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Country ratings

  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)

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In 1994, Mexico was thrust into the headlines after the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) seized four towns in the poor southern state of Chiapas. The rebellion occurred on the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force. The Zapatistas called on Mexicans to remember their revolutionary heritage and stand up for the values of ‘land, liberty and reform’ for which their grandparents had fought.

The EZLN were almost exclusively of indigenous origin, angered by the erosion of the shared land and water rights of rural Indian communities. The first three years of the rebellion saw brutal massacres and reprisals, though the EZLN retained a strong, positive public image. The presence of international observers and nascent Mexican organizations has begun to curb the illegal activities of the army and paramilitaries in the rebellious states of Chiapas and Guerrero, but internment and even torture still occur under the pretext of the war on drugs.

The Chiapas uprising is part of a long history of regional wars in Mexico, stretching from the divisive struggle for independence, through the secession of Texas and the loss of California to the US in the mid-19th century. The Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) has often been caricatured as a struggle between the old dictator Porfirio Diaz and a ragtag army of peasants and bandits, whereas in reality it too was a series of regional disputes. The fringes of the nation have rarely been effectively governed, and even today there are thousands of drug-runners and human traffickers in the seas and skies under Mexico’s jurisdiction. The way in which the EZLN and other guerrilla groups have raised and equipped armies suggests the Government has had little reach into the hinterland, though recently Presidents Zedillo and Fox have tried to change this by building roads and military bases through the lightly populated forests of the deep south. The Zapatistas could not halt NAFTA, which accelerated the privatization scramble of the 1980s. While the 20th-century state was controlled by party bosses and big business in a centralized market, Mexico post-1994 has been dominated by a booming entrepreneurial class operating outside the traditional hierarchy. The state has had great difficulty in regulating the activities of the new factory owners, telecommunications giants and utility suppliers.

The most obvious post-NAFTA change for many workers has been the explosion of maquiladora factories, especially in polluted, crime-ridden towns close to the US border. Unionization in maquiladoras is minimal, and while rates of pay are often significantly higher than in local Mexican-owned plants, there is little in the way of job security or benefits.

Illegal migration to the US has grown rapidly since the introduction of NAFTA. With rising unemployment in Mexico and a US economy increasingly reliant on low-wage labour, the hand-wringing of both governments about this rings rather hollow. Substantial remittances sent home from a child or sibling working in the US have helped families survive the erosion of the welfare state.

Poverty has particularly affected the development of Mexican children. During the first years of NAFTA, millions had their education cut short and were pushed into child labour. Since 1997 the Government has attempted, with a good deal of success, to reverse this trend. The Oportunidades scheme provides a grant to families whose children remain in full-time education: the longer the child stays in school, the larger the payment. According to some international observers, the scheme is successful both in reducing extreme poverty and in improving basic education.

Fact file

Leader President Vicente Fox Quesada
Economy Gross national income (GNI) per capita: $5,910 (Guatemala $1,750, United States $35,060
Monetary unit Mexican peso
Main exports Manufactured goods; oil and oil products; agricultural products. 89% of exports go to the US.
People 106.4 million. People per square kilometre: 53.
Health Infant mortality 24 per 1,000 births (Guatemala 36, US 7). Water and electricity supplies are satisfactory in most built-up areas but virtually non-existent in large areas of the south and in shanty towns.
Environment An increasing public awareness of environmental issues has not halted the endemic pollution of the capital city and the industrial towns along the US border.
Culture Mexicans descend from the mixing of Meso-American peoples with the colonial Spanish. The 56 indigenous groups account for around 30% of the population.
Religion Despite the rapid encroachment of evangelical Protestantism, Mexico remains a solidly Catholic nation (89%)
Language Spanish, many indigenous languages.

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution The wealth and opportunities for all promised by NAFTA remain a dream to the millions of rural poor trapped in subsistence farming as well as shanty town dwellers reliant on casual work.
Literacy 91%. The Government has demonstrated a significant commitment to improving literacy through the Oportunidades scheme.
Life expectancy 73 years (Guatemala 66, US 77)
Freedom The largely uncensored media and sophistication of the political class can sometimes mask low-level abuses against trade unionists, activists and indigenous peoples, but accountability is improving.
Position of women In a Latin American context, women have a reasonably high political profile, but crimes against women and inequality in the workplace are huge problems.
Sexual minorities Homosexuality: legal. Transgender: no data. Mexico City has a surprisingly open and vibrant gay culture for such a historically conservative country.
Previously reviewed 1992
New Internationalist assessment Mexico is struggling to institutionalize its recent transition to a modern democracy. Important steps have been made in the fields of human rights and political accountability, but the police and judiciary continue to commit abuses without fear of punishment. The Fox Government is widely characterized as impotent, having missed a great opportunity to improve wealth distribution. The past year has seen two vast protests in the capital. The 2006 election will test Mexico’s democratic credentials, particularly if Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a radical populist and favourite of the urban poor, decides to stand.

New Internationalist issue 373 magazine cover This article is from the November 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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