The Mexican rebellion and NAFTA

By Richard Roman | 1994-03-01 12:00:00

At the stroke of the New Year, day one of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a peasant rebellion began in Chiapas, Mexico, echoing the Zapatista rebellion of 1910. The aboriginal rebels linked their rebellion specifically to NAFTA, to the repressive and undemocratic national regime, and to its antipopular economic policies. At first the government tried to blame the rebellion on criminals and foreign revolutionaries who tricked misguided natives. This view is still bandied about, but the new official line, adopted after several days of visible repression, is that yes, there are "local" problems that must be solved, and therefore the rebels must lay down their arms and negotiate. The government holds that Chiapas is not typical of Mexico and that the rebellion has no connection to NAFTA. But the problems of Chiapas are not unique to Chiapas and are directly related to processes of liberalization and privatization, of which NAFTA is a key component.

Chiapas has distinctive characteristics. Its citizens are the poorest in Mexico and it has the highest percentage of indigenous people. Force, fraud, and state power have been used for centuries to steal native lands in Chiapas. But these attacks on local communities have intensified in recent years with the government's promotion of commercial agriculture for export. Native resistance to these attacks predates NAFTA, but changes related to NAFTA will intensify both the attacks and the resistance.

NAFTA supporters argue that the trade agreement will eventually raise the living standards of the poor and develop the backward regions. In fact, however, NAFTA is a direct assault on these communities. The integration of the Mexican economy into the North American economy will increase the displacement of peasants. As Thomas Benjamin has described in his excellent book on Chiapas, A Rich Land, A Poor People, the profit-driven, commercial agricultural development of Chiapas before the Revolution of 1910, as well as since the 1950s, has already pushed many thousands of native people off their lands. With capitalist economic development the rich became richer and the poor stayed poor or became poorer. NAFTA will intensify this regressive pattern, flooding the Mexican market with cheaper U.S. corn and making local corn production unprofitable. Liberalization and privatization in Mexico already have dramatically increased inequality. While the numbers of super-rich have sharply increased during the Salinas presidency, the living standards of most Mexicans have declined.

The recent strategy of economic development resembles that of the developmental dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (1884-1910). Laws were changed and force was used by large foreign and Mexican agri-business to displace native and nonnative farmers from their communal lands. This led to the peasant Zapatista uprising which, during the civil war, was able to force the new government to adopt a policy of egalitarian agrarian reform. Article 27 of the new constitution adopted in 1917 affirmed the primacy of the nation over the land and subsoil rights (oil and minerals) and became the basis for land reform. The traditional Indian form of communal land holding (the ejido) had survived the colonial period and remnants of it had survived the "Porfiriato" (1884-1910). The ejido became one of the major forms of land reform after the 1910-20 Revolution. Though use rights could be individual, the land belonged to the entire community and no portions of it could be sold. The ejido system protected the community from losing its land and preserved the link between community and land. The economic viability of many ejidos became increasingly problematic over time, however, because of government policies and population growth.

The current Salinas a dministration has changed article 27 to break up ejido land into individually-held parcels that can be sold. The NAFTA-linked collapse of corn prices and the legal right and immediate economic necessity of selling off parcels of the ejidos means that much of the ejido land will be sold and the communes will disappear. Millions of rural people will be driven off the land to housing and jobs that don't exist. The Zapatistas of Chiapas were correct in relating their struggles to NAFTA.

These explosive developments in Chiapas coincide with a deepening political crisis. The unique Mexican authoritarian form of government is a one-term presidential dictatorship with the in cument picking his successor; a quasi-official oneparty state; and a controlled opposition. It has survived without serious challenge for half a century, but is now disintegrating. From the mid 1970s the regime carried out a partial opening-up, over which it may be losing control. Now when it steals elections, the opposition forces mobilize popular resistance and, in several state elections in the last few years, the government has partially backed down. This vacillation between the old style of fraud and repression on the one hand, and the rhetoric and partial practice of opening up the system to genuine opposition on the other, indicates the weakness of the political system. The Salinas strategy had been to maintain an authoritarian political process while consolidating the economic "reforms" of liberalization lest democratization undermine economic "reform." The Chiapas rebellion has created a significant sense of crisis and the regime, after initially responding with total repression, has now made a pact with the major opposition parties for further democratization. While it's unlikely that the ruling party, the PRI, would honor the pact to the point of allowing itself to lose control of the state, the pact itself and ensuing discussions have increased the possibility that popular pressures will challenge those limits. The start of NAFTA coincided with the start of the 1994 presidential campaign, in which these authoritarian practices will be more severely challenged.

Salinas had hoped to crown his presidency by achieving economic integration into North America, which would consolidate and extend his program of economic transformation-but the native people of the poorest state of Mexico rose up in armed rebellion at this very moment of crowning glory. Instead of New Year's Day symbolizing economic integration, it has come to symbolize resistance. The Zapatista rebels of Chiapas challenged both the politics and economics of the regime, thus deepening the political crisis.

There is great fluidity in the Mexican political situation today. After an initial brutal response to the rebellion, the government changed its public stance. Hard-liners were dismissed from the federal cabinet and state government. A peace delegation was sent to negotiate with the rebels. Responding to the demands of the rebels and opposition parties, the government signed a pact with other political parties that promises to make the coming elections more democratic. But aspects of the pact are still vague and future struggles will determine whether it ends up as another manoeuvre to create the illusion of democracy or an opening toward more democratic elections. The government is caught on the horns of adilemma. A genuine, honest election would likely lead to their defeat. Another stolen election, with the accompanying repression, would likely lead to massive civic protests and the spread of armed struggle. Social disorder would threaten the image of Mexico as a stable place for investment and undermine the NAFTA strategy, as well as the political goal of legitimating the regime through economic growth. Social disorder or even armed struggle may turn the Mexican army into an important actor. Unlike the rest of Latin America, the Mexican armed forces have been under civilian control and have had a very low budget. Fights over hard line/soft line, responsibility for human rights abuses, military demands for a greater role, and civic disorders around the elections may change the army's position in society. Ominously, the U.S. and Mexico have started discussions on U.S. military aid. The rebels have said they intend to fight on but are willing to negotiate. The government proposed an amnesty for the rebels if they ceased fighting several weeks ago. A rebel communique said of the amnesty offer: "For what are you going to pardon us? For not dying of hunger? For not remaining silent in our misery?" The amnesty included the army too and would excuse it for its human rights abuses! The rebels are demanding economic policy changes and democratic elections and have said they will not interrupt the elections.

This will be a crucial year for Mexico. The crisis, coupled with popular mobilizations, could conceivably force the government to hold honest elections. Or there could be militarization of the country and direct or indirect military rule. Or the ruling party could use the insurrectionary crisis as a pretext to postpone the elections until the economic "reforms" and NAFTA have had time to bear fruit. Whatever happens in the political and military spheres, the continuation of the policies of economic development and continental integration would go on devastating the native communities and popular sectors of Mexico. Democratization would alter the terrain and possibilities of struggle but not eliminate the struggle over paths of economic development, and over who benefits, and who pays the costs. But the lockedin quality of the NAFTA agreement means that the Mexican people confront not only the power of their own capitalists and multinationals but that of the Canadian and U.S. governments. Like it or not, the people and governments of Canada and the United States are deeply involved in the social, political, and economic struggles inside Mexico. Which side are we on?

Richard Roman is a sociology professor at the University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1994

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1994, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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