need the U.S. government to follow through," Doug Wolf, president of the National Pork Producers Council said in a statement.
Mexico is the No. 2 export market for U.S. pork, behind Japan, and in the first four months of this year the U.S. Agriculture Department said it bought 335.7 million pounds (152 million kg), down 2.5 percent from the 2010 period.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the deal would make the U.S.-Mexico border more efficient and increase the competitiveness of the North American economy.
"It's well past time that we complied with the promise we made nearly two decades ago that allow carefully inspected trucks to move across the border," said the group's president, Thomas Donohue.
(Reporting by Jason Lange and Adriana Barrera in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Bob Burgdorfer in Chicago; Writing by Doug Palmer in Washington; Editing by Eric Walsh)