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Mexico's Workers Fight Against Global
- By Adam Meyer
"I really don't see what is to prevent us from owning all of Mexico and running it to suit ourselves."
- William Randolph Hearst
William Randolph Hearst's quip made around the time of the U.S. bombing of Veracruz in 1914 sounds like something out of a sordid imperial past in which the exercise of raw power and brutal policy are always options on the table. In fact, it is. But what is interesting is that the fanatical colonialist and tycoon Hearst also more or less describes the general U.S. policy towards its "backyard", and Mexico in particular. His statement applies perfectly well today. Even if the warships are not sitting outside the harbor at Veracruz, the guns are being aimed from inside the corporate boardrooms and the policy think tanks in Washington D.C.
Recently this fall, Vicente Fox had proposed another attack on the workers of Mexico; raising taxes on basic necessities such as medicine, milk, gasoline and staple food products. Also part of his proposal was the privatization of many state owned properties including publicly owned movie studios.
But on November 27, nearly 100,000 people marched on Plaza Zocalo in Mexico City to protest the latest rounds of privatization, as well as the proposed tax increases. Protesters shouted, "Nuestro pais no se vende!" or, "Our country is not for sale!" It was an impressive showing of trade unionists, farmers, students, workers and left wing political activists. And while this most recent proposal was defeated in the congress, it is but the latest in long line of privatization schemes aimed to please free trade officials at the expense of ordinary people. One can be sure that there will be much more to come as well.
There are three key things to understanding the situation in Mexico. 1) That any attempt to understand the present state or future course of Mexican politics and economics must begin with a basic understanding of its place in the international economic order.
2) The latest round of privatization and tax hikes affecting the working class and poor of the country are not domestic economic decisions but the following of orders from the free market ideologues and international capitalists. 3) That the resistance to global capitalism among large sectors of Mexican society is real and is growing. And given its geographic proximity and economic interconnectedness with the U.S., the implications for an upheaval against the neoliberal order are of great importance to all those struggling for justice today.
Mexico in the New Economy
Mexico today is a highly unequal nation with close to two thirds of the population living in poverty and one third of those in abject poverty. 26% of Mexico's children live in absolute poverty. This is a particularly striking condemnation of free market capitalism, considering that it is a country that possesses immense natural resource wealth and the productive capacity to meet the needs of its people.
The issue of privatization, an absolute prerequisite of "free market" capitalism and foreign "investment" is perhaps the most crucial issue facing ordinary Mexicans today, especially that of organized labor. The government has been a textbook student, much like Argentina when it comes to following orders from the World Bank, the IMF, and Washington to offer up state industries to private owners and eliminate the safety net for the working population. The government of has already ended its subsidies on the price of basic necessities such as milk, gasoline and even public transportation fees. This was the stage that was set for the latest round of tax increases that provoked the protest.
While the free market measures have been a source of opportunity for the rich, creating a new wave of billionaires and well off local businessmen, the results have been catastrophic for the workers and farmers of the country. In barely twenty years the purchasing power of workers has declined by 75%. This is a time when deregulation of basic industries has lead to soaring prices as people have less and less to buy with. A good example is the 1999 measure enacted by then president Ernesto Zedillo that cut subsidies for electricity and raised the cost by over 30% almost overnight.
An excellent article by David Bacon illustrates the point made by Ramon Pacheco of SME, the Electric Workers Union. Pacheco outlines the broader political implications of this latest round of struggle against privatization, saying, "National ownership of electricity is therefore not just a matter of rates and jobs, but a symbol of Mexico's independence from the United States, especially economic independence."
This is certainly true of the public utilities, but really, just apply that to any publicly owned resource and one begins to imagine the stakes that are at play. The threat of the privatizing of PEMEX, the Mexican petroleum sector is very real, but considering longstanding nationalist sentiments concerning "the crown jewel", that seems to be too far for the moment. Publicly owned industries, aside from their industrial purpose also serve as a real and tangible symbol of resistance to the encroachment of the United States. Rosendo Flores, secretary general of SME points out in the article by Bacon that,
"In Mexico, the people rightly think that the electrical industry and the petroleum industry should be public property and that such public property is the fundamental basis for their nation's existence and of their national sovereignty."
In fact, just as in the U.S., every sphere of public property in Mexico is under assault to be sold out to private companies,
Many farmers have also been engaged in protest actions and are among the hardest hit by privatization.
Before NAFTA in 1992, Mexico imposed restrictions on US imports of maize and provided price support to millions of small family farmers. Under NAFTA, this support from the Mexican government is being gradually phased out, threatening the livelihoods of over 2.5 million peasants and their families. This has fueled the migration of peasants into low wage maquiladora jobs around Mexico, most on the U.S. border. In contrast, the U.S. agricultural industry is now made up almost entirely of huge corporations, which are publicly subsidized. The complete opposite of what the U.S. is forcing Mexico to do. In fact, from 1971 to 1991, Mexico's food self-sufficiency rate (growing their own rather than importing our surplus) went down by over 30%. This too has been growing under NAFTA. Mexico also is the world's 8th largest exporter of goods, and agricultural products rank high on that list.
So lets ask a simple question at this point. Why would a country that is incredibly resource rich and able to produce such a surplus of goods having to pay U.S. corporations to import food? Those are the rules of "free trade" as defined by bankers and capitalists in treaties such as NAFTA, CAFTA, and now the FTAA.
Cultural hegemony, and the "bright light" from Washington
The cultural invasion of United States corporations is also one of the major issues confronting Mexicans increasingly in both the political and economic sphere. They are, of course, intertwined. Mexico is still a place where, despite the chorus of economists and politicians singing praise to the wonders of the global economy, most view U.S. business as a symbol of economic and cultural imperialism: on the one hand dominating the Mexican economy and perpetuating and profiting from horrendous inequality, and on the other hand threatening Mexico's diverse, vibrant and unique cultural heritage in the name of profits and job creation. As one Mexican economic analyst put it: "Part of globalization is adopting the methods and customs of another country."
But when that other country is the United States, a country that is widely viewed as hostile to the interests of the most Mexicans, adopting the "methods and customs" is likely to provoke opposition, and this is exactly what is happening. While in the U.S., we are always taught the endless litany of our virtuous deeds and noble ambitions, in Mexico the United States is a known imperialist nation that has more than once invaded, stole one half of the country, runs constant political interference, and subjects Mexican immigrants within the U.S. to severe exploitation, harassment and poor conditions. In fact, the treatment of migrants has for a long time angered much of the population, and has become very much a political issue for which even thoroughly conservative, bought and paid for leaders like Vicente Fox feel pressure.
One sign of U.S. hegemony that is already creating a popular basis for opposition is the elimination of the Mexican state as both a source of employment, and a source of subsidy for local domestic economic development and sustenance. Here is where the need for American capitalists to dominate Mexican economic life allows it to dominate Mexican cultural life as well, whether it is the bombardment of advertising and cinema in Mexico City, the buying out of various cultural means of production (state owned movie studios, etc…), or the break up of generations old indigenous communities and local subsistence economies in the central and southeastern regions. As ownership becomes increasingly privatized, the new owners, often American, substitute their proven model of "efficiency" and profit, and in doing so, alter the way people work, what they eat, and what their cities and towns look like.
For example, how many people know that Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in Mexico? It accounted for about half of all the new "permanent" jobs created in Mexico last year and does more business (11 billion a year and rising) than the tourist industry. According to the New York Times:
"Wal-Mart's power is changing Mexico in the same way it changed the economic landscape of the United States, and with the same formula: cut prices relentlessly, pump up productivity, pay low wages, ban unions, give suppliers the tightest possible profit margins and sell everything under the sun for less than the guy next door." By the way, the Times give the green light to the rampant destruction of any attempt at economic independence on the grounds that "in Mexico's economy, foreign investment, especially by Americans, is about the only bright light, and many Mexicans know it. Cries of economic and cultural imperialism, rampant 10 years ago, when the North American Free Trade Agreement took hold, are muted now."
Of course, it could it be that the "bright light" of foreign investment is so bright it has blinded the N.Y. Times experts to the truth that the money is being pumped into Mexico to develop foreign owned companies and even this is being paid for by ordinary Mexicans. As N.A.C.L.A. points out: "Mexico during the last twenty years is a prime example of the transfer of resources from the third world to the more advanced nations. Since 1982, the Mexican government has made close to $300 billion in payments on its foreign public debt, which began as no more than $100 billion in loans. Without doubt, these debt payments have resulted in a net transfer of resources that has helped underwrite the economic growth of the richest countries. If we tack on the more than $150 billion that Mexican individuals and companies invest in the United States and Europe, we see that more money leaves Mexico than comes into the country."
In another example of the "bright light" that Americans bring to Mexico is the fact that the United States, in 1999, while condemning the "worst forms" of child labor (are there good forms?) then proceeded to exempt Mexico from this possible fetter to foreign investment. For U.S. companies so close and so eager to continue taking advantage of Mexico's high child poverty rate, it is another example of business as usual, in this case, an unusually "bright light" many child laborers "know" all about.
As for "the cries of economic and cultural imperialism" being muted, it appears as though none of the nearly 100,000 persons were "muted" at the Mexico City protests. Activists from all over Mexico are also turning up the heat on companies that threaten cultural identity, such as McDonalds. Recently, Francisco Toledo, a painter in Oaxaca, and leader of a local activist group, helped launched a protest against the building of a McDonalds in the historic center of Oaxaca City. Over 3,000 people came to reject the Big Mac and were treated to free tamales while listening to traditional music.
Across Mexico, there are numerous examples of people mobilizing to fight the inequalities and injustices perpetrated by the capitalist system. The Zapatista uprising in 1994, which continues to this day has brought very important economic, political and cultural issues into question, and is probably the most well known example. But there are many others as well. Many new, independent and more militant unions have been established, and are active in both the large cities and the industrial maquiladora zone. This is no small feat considering the repression from companies, local officials and the corrupt "official" unions that act more as business agents for the company owners. Every day struggles around a variety of issues such as the PPP (Plan Puebla Panama) in the southeast, or land rights struggles such as the 2002 uprising in San Salvador Atenco, all have the common threads of ordinary people becoming radicalized through the struggle for dignity, human rights and economic justice. The struggles of the people of Mexico should be supported by all working class people here in the United States as well, because we have a lot in common when it comes to fighting the ravages of capitalism and beginning to forge a real culture of solidarity. We have a lot to keep our eyes on, - and, as the recent victory by the workers of Mexico has shown - a lot to learn as well.
Adam Meyer, culinary worker in Austin, Texas and member of the International Socialist Organization takes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.