Union Tribune

December 31, 2002 

U.S. farm goods blockade off in Mexico, but not anger


WASHINGTON A coalition of Mexican farming organizations
has backed off its threat to blockade U.S. farm products
tomorrow at the border, but a leading political analyst here says
he expects anger at the North American Free Trade Agreement
to continue simmering in the run-up to Mexico's national
elections next summer.

"This is an issue that has legs in an election year," said Armand
Peschard-Sverdrup of the Center for Strategic and International
Studies in Washington, D.C.

He said opposition political parties hoping to score electoral
gains and frustrate President Vicente Fox are tapping unrest in
the countryside over increasing imports of cheaper U.S. farm

While the farming economy in Mexico also suffers from
problems ranging from expensive fuel and feed costs to poor
transportation systems and meager rainfall, NAFTA has become
a focal point of its frustrations. Accounting for only 5 percent of
Mexico's GDP but nearly a quarter of its population, the
countryside has long been a seedbed of agitation.

Farmers are upset that NAFTA will end tariffs tomorrow on a
host of farm products. Claiming that they cannot compete
against imports from heavily subsidized U.S. farms, farmers
have demanded that Fox renegotiate the free trade deal, which
went into effect in 1994.

Fox has declined to seek a renegotiation of the agreement, which
has helped Mexico rack up a trade surplus with the United States
expected to reach $37 billion for 2002. But in the face of
protests, including a raucous invasion of the Mexican Congress
this month by men on horseback, Fox has promised increased
financial assistance to farmers.

"This is an issue that is becoming a thorn for Fox," said
Peschard-Sverdrup. He noted that the most militant farming
organizations are allied with the left-leaning Party of the
Democratic Revolution and the centrist Institutional
Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico for 71 years. Known as
the PRI for its initials in Spanish, it ruled until Fox's stunning win
in 2000 at the head of the center-right National Action Party.

The raucous, mounted intrusion into the Congress was just one
of a series of recent forceful protests, including blockading of
highways and the disruption of plans to locate a new airport,
that have tested Fox's administration in recent months. Fox has
resisted calls to clamp down on protesters.

"Fox doesn't want to be heavy-handed like the old government
was in handling some of these issues," Peschard-Sverdrup said.

One sector of Mexico's farm economy received good news this
week, as the United States and Mexico neared an agreement that
would bring relief to Mexican chicken farmers.

While tariffs on most farm products have been greatly reduced
in recent years, chicken producers are protected by a 49
percent tariff on U.S. imports. That tariff, scheduled for
elimination tomorrow, would be restored temporarily under a
deal that also would remove some nontariff barriers Mexico has
placed in the way of U.S. chicken exporters.

The problems of rural Mexico have powerful repercussions
north of the border. Impoverished farming regions have been
the source of much of the emigration that has caused the
Mexican-born population in the United States to surge to more
than 8 million from fewer than 800,000 in 1970.