Rural Revolt Against NAFTA Sweeps Mexico

By Kent Paterson

Ciudad Juarez

From north to south, a clamor is rising from the Mexican countryside demanding renegotiaton of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to exclude staple corn and bean crops from the competition. Though far from new, the anti-NAFTA farmer movement has been revived by the Jan. 1 elimination of all remaining tariffs for corn, beans, powdered milk and sugar cane.

The protest swung into high gear Jan. 18 when a tractorcade of northern Mexican farmers headed south from Ciudad Juarez [across the border from El Paso] for a date with history in the Mexican capital. Organized as the Francisco Villa Campesino Resistance Movement (MRCFV), the group issued a declaration that tied Mexico’s rural meltdown to the broader political, social and economic crises long afflicting the nation.

“The government of Felipe Calderón has refused to protect corn and beans, basic foods for Mexicans and sources of employment, survival and cultural reproduction of three million farmers and their families as well as 56 ethnic groups in the country,” proclaimed the MRCFV in a declaration.

Convened two years before the 100th anniversary of the 1910 Mexican Revolution and the 200th anniversary of the 1810 War for Independence, the tractorcade evoked patriotic sentiments. Organizers purposely charted the route of the tractorcade to follow the path of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa’s successful march into Mexico City.

Victor Suárez, president of the National Agricultural Products Marketers Association called the tractorcade a “historic” event. “Just like 100 years ago when the farmer organizations of Chihuahua played an important role in the Mexican Revolution with the Villistas and the Villista cavalry that went from the north to the south to liberate Mexico from the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz,” Suárez said. “Today, the motorized cavalry departs to play a role in the liberation of Mexico from a right-wing government at the service of the monopolies.”

Arriving in Mexico City for a Jan. 31 demonstration, the tractorcade’s participants joined with tens of thousands of other farmers in a mass repudiation of NAFTA. On the same day, thousands of anti-NAFTA farmers in at least 22 other Mexican states seized federal agricultural ministry offices, cut-off highways and blockaded a border crossing to Guatemala.

Many farmers regard the Jan. 1 tariff elimination as their death-knell. In a recent report published by the Center for International Policy’s Americas Program, researcher Ana de Ita documented how Mexican corn farmers have been subjected to lower prices as well as steadily-increasing US-grown corn imports well above NAFTA quotas almost every year since 1994. According to de Ita, many US-produced corn imports are encouraged by long-term “soft” loans from the US Commodity Credit Corporation.

Free trade is polarizing Mexican politics, and once again recasting the ideological and commercial interests that split the country. The opposition PRI and PRD parties support renegotiating NAFTA, while President Calderón’s PAN party opposes it. Although the nine Catholic bishops of the Mexican Episcopal Conference urge a thorough reexamination of NAFTA’s agricultural sections, Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera is against tinkering with a trade agreement he says is reaping benefits for his country. Mexican government representatives stress how NAFTA has transformed Mexico into the top supplier of winter fruit and vegetables for the United States.

Until now, the Calderón administration has rejected bringing up NAFTA for renegotiation with the US and Canada, whose current governments like NAFTA just the way it’s written. The Bush administration’s ambassador to Mexico, Tony Garza, is married to the Mexican heiress of the Corona beer empire, one of Mexico’s top exporters to the US.

In response to farmers’ grievances, the Calderón administration pursuing a package of subsidies, technical assistance and crop substitution to create a “winning” countryside firmly integrated into the global market. For 2008, the Calderón administration plans to subsidize almost three million corn, bean, sugarcane and milk producers to the tune of about $2 billion. In contrast, larger US corn farmers who stand to further benefit from the Mexican tariff tear-down currently receive on average about $20,000 per grower in subsidies. Mexican farmers, whose yields are almost four times less than those of US producers, each get about $770 in subsidies.

After 14 years of NAFTA, many small Mexican farmers don’t buy the government’s approach. And they count on allies in Canada and the US like El Paso’s Border Agricultural Workers Union (UTAF). At the start of the tractorcade, UTAF leader Carlos Marentes slammed NAFTA for having adverse effects in the US. According to Marentes, the average yearly earnings of chile pickers in New Mexico plunged to about $5,500 by 2006. Up against a wave of chile imports from Mexico and other countries, US growers are mechanizing and leaving workers without jobs, Marentes said.

In Mexico, the anti-NAFTA protest is just one of numerous “social insurgencies,” said Alma Gomez, a former Chihuahua state legislator and longtime women’s activist. The latest protests involve miners, teachers, environmentalists and many others, she added.

Renewed efforts are underway to form a broad front against the unrestrained free market, or neo-liberal, economic regime that’s held sway in Mexico since the early 1980s. In its Ciudad Juarez declaration, the MRCFV urged diverse groups including the National Workers Union, Zapatista National Liberation Army, Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s National Democratic Convention and others to come up with an alternative to the “neo-liberal model” that’s left “the institutions of the Republic held hostage.”

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Mexico and the US Southwest.

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2008

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