July 13, 2001

Commentary

Plan Puebla-Panama: NAFTA-like Promises for Southern Mexico

by Sally Meisenhelder

Plan Puebla-Panama (PPP), a mega-development project intended to link and benefit southern Mexico and Central America, is being presented by the Fox administration as one of the motors that will drive the 7% annual economic-growth rate that President Fox promised the Mexican people. The benefits promised by PPP's supporters echo those promised by US supporters of NAFTA in 1993. NAFTA was to bring numerous jobs to the US border and supporters spoke of the creation of high-paying, high-technology jobs for Americans. Services and infrastructure created by NAFTA-fueled growth were going to benefit the entire length of both sides of the border. There also was a vision that in the post-NAFTA world Mexicans would no longer need to emigrate to the US since maquiladoras would create many new jobs for them in Mexico.

The stated, basic objective of PPP is to "take creative advantage of development opportunities that the globalization of the world economy offers and to minimize its negative effects" according to the original document released by the Mexican government. Included in the plan is recognition of the conditions of poverty that exist in the southern region of Mexico. While this area has 28.8% of the population, 84% of Mexico's poorest municipalities are in this region. The area is also home to 74% of Mexico's indigenous people.

It is claimed that the plan would bring improved infrastructure to southern Mexico to facilitate the trans-shipment of goods from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Highways, ports, airports, telecommunication facilities and railroads are envisioned and will link Europe to Asia via the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. More than 90 maquiladoras would decrease migration from the area and provide jobs for an estimated 37,000 campesinos dislocated by the drop in produce prices, especially corn, since the removal of agricultural tariffs mandated by NAFTA.

High-paying, high-technology jobs would be part of the package. The productivity and competitiveness of the labor force would be improved. While Mexico has a national minimum wage of approximately US$4.00 a day, in reality, wages are much lower in southern Mexico. The daily per capita income in the region of Chiapas on the Guatemalan border is only 18.5 cents (US) according to some estimations. It is hoped that this wage disparity with central and northern Mexico plus the addition of new infrastructure will make the area attractive to multinational investors.

Despite the promises of PPP supporters there are many problems with the initiative which make the plan unacceptable to the inhabitants of southern Mexico, according to various NGOs that provided testimony at the First Week for Cultural and Biological Diversity, a conference held from June 14 through June 17, 2001 in San Cristobal, Chiapas and attended by 500 people from 15 countries. The first problem that some residents of southern Mexico find with PPP is the fact that much of the land that would be affected by the plan is inhabited by indigenous people who are seeking autonomy. Furthermore, despite President Fox's announcement to journalists in Central America during the week of June 11, 2001 that Chiapas is in "santa paz" (holy peace), the reality is that low-intensity warfare persists in the area. Edgar Cortez, director of the Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, stated in La Jornada newspaper on June 18, 2001 that "there are 18,000 displaced persons in Chiapas today, community divisions, the presence of violent paramilitary groups, continued disappearance of persons and a permanent hostility to human rights groups."

Gustavo Castro of the Centro de Investigaciones Económicas y Políticas de Acción Comunitaria (Center for Economic and Political Research for Community Action, CIEPAC) in San Cristobal, Chiapas, believes the cost of PPP will be borne by the poor while the benefits will go to multinational corporations. Some of the infrastructure improvements are to be funded by a loan from the Interamerican Development Bank while other projects will be funded by the World Bank, he says. Castro also stated that privatization of publicly held resources will follow and corporations drawn to the area will have access to the region's rich natural resources. Oil, hydroelectric power, water, natural gas and a rich biological corridor, which Andres Barreda, a professor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) has called a strategic gene bank, are being offered to attract investors. Widespread degradation of both the cultural and biological environments is expected, according to Castro.

While the overall benefits of NAFTA remain unclear, the southern border of the US remains one of the poorest areas of the nation with some of its highest unemployment levels. The gap between rich and the poor is widening in New Mexico and some border areas continue to lack basic infrastructure such as clean water and wastewater-treatment facilities. NAFTA has not alleviated these problems along the border. Judging from the comments of people that question or oppose Plan Puebla-Panama it seems possible that like NAFTA the plan will not be able to substantially increase the quality of life on Mexico's southern border.

Meisenhelder is an MA Candidate in Government at New Mexico State University, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas.

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