issue 251 - January 1994
Bad dreams and cold showers
The journey ends back at the US-Mexican border –
a border not just between two countries but
between two different worlds, North and South.
A few hundred kilometres to the north of El Paso, in New Mexico, is the Los Alamos National Laboratory. This is where the nuclear age was conceived in the 1940s. It still has a five-billion-dollar budget and a there’s a tourist brochure to match, which describes the Laboratory’s purpose as ‘to ensure our national security in today’s new world order’. The nearby Trinity Site is where the first nuclear explosion took place. White Sands missile range runs from here through hundreds of square kilometres of desert down to Bliss military base in El Paso, which is ‘home’ to the Patriot missile. The nuclear age still hangs like the memory of a deeply dispiriting nightmare over this part of the US on the border with Mexico.
The same basic apprehensions about US national security are now building the Tortilla Curtain. In October 1993 the US authorities began Operation Blockade in El Paso. At precisely the point near Anapra where I had crossed into the US, 400 agents stationed themselves at intervals of less than 200 yards along the border to stop Mexicans from doing their shopping in the El Paso mall.
When it’s easier for a jacuzzi or a packet of potato chips to cross a border than it is for a person, common sense suggests a momentary pause to enquire whether this comparison is entirely flattering to people, and what might be done to restore some semblance of sanity to the situation. Ask yourself what it would take to get the bulldozers in to demolish rather than construct the Tortilla Curtain and you would have, I reckon, a rough outline of the real issues between Mexico and the US – and between North and South as a whole.
The global economy is pretty good at looking after its own best interests. Trade barriers between Mexico and the US came down before NAFTA was even mentioned. Jobs that were liable to move from the US to Mexico have mostly gone there already. Vast quantities of money swill electronically around the world without any restraint whatever, causing far more economic disruption and job losses than the trade in goods. NAFTA is more about making Mexico a safe place for US capital than it is about free trade.
The rest of us have precious little influence over the global economy, though our lives are deeply affected by it. If there is any point at all to democratic government it is, surely, to redress the balance in our favour. That is what democratic governments should be discussing together with great urgency. Yet most choose to act like expensive public-relations agents for the global economy, claiming they are powerless to affect it one way or the other.
The Mexican Government is no exception. It appears to believe, for example, that by encouraging Mexico to resemble the US more closely, by joining the North and wiping the dust of the South off its feet, it can reduce the incentive for Mexicans to cross the US border in pursuit of the American Dream.
But there is a fundamental flaw in this reasoning. ‘Structural adjustment’ is part of the deal, the very foundation on which government policy was built after the debt crisis exploded in 1982. It is also digging an ever-deeper gulf between rich and poor in Mexico itself. When wages were cut and unemployment soared after 1982 even the downside of the American Dream on the streets of San Diego or Chicago must have seemed attractive to millions of virtually destitute Mexicans. Six million rural workers are simply surplus to the requirements of ‘structural adjusted’ Mexican agriculture.
This is the essential paradox. The global economy, left to its own devices, generates enormous wealth and poverty at the same time. A higher wall, a deeper gulf grows between the two everywhere, within the North as well as between North and South. Everyone dreams of being on the right side of it, whether on the New York Stock Exchange or by clambering over the Tortilla Curtain. No-one dares pause to contemplate the terrible consequences of the impoverishment they hope to leave behind. The result is unstable and unsustainable because we have a fragile environment and because there are more people on the wrong than the right side of the wall.
Linda Lynch, an El Paso artist who loves the Chihuahua desert with a fierce passion, told me a simple story. She was in Ciudad Juárez for a meal with friends on the same night I crossed back into El Paso.
‘On the street I ran into a woman who works in a very, very wealthy family home here in El Paso,’ she said. ‘I have been a guest at their home for dinner recently, and I was talking to her in the kitchen for a while. And then I walk into Juárez and there she is. And I realized the disparity, as simple as could be, between the fact that she lives there and comes here to work in these two-thousand-square-foot houses with a couple of other people. It’s nothing new. The world has always been run this way. But at what point does a new generation say: “It’s time for a rethink”?’
Her passion for the desert has led her, reluctantly, to give up a great deal of her time and energy to opposing the forces that are now, she believes, destroying it. There’s a scheme, for example, to dump New York sewage in the part of the desert that inspires her work. Dozens of new projects are planned on both sides of the border – an already polluted region, in theory protected by an existing agreement between the US and Mexican governments – threatening the water table, air quality, the Rio Grande itself.
‘You know what it makes you feel?’ she says. ‘It makes you not want to be close to anything or anyone, because you’re afraid that you can’t control what will happen. It is so painful to watch the process of losing the landscape that many, many times I wish I had never become so close to it.
‘These are age-old, simple questions and I’m afraid in the end they come down to plain old good and bad. I’ve left many government meetings on these issues feeling like I’ve just met with the devil himself. You just get this feeling like you need to take a shower.’
Often the passion of Linda’s words came back to me as I travelled through Mexico. Mexico is a passionate place and that passion comes, I think, not from hatred but from love: the Huichol’s love for their land and culture; Samuel Ruiz’s love for the indigenous people of his diocese; the coffee-growers’ love for their ejido; the Mexico City shanty-dwellers’ love for their Asamblea. You could pass away your entire life in the maquiladoras of Ciudad Juárez and feel nothing but suppressed tears.
What makes Mexico so special is that its people expect to be heard. By and large the years of revolutionary violence proved cathartic and creative for them. By and large indigenous peoples have fared better in Mexico than elsewhere in the Americas. So human-rights organizations can think beyond indignation towards broader issues of justice and equity. Trade unions can plan for an independent and active labour movement. Citizens can campaign for real democracy. Environmentalists can begin the repairs. Even the PRI can try to figure out where on earth it now stands after the somersault.
Mexico, for all that it was famously labelled ‘the perfect dictatorship’ by the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, is not an oppressive place in which to live. The PRI may not be impeccable democrats, but their record is better than most in Latin America and even in a perfect democracy many Mexicans might still wish to vote for them.
Mexico, of all countries in the world, cannot bury its head in the desert and pretend that Uncle Sam, the new world order and the global economy have simply gone away. Mexicans feel no less ambiguous about the benefits of a consumer society than anyone else. They have as much right to enjoy such benefits as there are. But the Mexicans I spoke to have aspirations of their own, and you can find no trace of them whatever in the negotiations over free trade and ‘structural adjustment’, nor in the souls of those who are pulling the strings. Where, for example, is there even a passing reference to the benefits of fair trade?
In the North, opponents of NAFTA had in their midst the maverick figure of Ross Perot, playing on racist anti-Mexican sentiment and requisitioning the opposition to help fill the gaps in the Tortilla Curtain. There was an understandable reluctance among other more progressive opponents of NAFTA I met in the US and Canada to oppose the racist undertones of the campaign, or to give hostages to fortune and spell out a different strategy. Now that NAFTA has been approved by the US Congress such a strategy has become an urgent priority, though the chance to advocate it effectively may not return for some time.
The bare bones of ‘a just and sustainable development initiative for North America’ are beginning to circulate and I saw several rough drafts of one while I was in the US. But I waited in vain for progressive opinion to express any enthusiasm at all for closer ties with Mexico. No-one was prepared to say ‘Welcome aboard!’, or to suggest that the US might actually have something to gain from Mexico. I had the impression of a place and a people condemned to fear forever that they may have more to lose than to gain from change.
Across the border the picture is, I think, more encouraging. The Mexican Action Network Against Free Trade (RMALC) brings together over 100 organizations across the whole spectrum of independent groups now flourishing in the country. They are not, in fact, invariably opposed to free trade or to closer links with the US – merely to the deals currently being done. These deals do not reflect their own priorities and in some cases (labour legislation, the environment, agricultural reform) are in direct conflict with them.
What is wrong with NAFTA is not just the narrow bleakness of its vision but the way it violates Mexicans’ perceptions of their own identity. This identity is based on how Mexicans believe themselves to have been 10, 50, 100, 500 years ago – their legends; and on what they expect or hope to become 10, 50, 100, 500 years from now – their dreams. In valuing their uniqueness Mexicans are not being xenophobic but dignified and independent.
The last time a Mexican president, Porfirio Díaz, tried to make off with the country into the arms of Uncle Sam he hit the Revolution instead. Mexico has learned to fly between the American Dream and the Central American nightmare. In the Mexican dream if you stop believing that you can do this you fall to earth.
NAFTA, GATT and all that
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was proposed by Carlos Salinas, George Bush and Brian Mulroney at a meeting in San Antonio, Texas, in June 1991.
The Agreement is part of a series of North and South American ‘free trade’ agreements which began with the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Canada and the US signed in 1988, followed by George Bush’s ‘Initiative for the Americas’ announced in June 1990. In September 1991 Mexico and Chile initialed a new formal Agreement on Economic Co-operation.
These agreements run alongside the postponed completion of the worldwide ‘Uruguay Round’ of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Both NAFTA and the ‘Uruguay Round’ were due to come into force on 1 January 1994.
NAFTA includes provisions for comprehensive trade liberalization and effective rules to remove ‘distortions’ of trade and resolve trade disputes. There were six broad areas of negotiation:
Market access. Average tariff barriers in Canada, the US and Mexico are already ‘low’ and not a significant barrier to trade. However, Canada and the US maintain substantial barriers against textiles, beverages, transport equipment, food processing and agriculture, important areas for Mexico.
Trade rules. Penalties and ‘antidumping’ duty laws will be imposed. Not much is expected to prevent such rules from being used as protectionist devices.
Trade in services. A broad range of commercial services, including finance and transport, will be ‘deregulated’. Transport services provided by the state are a contentious issue, as are other state services and social programmes such as public childcare, which the US interprets as a ‘subsidy’ to employers.
Foreign investment. NAFTA will provide for ‘national treatment’ of foreign investment, removing local-content and performance requirements. Mexico still maintains restrictions, but wants to attract more foreign investment.
Intellectual property. A contentious issue between North and South at GATT. In the NAFTA negotiations the US has placed strong pressure on Mexico to ensure that copyrights, patents and trade marks are bound to international agreements.
Dispute settlement. Rules are already established in the US-Canada FTA. This area gave rise to sharp disagreements in the autumn of 1993 on ‘national sovereignty’ and the use of sanctions and fines.
NAFTA surfaced as an issue during the 1992 US presidential elections. President Clinton subsequently introduced bilateral US-Mexico ‘side agreements’ on the environment and labour into the negotiations. These focus on the ‘pollution haven effect’, whereby US polluters move to Mexico to avoid US environmental legislation; ‘runaway jobs’, when US employers shift operations to cheap-labour factories in Mexico; and the ‘labour rights’ issue arising from the restrictions on free trade unions in Mexico. Lacking the enforceable legal status of the Agreement itself, these ‘side agreements’ have been written off as too weak by many of the US lobbyists who originally raised them as concerns.
Thea Lee of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington comments: ‘The fact is that the US is more important to Canada and Mexico than Canada and Mexico are to the US. Virtually all the important concessions have been made by Mexico.’
Source: OECD Economic Surveys 1991/2: Mexico – Special survey of a non-member country, Paris 1992.