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Ten Years after NAFTA (December 24, 2003)

Just after midnight, the pitch-black New Year’s night suddenly came alive with darting shadows. The slap-slap of rubber boots against the slick pavement echoed throughout the silent neighborhoods on the periphery of the city. Sleepy dogs stirred in the patios, stretched and bayed, their howling catching from block to block, barrio to barrio.

Across the narrow Puente Blanco, down the rutted Centenary Diagonal, up General Utrilla from the marketplace, dark columns jogged in military cadence. With their features concealed behind ski-masks and bandannas, men and women without faces advanced on the strategic center of San Cristobal de las Casas, the capital of the Mayan highlands of Chiapas, Mexico’s most southern and impoverished state.

So it began, the rebellion of the Zapatistas, January 1st, 1994, in the very first hour that that beacon of corporate globalization, the North American Free Trade Agreement, took effect.

Ever since that first frigid midnight, the fates of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and NAFTA have been irrevocably intertwined. But long before New Year’s 1994, the two were already old adversaries.

Three years previous, in anticipation of NAFTA agricultural chapters, then president Carlos Salinas had pushed a constitutional amendment through the Mexican congress that ended distribution of land to the landless, a pillar of agrarian reform for which revolutionary martyr Emiliano Zapata had given his life, and privatized the “ejido” and the “comunidad,” the two collective forms of landholdings for poor farmers in Mexico. The still-clandestine EZLN saw the “reforms|” as a betrayal of their namesake and a death blow to their Mayan farmer constituency.

In early 1993, as NAFTA corn quotas were being negotiated in Washington, the Zapatistas, fearing that massive importation of US and Canadian corn would displace them from the Mexican market, secretly formulated a declaration of war against the Salinas government. “We had no other choice,” the EZLN’s charismatic mouthpiece Subcomandante Marcos once explained. The Mayans are known as “The People of the Corn” and their survival is dependent on the cultivation of maiz.

In May of that year, as NAFTA neared a crucial vote in the US Congress, the EZLN and the Mexican military squared off in a jungle fire-fight that left several civilians and soldiers dead, but both Salinas and US president Bill Clinton squelched news of the clash so as not to alarm the legislators. If indeed word had leaked out that an Indian rebellion impended in Mexico, the specter of instability south of the border might have sealed NAFTA’s fate, Ross Rogers, chief political officer at the US embassy in Mexico City conceded to this reporter days after the uprising had taken Washington “by surprise” — NAFTA cleared the US House of Representatives by only 34 votes six weeks before the rebellion exploded.

During the run-up to NAFTA, Salinas had bragged that the trade treaty would elevate Mexico into the first world but the takeover of San Cristobal and six other county seats in southeastern Chiapas January 1st by dirt-poor Indian farmers forcefully reminded the nation that it was still deeply mired in the third. The Zapatista uprising acutely embarrassed Salinas at the beginning of a tumultuous election year and he eventually left office in disgrace.

Ten years later, Mexico remains in the third world with one of the widest income divides between rich and poor outside of Africa, the World Bank reports — a Bank paper issued in anticipation of the tenth anniversary of NAFTA concludes that the trade treaty has only aggravated that divide, most agonizingly so out in the countryside and down on the farm where the poorest Mexicans live.

US dumping of grains heavily subsidized by Washington has devastated Mexico’s agricultural sector, with small farmers all over the country unable to compete with the flood of cheap corn from the north. According to a recently released Carnegie Institute for Peace study “NAFTA Promise and Reality — Lessons For Latin America,” l.3 million farmers here have abandoned their plots as the direct result of the inundation of NAFTA-driven imports — Mexico will import six million tons of corn in 2004, 60% of it thought to be genetically modified.

The exodus from the countryside was perfectly predictable. In fact, it had been predicted in a study of possible NAFTA impacts prepared for Mexico’s Secretary of Agriculture by UCLA professor Raul Hinojosa. Hinojosa now says his numbers — up to ten million farmers leaving the land — were a worst case scenario. But with five per family, NAFTA has already pushed 6.5 million residents of rural Mexico off the land and into the migration stream, and the worst case scenario is rapidly coming true.

As the Zapatistas foretold a decade ago, the trade treaty would soon sound a death knell for Mexican campesinos. This has literally come to pass. Since NAFTA was signed, over 3,000 Mexicans, many of them displaced farmers, have lost their lives crossing the northern border to seek gainful employment on the Other Side.

Although NAFTA was billed as a deterrent to “illegal” immigration, the numbers have actually gone up since 1994, the Pew Hispanic Institute concludes — about 650,000 Mexicans, almost all of them undocumented, have arrived in El Norte each year since Mexico’s 1995 peso devaluation crisis (partially triggered by NAFTA trade distortions.)

The massive importation of genetically modified corn has produced serious contamination of native seed in the Indian highlands of central and southern Mexico. The destruction of ancient corn in the very geography in which it was first cultivated, is a frontal attack on bio-diversity but it is not the only downside of how NAFTA has stained the environment here at a cost which the Carnegie report tabulates as being in the billions (36 of them to be precise.) One example: since NAFTA kicked in, southern Mexico has lost two million acres of tropical forests to transnational timber giants like the Boise Cascade Corporation.

Industrial workers have fared no better under NAFTA’s heavy hand. The aggressive invasion of manufactured goods has decimated national industries from textiles to toys. Mexico’s banking system is now all but wholly owned by US, Canadian, and European banks and its railroads now belong to Union Pacific. Such “economic integration” has not brought much reciprocity. Ten years after the start-up of NAFTA, an agreement (or treaty as Mexico terms it) that stipulated Mexican truck drivers would be licensed to ply US highways, they still cannot drive their rigs across the border.

Although trade between the US and Mexico has multiplied 300 fold since that fateful January 1st ten years back, only half a million jobs have been created south of the border — NAFTA was advertised as a job creator. Most of those new jobs were in the maquiladora sector along the border where transnationals were flocking to absorb cheap Mexican labor. But that much-hoopla-ed “NAFTA Miracle” has proven ephemeral. In the past two years, more than 600 foreign-owned “maqs” have fled Mexico for lower wage climes like Honduras, Haiti, and China in this cut-throat race to the bottom.

Meanwhile, a quarter of a million maquiladora workers are not working and Mexico is experiencing its highest unemployment numbers since the 1995 crisis. Although NAFTA was supposed to “lift all boats,” for those Mexican workers who still have a job, real wages have fallen by 3.4% since January 1st 1994, affirms the Carnegie report.

US efforts to extend NAFTA’s dubious benefits all the way to Tierra Del Fuego via the ALCA (or Free Trade Area of the Americas) have hit a wall as leery Latin leaders like Brazil’s Lula resist Washington’s commercial hegemony. Rather than suffer one more shameful fracaso on top of the blow-up at World Trade Organization negotiations in Cancun in September, at the ALCA summit in Miami in November, the US signed off on a non-accord that would allow any Latin signatory to opt out of ALCA protocols with which it did not agree.

Just to add to the sting, the Washington-imposed CAFTA, a NAFTA for Central America, fell apart after Costa Rica, the wealthiest nation in this poverty-stricken narrow neck of the Americas, pulled out of negotiations this December. The CAFTA debacle on top of Miami and Cancun, are significant setbacks for the globalizers whose passion for planetary domination Marcos and the EZLN have been warning the world about for years.

If NAFTA has had a rocky row to hoe, the Zapatistas too have traveled an arduous track since that starry night ten years ago. Invaded, occupied (18,000 Mexican army troops still patrol the highlands and jungle of southeastern Chiapas), and massacred (46 Tzotzil Indian supporters at Acteal six years ago this Christmas), the rebels have also been attacked by the political parties and suffered hard-nosed indifference from the congress, the courts, and much of the press.

Hundreds have been murdered by the military and the paramilitary formations that still infest the region and thousands more have died from curable diseases since 1994. But the Zapatista movement has survived and ten years later, with a boost from national and international non-government organizations (NGOs) and a fair trade price for their organic coffee, they are expanding infrastructure.

Rebuffed by the Mexican Congress and the political parties who mutilated an Indian Rights bill that would have granted limited autonomy to the nation’s 57 distinct indigenous peoples and for which the rebels had doggedly battled for years, the EZLN is building its own autonomy. 38 autonomous municipalities, their walls ablaze with striking murals, now form the Zapatista geography in Los Altos, the Selva, the Border, and the north of this heavily-Indian state.

This past summer, the Zapatistas reformed their organizational structure, creating Committees of Good Government (“Juntas de Buen Gobierno”) at five regional “caracoles” (literally “spirals”) or political and cultural centers, establishing regional autonomy as a living reality, at least in southeastern Chiapas.

After ten years on the war — and peace — path, the EZLN has changed Mexico in important ways.

The Zapatistas are fond of saying that they put on their masks to unmask Mexican racism and unquestionably, the Indians are not the same as they were on that distant January 1st. Now in the vanguard of social change, their numbers are said to have increased from ten to 20 million in the past ten years — not as a result of high birth rates but rather because mestizos, now proud of their indigenous roots, today identify themselves as Indians.

The Zapatista rebellion galvanized a civil society that had been seething ever since the 1968 student massacre in Mexico City underscored general dissatisfaction down below. On the march since ’94, civil society rescued the rebels from government persecution time and again during their most difficult years, and in 2000, civil society was instrumental in toppling the tyranny of the long-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), an event that was akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall here.

Across borders, the Zapatistas have been in the forefront of the struggle against corporate globalization, having sewn the seeds of Seattle (and Cancun) at their phantasmagoric “InterGalacta” which summoned 5,000 budding globalphobes to the Lacandon jungle in 1996.

This January 1st, there will be few fiestas for NAFTA in Mexico but the EZLN is sure to have a blow-out. In fact, they have been partying now for months. Under the rubric of “20-10: The Fire and The Word,” the ski-masked insurgents have been marking the 20th anniversary of their founding in a Lacandon jungle clearing in November 1983, and their tenth year on public display.

To commemorate the twin birthdays, a book and documentary film have been released and forums and photo exhibits organized throughout the country. Young activists who were pre-teens on that long-ago January 1st, are now in their 20s bringing new energies to the movement. In Mexico City, punk and ska concerts by some of the nation’s top bands have drawn tens of thousands and raised small fortunes for the sustenance of the “caracoles” and the older generation even organized an elegant pachanga at a legendary dance palace to honor the Zapatista anniversaries.

This January 1st, while NAFTA mopes out in the cold, thousands will gather in the US and Europe (where the rebels have important centers of support, particularly in Spain and Italy) but mostly at the five caracoles (last January 1st, 20,000 marched in San Cristobal) to party with the Zapatistas as they remember the years and their fallen comrades and peer through their ski-masks with wide, determined eyes into a future in which “another world is possible,” one in which, as Marcos insists, “many different worlds will fit.”

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