Chiapas 2011

Bob Epp, NFP State Board

Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan erupted, only sporadic attention has been paid to the countries to our south. Even the Peace & Justice community has seemingly lost interest in this part of the world. Yet, as it is the source of what has recently become America’s so-called ‘immigration problem,’ this region merits more attention than ever. So when I had a chance to be part of a “Work and Learn” delegation to Mexico the first two weeks in January, with a little prodding, I took it. We would be spending most of our time in Chiapas—an area I hadn’t been to for at least 15 years.

The ‘work’ half of the trip consisted, initially, of painting the concrete walls of the home base of an organization working to bring together cultural and religious groups that have historically been at odds with each other. In addition to its ‘on the ground’ mediation efforts, the group is seeking to expand its agenda into influencing public policy. Later on, we built benches for a primary school that serves children of underprivileged families in Cuernavaca.

The ‘learning’ part involved presentations by speakers discussing issues that affect not only Mexico, but extend to the wider world. In San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, we learned the history of the “Zapatista Movement,” which burst onto the world stage January 1, 1994 in an attack on San Cristobal and several surrounding villages. The Zapatistas took their name from Emiliano Zapata, the leader of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The Zapatistas, as you may remember, were indigenous people led by a mysterious, charismatic non-indigenous man who called himself “Subcomandante Marcos.” After 12 days of fighting, a ceasefire was called and negotiations with the Mexican government ensued. The Zapatistas presented a list of economic and social grievances, which had the support of the Catholic bishop of Chiapas, Samuel Ruiz. A strong advocate for the indigenous cause, Bishop Ruiz had taken part in the post-Vatican II Conference in Medellin, Colombia in 1968, where the “Liberation Theology” movement with its “preferential option for the poor” took root. Echoing this theological movement, the Zapatistas insisted that their struggle was not only for themselves, but for the poor and disenfranchised all over the world. A year later, in 1995, they in fact sponsored “The Conference for Humanity and Against Neo-liberalism,” an international convocation in Realidad, Chiapas that was attended by nearly 3,000 people. The negotiations between the Zapatistas and the government eventually ended in substantial agreement. The settled-upon terms, however, were never enacted into law, so there is still ongoing tension between the indigenous and the government.

The date of the January 1, 1994 uprising in Chiapas was deliberately timed to coincide with the implementation of the “North American Free Trade Agreement” (NAFTA) between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Warning of the disastrous economic and social impacts that would result from the agreement—including the required sale of communal lands (called ‘ejidos’) to highest private bidder—the Zapatistas decried NAFTA as “the death knell for indigenous people.”

Once the subject turned to NAFTA, we spent several hours one afternoon with a representative from the organization “Otros Mundos” (Other Worlds) who gave us an overview of the effects the trade pact has had on Mexico. The original intent of the agreement was to eliminate trade barriers and encourage international investment—and for multinational corporations and people of wealth, NAFTA has been a bonanza. Open pit mining, for example, is now occurring in Mexico as a result of the agreement, and the speaker referenced a Canadian company at Cerro de San Pedro that was mining for gold and silver. Pollution from the mine had poisoned the local water supply, however, making the water unfit to drink. Despite protests, the inhabitants have no legal recourse, as the free trade agreement trumps any federal, state and local restrictions. The agreement even allows foreign corporations to sue host governments if they feel their corporate prerogatives are being restrained by a country’s laws or regulations.

The effect on the rural areas of Mexico has been especially devastating. In Mexico, 10 million people—a quarter of the work force—live off the land. Since NAFTA’s adoption, the U.S. has annually exported huge quantities of subsidized corn to Mexico, undercutting the local price and driving small farmers out of business. Roughly 2 million people have been displaced from the agricultural sector since 1994 and the rural poverty rate has climbed to 85 percent. Well over half a million of these former farmers have wound up migrating to the U.S. in search of work.

With the dramatic rise in the world price for grain, there is now no surplus corn to export to Mexico. And with Mexican farmers having been driven off the land and little local corn available, the price for corn has risen to where it is beyond the reach of many people in a country where it is a staple in making tortillas. Is it any wonder then that people who are economically desperate to leave their homes and families to seek work in another country? Or that, having found a place to live and work, send money back to their starving families in Mexico?

NAFTA has undoubtedly contributed to the influx of undocumented workers into the U.S. Our immigration laws, however, have not kept pace with the human tide coming north. Even if an immigrant wants to do everything legally, the path to citizenship is complicated. It may take as long as 16 years. Crossing the border without legal documentation is oftentimes the only recourse for uprooted people fleeing poverty and want.

In the industrial section of the economy, NAFTA has also contributed to some bizarre economic inequities. The gentleman from Otro Mundos told us about a case where a U.S. manufacturing plant set up a factory in Mexico because of the cheap labor, but its product cannot be sold from the factory to any Mexican distributor. It is instead sold to a distributor in the U.S. who then can sell it back to an outlet in Mexico, but must of course pay a tariff for crossing the border back into Mexico. Therefore, a product made in Mexico by Mexican workers sells for more in Mexico than it does in the United States.

He also had some interesting comments about how the future economy would function. With energy becoming more and more expensive, transportation of goods, he said, would become a major factor in the pricing of food. Transportation costs are the ‘Achilles heel’ of ‘globalization.’ Inevitably, he told us, for people everywhere, we will need to rely more and more on locally produced food.

Many of you may remember Richard Flamer, formerly of Omaha. He is now operating a small Catholic mission just outside of San Cristobal de la Casas. The day before I left, I contacted him and he came and took me to his home for supper. He says he is as happy as he has ever been. He works with the poorest of the poor. So, all in all it was a valuable, albeit, somewhat exhausting two weeks.

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