By Kent Paterson, Editor
On a day when the giant Mexican flag that usually flutters in the breeze over Ciudad Juarez’s Chamizal Park was oddly absent, images of the Aztec eagle were still prominent among the Chihuahua farmers and their supporters who assembled across the street. Defying a fatally-frigid cold front that’s left a slew of victims dead from hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning in the borderlands, a hardy group gathered on the morning of January 18 to begin a trac-torcade to Mexico City. Organized as the Francisco Villa Campesino Resistance Movement (MRCFV), the northern-ers are moving south with a firm message for the administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderon: renegotiate the agricultural section of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to shield corn and beans from foreign competition.
“From Chamizal, a piece of national territory recuperated for the integrity and sovereignty of our country, we make a call to the nation, from the Mexican countryside and from the No Corn, No Country National Campaign, for the rescue of the nation, for the recuperation and clear exercise of our independence and popular and national sovereignty, and for the construction of a truly social, democratic and lawful state,” proclaimed the MRCFV in a declaration.
“The government of Felipe Calderon 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.”
Convened two years before the 100th anniversary of the 1910 Mexican Revolution and the 200th anniversary of the 1810 War for Independence, Mexico’s latest farmer protest is now gathering force with strong historical and political overtones.
Farmers intend to follow the same route that Pancho Villa took on his 1914 march into Mexico City, and on which an anti-NAFTA protest was conducted by protestors on horseback in 1999. Along the journey more farmers and tractors are expected to join the final push into the national capital for a massive anti-NAFTA demonstration. From the four directions of the old Aztec Empire, thousands of farmers plan to stream into Mexico City’s Zocalo square on January 31.
“This action is historic...,” said Victor Suarez, president of the National Agricultural Products Marketers Association. “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. 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.”
Immediately galvanizing the modern farmers’ revolt was the New Year’s Day lifting of the remaining Mexican tariffs on corn, beans, powdered milk and sugar under the provisions of NAFTA. New Year’s Day was marked by anti-NAFTA border protests in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana.
Recognizing the extreme disparities in agricultural development among the three future NAFTA states, the trade accord’s negotiators gave Mexican growers of sensitive products like corn 15 years to achieve competitive status. But as the old Ford and John Deere tractors collected for the trac-torcade made clear, Mexican farmers are still decades behind their counterparts in the US and Canada who use the latest, costly models to work their farms. Surveying the scene, Carlos Marentes, the veteran leader of El Paso’s Border Agricultural Workers Union and the Bracero Project, said the aging tractors on display were the cream of the crop in a countryside where oxen and mules still leave grooves in the land.
“If you go deep, south in Mexico, you will see that the situation is even worse,” Marentes said. “Here we are talking about some of the ejiditarios, campesinos and producers who at least by working in the US were able to make a little bit of money to buy their machinery.” Despite their efforts, small farmers are still left out in the cold by agricultural policies in the three NAFTA that benefit “the big entities involved in large-scale, industrial, commercial agricultural production,” Marentes contended.
Many farmers consider the January 1 tariff elimination the final curtain on their livelihoods. A recent report by Ana de Ita published by the Center for International Policy’s Americas Program, documented how Mexican corn farmers have been subjected to lower prices and US-grown corn imports well above NAFTA quotas almost every year since the implementation of the treaty in 1994. According to de Ita, many US-produced corn imports are encouraged by long-term “soft” loans from the US Commodity Credit Corporation
As the clock approached high noon on January 18, the MR-CFV and its supporters march-ed from the edge of Chamizal Park to the Bridge of Americas between Ciudad Juarez and neighboring El Paso, Texas. Forming a “human wall,” the demonstrators briefly stopped most traffic returning from the United States. Amid chants of “No Corn, No Country,” signs were hoisted that denounced NAFTA and opposed the importation of genetically-modified corn
After a final ceremony at the Mexican eagle statue that guards the entrance to the Bridge of Americas, an advance contingent of 14 old tractors entered the mid-day traffic of Ciudad Juarez and soon passed by the strip malls, fast food restaurants and maquila-doras built on lands which once marked by fields where world-famous cotton was planted.
The northern tractorcade is just one hot piece of the NAF-TA pressure cooker building up in Mexico. In recent weeks, the Mexican press has carried numerous stories on the growing nationwide controversy around free trade. Many of the country’s main political actors are speaking out for or against revisiting the free trade agreement.
Key federal senators and deputies from the PRI and PRD parties verbally support the call by the MRCFV and its allies to renegotiate NAFTA’S agricultural clauses. Resolutions in support of farmers’ demands have passed the Guerrero and Veracruz state legislatures, while a split has developed in the powerful Roman Catholic Church over the free trade treaty. Although the nine bishops of the Mexican Episcopal Conference urge a thorough reexamination of NAFTA’s agricultural sections, Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera is against reopening a trade agreement he says is reaping benefits for his country. The old National Campesino Confederation (CNC), at one time the most influential force in the countryside, gave its blessing to NAFTA when it was approved during the Salinas de Gortari years but is now demanding the trade pact’s revision.
On the legal front, farmers in Guanajuato and other states are pursuing challenges against NAFTA on the basis that the accord violates sections of the Mexican Constitution which protect the economic well-being of citizens. Mexico’s Supreme Court, which has ruled that international agreements cannot supersede the nation’s Constitution, could wind up reviewing the constitutionality of NAFTA.
Until now, the Calderon administration has remained steadfast in its stance that NAFTA will not be touched. While defending NAFTA, the Calderon administration is rolling out a rural development strategy that combines subsidies, technical assistance, yield improvement and crop substitution to create a “winning” countryside that’s firmly integrated into the global market. Far from viewing NAFTA as a drawback, the Mexican government sees the accord as an opportunity for entrepreneurial spirits to meet national and foreign demands for food and fiber. In comments to the press, federal government representatives stress how NAFTA has made Mexico the top supplier of winter fruit and vegetables to the United States.
In 2008, the Calderon administration plans to subsidize almost three million corn, bean, sugarcane and milk producers to the tune of about $2 billion. “The programs and resources are designed to benefit those who have the least, and they are for those producers with the greatest needs of support,” insisted Mexican Agriculture Minister Alberto Cardenas in a statement. US corn producers, who will 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.
CONSUCC Director Guada-lupe Martinez Cruz recently defended the Calderon administration from criticisms by long-standing agricultural organizations like the CNC.
“Those of us who have me-mories know that they did not know how to construct a better future for Mexicans,” Martinez said, “but our organization nevertheless figures that we have to continue making a call to all the farmer organizations that are truly interested in transforming the countryside and rural families.”
The Other Rural Mexico and Beyond
Free trade’s opponents paint a vastly different picture of NAFTA and its consequences on rural Mexico. Among the speakers at the January 18 Ciudad Juarez demonstration was Lucha Castro, a prominent Chihuahua City attorney and women’s activist. Castro read off a litany of disasters she pinned on the free trade model.
Castro charged that NAFTA and related government policies are responsible for expelling five million people from Mexico’s countryside. Merely two percent of Mexico’s agricultural production units benefit from the treaty, while eighty percent of Mexican farm exports are controlled by foreign capital, Castro said. Now a net importer of food, Mexico is in serious danger of losing its food sovereignty, she added.
“To compete with the United States all these years, the forests and soils have been devastated, and our aquifers have been over-exploited,” Castro continued. “Mexican consumers haven’t benefited from better prices. In 1994, you could buy 20 kilos of tortillas and 8 kilos of beans with a minimum wage salary. Nowadays, you can only buy 6 kilos of tortillas and 3 kilos of beans.”
Farm labor activist Carlos Marentes slammed NAFTA for having adverse effects in the United States as well. According to Marentes, the average yearly earnings of chile pickers in New Mexico slid to about $5,500 by 2006. Up against a wave of chile imports from Mexico and other countries, US growers are mechanizing the cultivation and harvest of crops and leaving workers without jobs, Marentes said. Many small farmer and other rural organizations in the US and Canada support the Mexican anti-NAFTA protest, he added.
Rambling south on the Pan-American Highway atop their old tractors, the northern farmers are already attracting significant support from labor groups, non-governmental organizations and ordinary citizens. Prior to the tractorcade’s departure from the border, Oscar Enriquez, director of the Ciudad Juarez’s Paso del Norte Human Rights Center, lauded the contributions of farmers and rural communities to Mexican life. Enriquez predicted that the Pancho Villa tractorcade will sow the long road south with seeds of dignity as well as with love for the family, land and countryside.
“I think the march is a way of defending the culture of the men and women of the countryside. I also think that it has another dimension,” Enriquez said. “When the farmers, the planters, are the transmitters of the right to food, the right to human dignity, the right to culture, the right to own land, it should be clear that the government has the obligation to protect these rights, to respect these rights and guarantee that they are complied with.”
Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico