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Mexican farmers protest NAFTA hardships

People’s Weekly World Newspaper, 02/07/08

Mexican farmers protest NAFTA hardships

Author: Emile Schepers

Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon is moving to implement a new wave of “neoliberal” policies which are being repudiated by numerous other Latin American countries.

Calderon, of the conservative National Action Party, PAN, was elected in 2006 by a tiny margin, in a vote that the opposition claims was fraudulent. But, backed by the Bush administration, he has pushed boldly to implement a more radical program of “free” trade, privatization and union-busting.

Mexican farmers are angry about Calderon’s refusal to heed their demand to renegotiate agricultural clauses of the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. On Jan. 1, all import tariffs on U.S. corn, beans, sugar and powdered milk were eliminated, and the Mexican farmers claim that this is going to wipe out the livelihoods of perhaps a million more rural Mexicans.

Farmers from across the country made their way to the capital city for Feb. 1 protests, some walking for 1,000 miles, Bloomberg News reported. As tractors led a huge parade of protesters, a herd of cows, tended by dairy farmers angry over low milk prices, waited in a makeshift pen in a traffic circle.

Farmers and farm activists chanted, “Without corn, the country doesn’t exist!” as they marched. Protesters want Mexico to keep its “food sovereignty,” the International Herald Tribune reported.

Corn in particular has terrific dietary and symbolic value for the Mexican people, having been first domesticated in prehistoric Mexico, associated with religious belief systems of indigenous Mexicans, and the subject of struggles for land reforms and rural justice throughout modern Mexican history.

On Jan. 11, 1,000 members of the Sonora State Police and the Federal Protective Police pounced on mine gate pickets at the Grupo Mexico Corporation’s enormous Cananea copper mine. The mine and steel workers’ union has been on strike for several months against the Grupo Mexico management over safety conditions. On the same day, a government labor arbitration board declared the strike to be illegal. The union responded with work stoppages in more than 80 places, and also went to court and got the “illegal” ruling of the labor board reversed. But the company has brought in scabs and claims it is getting ready to resume production.

The Cananea mine has huge symbolic value for the Mexican people. In 1906, there was a violent conflict at the same mine when Mexican miners went on strike against the U.S. owners, an incident which was considered a precursor of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. Furthermore, to use government police forces to stop a strike flies in the face of Mexican labor law, and is a sharp escalation of “class struggle from above.”

Now comes an announcement by the Halliburton corporation that it had signed a $683 million contract with the Mexican national oil company, PEMEX, to drill 58 new test holes, and to take over maintenance of pipelines. This is the latest of $2 billion in contracts that Halliburton has received from PEMEX during Calderon’s administration and that of his predecessor, Vicente Fox.

The Mexican press was not slow to make the connection among the Halliburton-PEMEX deal, former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney, and the many corruption scandals with which Halliburton is associated. The opposition complained that if PEMEX now contracts out such basic functions as drilling wells and maintaining pipelines, it will become the “public” front for international monopoly capital - privatization by the back door. It would also undercut the powerful oil workers union, which several successive Mexican governments have been trying to weaken.

PEMEX also has very high symbolic value. It was created starting in 1938, when the revered left wing Mexican president, Lazaro Cardenas del Rio, nationalized foreign-owned petroleum operations, after those companies refused to obey progressive Mexican labor laws. European countries broke off diplomatic relations and threatened armed intervention. Compensation money was raised by a massive national effort. Cardenas’ wife contributed her jewelry, and millions of Mexicans contributed coins and even farm produce. So “privatizing PEMEX” has been seen as the “third rail” of Mexican politics.

But recently there have been dire warnings that PEMEX is functioning poorly, and that private corporate investment in the entity is needed to get it up to shape. Indeed PEMEX has had many problems. But the opposition claims that there is enough public money available for modifications needed.

How soon the protests generated by these and other blows against the Mexican people can combine into a massive national movement of repudiation of Calderon’s policies remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, labor and social justice activists here in the United States are getting together to organize solidarity for the beleaguered Mexican workers and farmers.

 source: PWW