“Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ!” was the rallying cry of British manufacturers trying to overturn tariffs on corn 150 years ago. Last month Mexican farmers and workers offered their riposte: 300,000 protesters turned out to march in Mexico City’s main square to call for a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Meanwhile, according to Nebraska's North Platte Bulletin, "Canada's Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz last week said the United States, Mexico and Canada were pleased at how NAFTA was working and there is no reason to reopen negotiations." Mexicans see things differently. For them, free trade is a tool to force subsidized American genetically engineered corn on farmers and consumers. “Sin maíz no hay país - without corn, there is no country”
Mexicans Say: Integrate This!
Katie Kohlstedt | February 11, 2008
Americas Program, Center for International Policy (CIP) americas.irc-online.org
As part of a broadened alliance of Mexican civil society groups demanding the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexicans from all parts of the country occupied Mexico City's Zocalo and surroundings on Jan. 31. In a display of unity, in solidarity with their country's agricultural producers, and the spirit that "without corn, there is no Mexico," Mexican farmers and others seem to be coming together. Mexico's movements appear to be united in a sort of "buy Mexican" campaign. This is not necessarily so.
Some of the 300,000-plus protestors marched against the increasing price of corn, pesticides, and fertilizer. Some marched against the secretary of agriculture. Some marched to get a free lunch. There were marchers against genetically modified organisms (GMO). But at the other end of the march was a contingent of tractors, which had traversed the country to make a dramatic procession down the Avenida Reforma, that sported pro-GMO stickers sponsored by Monsanto.
Despite these various and sometimes divergent interests, the Mexican campaign against NAFTA is finding a focus. One of the best attended sessions of the recent Mexico Social Forum was on the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), a so-called " NAFTA-plus" closed-doors agreement stirring concern throughout Canada, the United States, and Mexico that the most undemocratic corporate domination is yet to come. The SPP needs to be on the radar of citizens of all three countries because it ties the issues together into a particularly sinister package. Security, natural resource control, militarization as a response to the drug war, the abandonment of small farmers, and links between NAFTA and immigration are all now brought together within the SPP—and within the social movements that oppose it.
So Far From God, So Close to the United States
On several levels the recent march in Mexico City was a national affair. Familiar concerns, such as the illegitimacy of the government and the lack of attention to the needs of farmers, were expressed in the many placards that demonstrators waved. With such a diversity of concerns, however, it seemed as though everyone was marching for their own reasons.
But certain key issues unify the dissent. For instance, resentment runs high toward the United States and the role it plays in sensitive questions such as the privatization of Mexico's PEMEX (Mexico's National Petroleum Company). Halliburton's signing of a $683-million dollar contract with PEMEX late in January has led to more speculation about the privatization of one of Mexico's citizens' most treasured resources. An unequal playing field on trade among the NAFTA countries and the transnational takeover of additional Mexican industries are not going to go unnoticed.
These inequities are particularly acute in the countryside. A U.S. farmer, for instance, would receive direct or indirect subsidies equivalent to $150 a hectare (2.5 acres). Cross the river to Mexico and the farmer would only get around $45. According to a report by Mexico's Center for Studies on Public Finance, despite the World Trade Organization's aim to reduce subsidies, the United States gave out more than $611.3 billion in subsidies between 2000 and 2005, while in the same years Mexico gave $46.3 billion and Canada $51.4 billion. Total U.S. subsidies in 2005 were nearly 20 times that of Mexico.
One small corn and beans farmer from the Southern state of Campeche at the march asked, "What is this 'free trade?' Supposedly it's for everyone, right? But 'they' control it and use it for whatever they want." A Mexico City native observing the march said, "Free Trade Agreements don't benefit producers, the people that really work. Obviously, the subsidies that the United States has on grains and agriculture can't compare with the state of abandonment of the Mexican countryside. Clearly we are at a disadvantage."
Sectors such as the sweetener industry have become so desperate, says Dennis Olson of the Institute on Agriculture and Trade Policy, that "the mutual threat of lost markets and livelihoods has compelled Mexican and U.S. sugar farmers to work out an agreement that will give both sides a fighting chance to survive ... it could help us avoid another displacement of Mexican agricultural workers who will be forced to migrate north if we allow NAFTA to be implemented unencumbered." Around three million jobs in Mexico are associated with the sugar industry.
According to President Bush in his final State of the Union address, the next SPP summit will take place in New Orleans this April 21 and 22. If we care enough about the decisions being made on our behalf, we need to represent our peoples there—Canadian, American, and Mexican, and all the cross-national variations. Our leaders continue to collude with the leaders of Wal-Mart, Lockheed Martin, Chevron, and Procter & Gamble (to name just a few) to lump the issues together to provide a smokescreen behind which we cannot allow them to make overriding decisions without consulting us.
These hot subjects of immigration, subsidies, and corporate manipulation with disregard for the public are making people angry in all parts of North America. As divergent as the march was, at least Mexicans were motivated to hit the streets. If only the injustices of NAFTA made enough people angry enough to push their governments to do something.
Katie Kohlstedt (kkohlstedt(a)ciponline.org) is Program Associate at the Americas Policy Program (www.americaspolicy.org) in Mexico City.