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The Dallas Morning News
August 9, 2001, Thursday
Mexican farmers take to streets to protest free trade, demand crop subsidies
BYLINE: By Brendan M. Case
MEXICO CITY _ Thousands of campesinos set out Wednesday to protest
Mexico's agricultural policies in this sprawling metropolis. They ended up
picking a fight with President Vicente Fox over the soul of the Mexican
economy. Busloads of people like Jesus Godinez blocked thoroughfares
and snarled traffic in Mexico City, demanding government help to alleviate
years of hopeless competition with U.S. farmers and a long decline in the
prices of corn, sugar, coffee and other basic crops.
Fox's reply: join the new Mexico of entrepreneurs. And forget about
government handouts. "The government has a big responsibility in the
(agricultural) sector, and we're fulfilling that with policies that
eradicate corruption, paternalism and red tape in the countryside," said Fox
in comments as many protesters began arriving late Tuesday for the Wednesday
"Some people still want the government to intervene and substitute for the
creativity of farmers, ranchers and fishermen," said Fox, a former rancher
and vegetable farmer. "But that's no longer possible."
The standoff illustrated the split personality of the Mexican economy, and
the culture clash between Fox's new administration and the millions of
Mexicans who grew accustomed to the paternalistic policies of the
Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
Fox, who ended the PRI's 71-year grip on the presidency last year, has
pledged to make Mexico a nation of bootstrappers and business opportunities.
He also aims to destroy the last vestiges of the PRI's network of subsidies,
which the party often manipulated to generate votes.
At the same time, a decades-old crisis in Mexican agriculture has been
getting worse, due to falling commodities prices and intensified competition
stemming from the North American Free Trade Agreement. Desperate farmhands,
farmers and ranchers say they need a lifeline.
"Prices have been falling ever since we joined NAFTA, and the best we can do
is make enough money to eat poorly," said Godinez, 44, a day worker from the
state of Hidalgo who cultivates corn, alfalfa and beans. "A group of us have
raised half the money we need for a ranching project. But without government
support, there's no way we can make it work."
When it comes to inefficiency, few areas can compete with Mexican
agriculture. In the wake of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the government
handed out small parcels of land _ called ejidos _ to landless peasants.
Over the years, however, those plots were divided and subdivided; they also
lacked investment and economies of scale.
Now, more than a quarter of the labor force works in agriculture, but
farming and ranching account for less than 5 percent of economic output. And
while many economists laud Fox's business-oriented policies, they fret that
unfettered free market policies could cause serious pain in the countryside.
"There's been a crisis in the Mexican countryside for decades, but there's
something different going on now," said Rogelio Ramirez de la O, the
director of Ecanal, an economic consulting firm in Mexico City.
"The old governments were always ready to spend money when things got too
bad," said Ramirez de la O. "This government is opposed to that on
principle, but it's being quite naive. We have more than four million people
who grow corn. You can't teach them to grow asparagus overnight."
Such troubles have already expelled millions of campesinos to the fields,
restaurants and construction sites of the United States. Millions more have
fled to hardscrabble neighborhoods in Mexico City.
Now a few experts even say that hard times could bring social unrest and
armed guerrilla groups. Low coffee prices ranked among the key underlying
causes of the 1994 uprising of the Zapatista National Liberation Army in
"Social movements, including violent ones, have arisen in recent years in
places of economic misery," said Bernardino Mata, a professor at Chapingo
Autonomous University, an agricultural college, in comments to reporters.
"If the countryside gets no help, more serious problems could arise."
Experts like Mata call for government subsidies for farmers, pointing to
price supports and other incentives for farmers in the United States, Japan
and many European countries.
Fox recently said that rich countries spend a yearly average of $1 billion
each on farm subsidies, but said Mexico could not afford such policies.
A few Mexican farmers have found prosperity by planting flowers, herbs and
organic vegetables. Javier Usabiaga, Fox's agriculture minister, has been
dubbed the "king of garlic" for his success with that herb.
But for most people, the problems on the farm seem to be getting worse.
That's especially true for the millions of ejido farmers who have relied on
traditional crops like corn, beans, sugar and coffee.
Mexico used to buy their corn at prices far above those on world markets.
But free market reformers abolished that system in the 1990s, and NAFTA
opened the border to U.S. imports. Over the past three years, prices for
Mexico's 4 million corn farmers have fallen by nearly half.
In the state of Veracruz, sugar farmers are lurching toward ruin. Mexico
says NAFTA allows the export of Mexican sugar to the United States. U.S.
officials disagree, and keep the border closed. Meanwhile, U.S. companies
export corn syrup south of the border, and their low prices have wrested
market share from Mexican sugar.
As for coffee, world prices have fallen to their lowest level in years. And
about four million coffee farmers have seen their incomes plummet.
"The first thing we need is for the government to listen to us," said Jose
Luis Hernandez, an activist with campesino groups and labor unions. "How can
they come up with solutions for the countryside if they don't even ask
campesinos what we need?"
A 20-year-old farmhand named Memi Rios says he needs government subsidies,
after years of watching his wages drop. Two dozen of his friends saw the
same thing, and they decided to move to take their chances in Texas,
California and New York.
"These jobs aren't worth anything anymore," Rios said. "The
doing everything it can to force us off the land. Sometimes I think it would
be easier just to leave the harvest in the fields, and go look for another
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