Union Tribune

December 5, 2002 

Mexican farmers threaten to blockade the border
Protest targets U.S. farm goods


By JERRY KAMMER 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON – Mexican farming organizations that marched in
Mexico City this week to demand a partial moratorium on the
North American Free Trade Agreement are threatening to
blockade U.S. ports of entry Jan. 1.

"Our plan is to prevent the entry of farm products from the
United States," said Enrique Pérez, a spokesman for one of 12
farming organizations that on Tuesday marched to the U.S.
Embassy and the Mexican Congress.

They complained that the planned Jan. 1 elimination of tariffs on
a variety of U.S. farm goods – including grains, chicken and pork
– will devastate the chronically struggling Mexican "campo" or
countryside.

"We are not thinking about violence, because violence doesn't
solve anything and generates more violence," said Pérez,
spokesman for the Mexico City-based National Association of
Businesses Commercializing Products of the Campo.

But, Pérez added, "Clearly violence can happen, because the
campo can't take this any more."

In Nogales, Ariz., the longtime deputy area port director for the
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization area said he has seen many
demonstrations shut down cross-border traffic for hours at a
time.

"They had one about a month ago, where they were pro testing
electricity rates," said Gary Rehbein, noting that the protesters
have stayed on the Mexican side of the border. "The Mexican
authorities don't break them up; they let them have their
protest. We've never had any violence. We just stand around and
wait."

In San Diego, Customs Service spokesman Vincent Bond had a
similar response to word of the planned blockade. "If they're on
Mexican soil, that's out of our jurisdiction," Bond said.

U.S. diplomats have responded with studied cool to the demand
for a moratorium on the tariffs, as called for in the North
American Free Trade Agreement. They point out tariffs on some
products are already so low that their elimination on Jan. 1 will
provide little competitive advantage to U.S. producers.

But the tariffs have taken on a broader political significance,
focusing the anger of those who claim that trade liberalization
has only widened the gap between Mexico's wealthy few and its
vast population of poor.

Poverty is especially intense in the countryside, where millions
of families have long struggled to eke out a living.

For decades, impoverished campesinos – peasants – have
migrated to Mexican cities or to the United States, a flow that
farm advocates say will only intensify as NAFTA opens up
Mexican markets to the exports of highly efficient, heavily
subsidized U.S. farming operations.

The left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party has pledged its
support to the Mexican farming organizations and the
campesinos, who are their principal members.

The party's Web site pledges "solidarity with the campesino
organizations because their struggle is just and legitimate."

It complains that Mexico's gradual embrace of free-trade
policies over the past 20 years has "only translated into greater
deterioration of the Mexican campo and a dismantling of the
productive capacity of rural areas."

President Vicente Fox, while complaining that U.S. subsidies
provide American farmers with an unfair advantage, has
stopped short of calling for a renegotiation of NAFTA.

The treaty is generally credited with bringing new dynamism to
Mexico's export sector and with attracting billions of dollars of
foreign investment.

Fox is offering new efforts to "armor plate" Mexican farmers
against U.S. imports. However, Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at
the Institute for International Economics in Washington, said
Mexico doesn't have the financial resources to support
large-scale subsidies.

Hufbauer expects Mexico to seek changes in NAFTA that would
phase out tariffs gradually. He said Mexico could justify such
delays by pointing to instances where the United States has not
strictly followed NAFTA formulas. The treaty was adopted in
1993.

"They could say, 'Look at what you guys did to protect your
sugar and your avocadoes,' " Hufbauer said, adding that the
Mexicans could also complain that the United States has not
honored pledges to allow Mexican commercial trucks to operate
more freely north of the border beginning in 1995.

"They can say, 'You couldn't live with it, and we can't either,' "
Hufbauer said.

Only last week did President Bush clear the way for the Mexican
trucks.