Union Tribune

December 15, 2002 

Mexican farmers protest NAFTA's squeeze
Cheap U.S. items force many off land


WASHINGTON – Did the North American Free Trade Agreement
do a disservice to the Mexican countryside?

As those who negotiated NAFTA 10 years ago met in Washington
last week to reminisce, Mexican peasant farmers were
continuing to flee rural poverty and head north, drawn by
dollars and by a vast network of Mexican immigrants that has
spread across the United States.

"Mexico is going through its great migration off the land," said
University of California Davis immigration expert Phil Martin,
who compares the exodus to the flight from the American South
during the Great Depression.

The peasant farmers – known as campesinos – no longer enjoy
the cornucopia of credits, subsidies and price supports the
government provided for decades in order to buy their
election-day allegiance.

A decade ago, anti-NAFTA crusader Ross Perot was warning that
the agreement would produce "the giant sucking sound" of U.S.
jobs draining to Mexico's cheap labor markets.

Now, with an urgency that has become shrill and threatening in
recent weeks, Mexican farmers are warning that NAFTA is about
to bury them under an avalanche of cheap U.S. grain. They are
also hearing the giant clucking and snorting sounds of cheap U.S.
chicken and pork.

Last week, in an unprecedented protest, farmers on horseback
broke into a session of the Mexican Congress to register their

"Everybody is absolutely panicked," said Antonio Ortiz Mena, a
member of the Mexican team that negotiated NAFTA. Recalling
that the agreement gave Mexican officials until next month to
prepare Mexico's farm economy for U.S. competition, he said
ruefully, "I'm asking, what did they do for 10 years?"

Martin, Mena and other scholars and government figures spoke
at a conference last week to take stock of NAFTA, which was
initialed in 1992 and went into effect in 1994.

The consensus was that while NAFTA has successfully
encouraged industrial growth, it has largely neglected the
countryside. Twenty-two percent of Mexico's people still live in
the "campo," generating 5 percent of the country's gross domestic

Martin said Mexico's rural misery is accelerating migratory
flows to the United States that have been building for three
decades, causing a huge demographic shift north of the border.

"Mexico's population doubled between 1970 and 2000," Martin
said. During that same period, "The number of Mexico-born U.S.
residents increased tenfold, from less than 800,000 to about 8.5
million." Martin said Mexican immigrants have "pioneered the
now-normal way to immigrate to the United States."

Most now either come illegally or overstay visas that authorize a
limited stay. Many often later obtain a green card with the help
of a relative who has become a citizen or through some other
form of "adjustment of status."

The "chain migration" that often sees one immigrant with a visa
gradually bring in many relatives is a major issue confronting
U.S. policy makers, said Sidney Weintraub, a Mexico expert at
the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Weintraub
noted that illegal immigrants are now estimated at 8 million or 9
million, about half of whom are believed to be from Mexico.

"Whatever we do, we're not going to deport 8 (million) or 9
million people," Weintraub said.

But the warning that another round of legalization will lead
inevitably to more migration "is a powerful argument," said
Weintraub. "It's a political problem of major, major dimensions."

Martin said U.S. policy makers confront a dilemma: How to
devise a system that brings order and legality to the current
immigration turmoil "without setting in motion new forces that
make the snowball roll ever faster down the hill."

Weintraub said that as the United States grapples with
immigration, Mexico needs to put its house in order in ways that
will encourage its young people to stay at home.

That challenge is huge. President Fox has thus far been unable to
win crucial reforms that would help the country avert the threat
of an economy-stunting electricity shortage. He has also not
been able to enact the tax reforms the country needs to help
boost social services spending.

Carlos Heredia, a Mexican political analyst, said part of Fox's
frustration stems from the very democracy that his dramatic
2000 election victory brought to a country that had been ruled
for 71 years by an authoritarian system that made its presidents
virtual kings for six years. Fox now faces a spirited and
sometimes obstructionist opposition.

Under the old political system, President Carlos Salinas was
easily able to get the Mexican Congress to approve NAFTA –
avoiding problems like President Clinton confronted in a
cliff-hanging NAFTA vote in the U.S. Congress in the fall of 1993.

Salinas also spoke at last week's conference. He blamed his
successor, Ernesto Zedillo, for Mexico's farm crisis.

"Salinas could impose a trade agreement from the top down,"
said Heredia. "There was no debate, no discussion, no
democratic dialogue because we had a regime that had strength
. . . but no rule of law. Now we have a regime that has at least the
intention of strengthening the rule of law, but has no internal

Heredia, who says NAFTA has benefited big business at the
expense of the vast majority of Mexicans, has long been an
important voice in Mexico. He now advises Mexico City Mayor
Manuel López Obrador, who is being touted as a front-runner for
the 2006 presidential nomination of the center-left Democratic
Revolution Party.

López Obrador is emerging as a popular and powerful voice of
Mexico's economic discontent. His party is supporting the
Mexican farmers who are threatening to blockade U.S. farm
products at the border Jan. 1, nine years to the day after NAFTA
went into effect.