NAFTA Treaty: Death Trap for Mexico's Campesinos

Revolutionary Worker #1212, September 14, 2003, posted at

On May 14 of this year, the world was shocked and sickened by the news that 18 people who had crossed the Mexican border into the U.S. were found suffocated to death in an abandoned tractor-trailer truck in Victoria, Texas. Four of those who died in that trailer were from Central America, one was from the Dominican Republic, and 13 were from Mexico. They were among dozens of people packed into the locked trailer, which was being used to transport these immigrant workers to Houston.

If the dead could speak, the stories of those who died in that trailer would paint a picture of back- breaking labor in the drought-stricken pueblos of Mexico. Their stories would tell of ruined dreams, parched like a field of dried cornstalks--and of lives ground down by the machinery of imperialism. It was U.S. imperialism that stretched out its hand and tugged these immigrants toward their last gamble on a future, that beckoned them forward to step into that trailer of death and then bolted the door and cut off the air.

The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)--a key part of U.S. imperialism's "development plan" for Mexico--has the Mexican economy caught in a chokehold. And the systematic ruin and death of millions of campesinos is part of that plan.

A Countryside Without Campesinos

Some time in early May, Oscar Gonzalez, 18 years old, began the journey that would end his life. Oscar was from the town of Plan de Iguala in San Luis Potosí, a state in central Mexico that for years has suffered from a devastating drought. Since he was 7 years old, Oscar had worked with his father on their small plot of land.

Oscar figured that if he could farm with a tractor instead of a machete his family could make a living. He wanted to go to the U.S. to make money to buy a tractor. In the U.S. there are two tractors for every farmer. In Mexico there is one tractor for every 50 campesinos. What Oscar might not have realized is that under the "development plan" of the U.S. and Mexican rulers, his family's farm--and those of countless other rural families--was meant to fail, no matter how hard he and his family worked.

As the NAFTA treaty was being negotiated, a high official of Mexico's Department of Agriculture said: "The possibility of expelling 15 million Mexicans from their lands was considered acceptable, an undesirable but necessary effect of the modernization of the rural productive apparatus."

Another Mexican government official said: "In the Mexican countryside there are millions of extra campesinos. The population should be reduced from 25 million to around 5 million."

Following the dictates of world finance capital, the Mexican government is driving millions of campesinos off their land--a wrenching process that means tearing out Mexico's campesino roots. Mexico's role in the globalization chain gang is a "maquiladora nation." Maquiladoras are foreign-owned factories that produce goods for export, and they have little connection with the national economy. The pieces assembled by low-paid Mexican workers are imported--and the finished products are then exported.

"Free trade" under imperialism means free exploitation of the people and resources, as the national economy of a country like Mexico is stripped of import taxes or laws that protect the economy from total manipulation and control by huge multinational corporations. The free-trade fairy tale says that "liberalizing the markets" causes each developing nation to find its "niche" in the world market, "producing what it produces best." This "comparative advantage" supposedly acts as a "motor of development" and raises the standard of living of the poor. But in the real world, the result is that Third World governments compete over providing the most "exploitable" work force to attract foreign investment.

In the early 1990s, the Mexican government put into place laws that allowed huge corporations to take over vast amounts of land and foreign investors, mainly from the U.S., and to bring strategic sectors of the Mexican economy under their direct control. The government agency (Conasupo) that used to buy agricultural products from the campesinos was abolished. The campesinos were abandoned to the brutalities of the world market. Credit was cut off to the food-producing sector at the same time as millions of tons of food imports from the U.S. poured in. Hundreds of thousands of small businesses folded. 600 campesinos are forced from their land every day.

The Mexican government subsidizes corporations who export from Mexican soil. The displaced peasants who immigrate to the United States subsidize the survival of millions of Mexican people.

Living on Less Than a Dollar a Day

Ricardo Gonzalez, Oscar Gonzalez's cousin, left behind his wife Alicia and a one-year-old son. "He said he was going to the United States because he wanted to make a better life for his boy," said Alicia. Ricardo wanted to add a kitchen to his house so his wife could cook indoors, and to dig a well nearby so they wouldn't have to bathe in the lake. Ricardo grew sorghum, a crop for which there is no market due to huge U.S. imports. Alicia continued, "He wanted to stay, but he said that here in Plan de Iguala, there is nothing." So he crossed the border with Oscar. Ricardo's body was returned home and buried next to his cousin Oscar.

One-quarter of Mexico's population--25 million people--live in the countryside, dispersed in 198,000 pueblitos of less than 2,500 people. Six out of ten campesinos are subsistence farmers who eat what they produce. Two out of three campesinos must work as jornaleros (day laborers) or at some other job in order to survive.

The most extreme poverty in Mexico is found in the countryside, primarily in the indigenous areas. Twelve million people live on less than $1 per day. But they often live on land that is strategic in resources and "development potential." Another imperialist "development" scheme, Plan Puebla-Panama, is designed to complete the process of turning millions of campesinos into propertyless proletarians. (See "Plan Puebla-Panama and the Nightmare of Imperialist `Progress,' " RW #1184, available online at

The NAFTA treaty has spread ruin throughout all social classes in Mexico--except for those who have connections with imperialism and are able to help facilitate its exploitation of the Mexican people. Among the "winners" under NAFTA are those in the Mexican elite who operate high exploitation agriculture--like the Fox family enterprises, whose vegetable export ranch utilizes child labor. Another who has profited is Javier Usabiaga, Fox's secretary of agriculture, known as the "King of Garlic." He is known in Guanajuato for renting land from campesinos for his garlic export business and returning it with a depleted water table.

Bimbo, the largest food producer in Mexico, has helped displace Mexican grains from the market by buying cheaper U.S. grain. Grupo Maseca, which owns Mission Tortillas in the U.S., is the largest producer of tortillas and corn flour in the world. It has been able to expand its business using imports of U.S. corn. The corporation has also displaced native corn growers in Guatemala by flooding the Guatemalan market with corn flour.

The Ruining of Corn Farmers

Elisendo Cabanas, 27 years old, father of two, left his small village of Guadalupe de Tulcingo and ended up dead in the trailer in Texas. He told his mother before he left, "I have to go for my children and my wife." Elisendo's brother Adolfo said, "We don't have a choice. There are no jobs here. There is nothing he could do. Why come back? To work in the fields for $2 or $3 a day?" He remembered Elisendo saying, "I want to live better so that my son can go to school."

Tulcingo is in the "Mixteca Poblano," a Mixtec Indian region in the mountains of Puebla in southern Mexico. Most people here only own less than a hectare of land and cannot survive by subsistence farming. Some are trapped in debt peonage by rich landowners and are forced to migrate every season to the industrialized farms in northern Mexico to work off their debt. The towns have become crowded with maquiladoras and the misery that they create.

Maquiladora production has penetrated into the households of the indigenous people in the mountains of Puebla. Now many indigenous women labor in solitude in their homes or backyards, making products for export. They are paid $20 a week.

90% of the people in this region depend on money sent by immigrants working in El Norte. These workers send back $800 million to Puebla every year. Many from Puebla migrate to New York--and several people from the area worked in the World Trade Center and died in the 9/11 attacks.

Today Mexico produces more things than ever before, but it no longer produces the food it eats. And decisions relating to Mexico's food--whether its people will eat and what the people eat--are now in the hands of the U.S. 60% of Mexico's food is imported from the U.S. The Mexican government spends roughly $10 billion a year on food imports--roughly the same amount of money sent back home by Mexican immigrants working in the U.S.

With NAFTA, cereal grains have poured into Mexico from the United States. Almost half of the campesinos forced to leave the countryside were producers of staple grains like corn. Grain production is controlled on both sides of the border by huge agro-industrial corporations like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. Prices of grains in Mexico have risen 257% since the signing of the NAFTA treaty. Close to 80% of Mexican workers cannot afford to buy the basic necessities of life.

Corn has historically been at the basis of small agriculture in Mexico and is the staple food of millions of campesinos. At the time NAFTA was being negotiated, corn was the main crop cultivated by Mexico's campesinos and accounted for 60% of land under cultivation. About 10 million campesinos depended directly on corn for their livelihood.

But corn is a crop grown for consumption and not for export--so the Mexican government considers its cultivation as "non-productive" and a "drain" on the economy. The government provides no credit to basic food producers. And the cost of fertilizer, water, and electricity is much higher in Mexico than in the U.S. Even if campesinos grew a surplus, they cannot sell it because they don't have connections with the buyers, who are mainly multi-national corporations.

Mexican Secretary of Agriculture Javier Usabiaga expressed the government's cold-blooded attitude toward campesinos: "It would be better if they'd find something else to do...those who don't understand this, don't want to understand. We are trying to get across a basic point to grain producers and all producers: you make yourselves efficient within the international parameters or you look for something else."

The Debt Bail-out Trap

Edgar Gabriel Hernandez was from a family of corn farmers in Labor, San Luis Potosí. Edgar, 17 years old, worked in a maquiladora. He wanted to save money to build a house for when he got married, but since he earned only $6/day that was impossible. He died in the tractor- trailer on May 14 together with 21-year-old Juan Carlos Castillo Laredo, who was from a nearby area, the county of Cardenas, San Luis Potosí. Eight others from Cardenas were in that same trailer but fortunately did not die. In all there were 15 people from San Luis Potosí in that truck, four of whom died.

Under NAFTA, tariffs (import taxes) on corn imported into Mexico are not supposed to be lifted until 2007. But already in 1996, Mexico imported close to 6 million tons of corn from the U.S.--meaning certain bankruptcy for millions of Mexico's corn farmers.

With NAFTA, the Mexican government received a small advantage in the export of fruits and vegetables to Canada and the U.S. and some other concessions for corporations that export from Mexico. This was said to give the Mexican economy "comparative advantage." But in return, the corn and basic grain sectors of the Mexican economy were sacrificed.

When the value of the peso suddenly dropped in 1995, the Mexican economy was thrown into severe crisis. When the peso crisis threatened to send destabilizing tremors around the world, the Clinton administration "bailed out" Mexico with a $100 billion loan. One of the conditions of this loan was that Mexico had to import $1 billion worth of corn from the U.S. that year. Between 1995 and 1996 Mexico's corn imports rose 120%.

Among other onerous provisions of the "bail-out" were: Mexico's oil revenues would be deposited directly into the U.S. Treasury bank if Mexico defaulted on loan payments; the privatization of the national university (the government's attempt to carry this out failed because of a fierce strike by students); and the privatization of the electrical system (which is not yet complete). The "bail- out" loan itself was just transferred from one U.S. bank to another and was used to pay Mexico's interest payments to U.S. banks.

Disappearing Agricultural Jobs

Jose Luis Ramirez first went to the U.S. when he was 18 and found a job in a brick factory in Tennessee. He came home to visit his family, and found work in El Nanche Colorado, Guerrero, in southern Mexico. A large river runs through the fertile land. Giant export companies like Chiquita rent land cheaply from the campesinos, and they have built up huge mango and cantaloupe plantations. Campesinos like Jose Luis Ramirez then are forced to become contract workers--peones--in these plantations, sometimes on their own land. Campesinos come from far away to work in the plantations, getting up at 3 a.m. to ride down the mountain in the back of a pickup.

At age 20, Jose Luis Ramirez decided he needed to go back across the border, and saved the $1500 it cost to make the journey. He ended up among those losing their lives in the trailer in Texas. Fructuoso Ramirez explained what drove his son to leave for El Norte again: "Yes, we have work. But what can you do with 63 pesos (about $6) a day? And you have to slave from 7 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon. If you just buy a chicken the money is all gone. That's all this government has given us. You can't live off of what you earn... The life of a peon is worth nothing."

On January 1 of this year, a provision written into NAFTA went into effect, eliminating all tariffs on all agricultural products except for corn, beans, and powdered milk. The effects of this measure are rippling through the economy. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture estimates that due to the elimination of these tariffs, the number of poor people in Mexico (already estimated to be 75% of the population, with 43% living on less than $2/day) will increase by 8 million this year.

U.S. agricultural products, subsidized by the government, are undercutting small farmers worldwide. In Mexico the agricultural subsidies go mainly to the U.S. agribusiness corporations exporting from Mexican soil.

There is a severe shortage of jobs in Mexico. Estimates are that at least 3 million agricultural jobs in Mexico will disappear this year. At the same time that NAFTA is ruining any possibility for a decent life in the Mexican countryside, Mexico's industry is also being hit hard. The maquiladora sector only contributes low-paying jobs with slave-like conditions to the economy. And because of the recession in the U.S. economy, millions of these maquiladora jobs have left Mexico--as capitalist investors move production to countries where wages are even lower and workers can be exploited even more deeply.

In the face of anti-NAFTA protests, the Mexican government refuses to try to renegotiate the treaty. In one protest last December, campesinos burst into the House of Representatives (Camara de Diputados) on horseback, sending the politicians scrambling to hide under their desks in fear. Many of the anti- NAFTA actions have been led by sections of well-off campesinos who once viewed NAFTA as an "opportunity" for them.

Mexican President Fox extols the virtues of NAFTA because Mexico now exports more to the U.S. than any other Latin American nation: "We sell $30 billion more to the U.S. than they sell to us...[NAFTA] is good business for Mexico." But as one study explained, the reality is that Mexico's high level of exports merely reflects the transfers from subsidiaries of multinational corporations located in Mexico to others located in the U.S. Such exports do not stimulate the Mexican economy, because they have few linkages with the overall Mexican economy. As the study noted, "These exports...have not become a motor for the rest of the economy; instead they are becoming an island that has less and less links with the rest of the economy."

The most successful "Mexican" agricultural export is tequila. The main tequila producer is Seagrams, which utilizes Mexican labor to grow and harvest agave plants to make tequila for export. Mexican agave farmers have been driven out of business because Seagrams and other producers like Cuervo and Bacardi offer prices that don't even cover the cost of production. When the farmers protested, they were attacked and thrown in jail.

Landless in Guanajuato

The village of Pozos, Guanajuato, lost three men in that same tractor- trailer. Pozos is a pueblo of 2,000 residents located 10 miles north of the industrial town of Celaya in central Mexico.

Two brothers, Serafin and Roberto Rivera, died together in the truck. Serafin had worked for two years in Florida picking tomatoes. Money he sent home went into the building of a new brick room in his house. He didn't want to go back to Florida. But the money also paid for school for his son and medical treatment for his daughter. This time he took his brother Roberto with him. Roberto wanted to put a roof on his house and repay debts from building it. His wife Cecilia was several months pregnant at the time of his death, and they had a 3-year-old son, Juan.

Serafin and Roberto's neighbor, Hector Ramirez, had a small store in the first floor of his house. The family had accumulated a lot of debts, so Hector was headed to Florida with Roberto and Serafin to pick tomatoes. His wife Laura said that now she will have to pull her three daughters, aged 10 to 13, out of school and put them to work. "If we don't have an education, there's nothing left for us but field work. But what choice do I have? We worked very hard to have our little house and our little truck. Now we have to sell everything. What else is left us?" Laura's father is planning to try his luck in El Norte to help support his daughter and her family.

When Mexico used to produce its own food, Guanajuato was part of the area known as "Mexico's breadbasket." Now, the people of Pozos have no land, and most work as day laborers in the agribusiness fields or digging wells in the area.

The factory jobs in Celaya require secondary school education, and most people in Pozos can only finish primary school. The people in the county of Juventino Rosas, where Pozos is located, lost their land 20 years ago to a landlord who formed a large plantation. Most of the men in the area immigrate to the U.S. for work. And it is said that the most common way for the men of Pozos to reach El Norte is to climb into a tractor-trailer truck.

Guanajuato is the home state of President Fox. During his presidential campaign, Fox pointed to the state as an "example" for the nation. But in reality, of the 4 million inhabitants of the state, 3.5 million live in poverty. Guanajuato has one of the highest ratios of immigrants in the nation. These immigrants sent back home $1 billion in 2002--the equivalent of half of the state budget. Out of the 31 states in Mexico, Guanajuato is rated number 28 in social programs like health care, housing, and schooling. So the families are dependent on money sent back from relatives working in the U.S. And the three men from Pozos died trying to provide these basic things for their families.

From the Ruined Countryside to Urban Shantytowns

The death of Jose Antonio Villaseñor and his 5-year-old son, Marco Antonio, in the locked trailer in Texas hinted at the disquieting levels of desperation among Mexico's urban poor that even the U.S. press could not quite ignore. Jose Antonio was a taxi driver in Mexico City. The family moved to the city from the state of Hidalgo, one of the areas where the agricultural crisis is sharpest.

Mexico City is the largest city in the world, with a population of over 20 million. It is surrounded by concentric circles of urban slums that lack basic services like running water and sewage removal. One such community is Naucalpan, where Jose Antonio lived.

Studies predict that, with current growth patterns under the "development" plans for the country, Mexico City's population will grow to 50 million by the year 2030. Jose Antonio must have felt that the future for him and his son was like a dark tunnel, with only one way out--El Norte.

In the space of 40 years, Mexico has gone from having a majority rural population to a majority urban population. At present 75 million people, or 75% of the population, live in urban areas.

Recent economic analyses have warned that because the Mexican economy is so directly tied to the U.S. economy, which continues to slide downward, more and more jobs will be lost. The part of the Mexican economy where jobs are growing is the informal economy in the cities. Well over half of the urban population work in "changarros"--little mom-and-pop businesses, like selling tamales on the street. As the unemployment situation has become increasingly desperate, Fox has been giving upbeat pep talks to promote "changarros" as the road to "progress."

Two Sides Lining Up in Cancun

On September 9-11, the World Trade Organization (WTO)--the finance capitalists, bankers, and mega-planners who make and impose the murderous "free trade" rules on Third World countries--will be meeting in Cancun, Mexico. Activists against capitalist globalization are coming to Cancun from around the world to oppose the WTO. And among their ranks will be thousands of campesinos from the countryside of Mexico.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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