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NAFTA - the Neo-Liberal Destruction of Mexican Culture & Anarchist Responses from Zapatistas to Drug Cartels

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Zapatismo is an indigenous based anarcho-syndicalist movement.
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Mexico has a long history of collective ownership; in fact it predates the formation of the nation state of Mexico, tracing at least back to the Aztecs. The ejido (pronounced e-hee-th'aw) are communal lands shared and governed by a community. Porfiro Diaz, who ruled Mexico as a dictator from 1876 until 1911, promoted industrialization of the country; or, in other words, he presided over the conversion of the population from subsistence indigenous communities into a labor commodity used to create wealth for the elite (primarily of European descent) and foreign investors.

One of the main tools to compel privatization of property was a land law in 1883 that required the traditional communal owners to provide official title to the land or have it sold by the government, usually at bargain prices to the rich. The government pocketed the money, and the people were forced to become land-bound serfs, required to farm their own former lands for the new owners of vast haciendas. In addition, more than 27.5 million hectares of land were sold to foreign companies. This was the primary factor in rallying the Mexican peasantry to take up arms in the Mexican Revolution. It began in 1910, ending Diaz's reign, and then descended into civil war, which finally ended with the election of Lazaro Cardenas in 1934.

Both Pancho Villa in the north and Emiliano Zapata in the south fought specifically for land reform and continued the revolution against a series of new governments until land rights were secured in the Mexican Constitution. Zapata based his rebellion in the philosophical traditions of indigenous communal society, which were clearly in line with aspects of collectivist-anarchist, socialist and communist thought of consensus-based self-government.

Zapatismo became the philosophy that expressed the collective control of peoples' own lives and the land to which they were attached economically, culturally and socially. Unheard of at the time, women were treated as equals and fought in the ranks of the Zapatistas. In the 1917 Constitution, Article 27 gave indigenous groups the right to reclaim and recreate the ejidos taken under Diaz, and restore their traditional culture. Continued civil war, corruption and opposition by the haciendas and foreign investors delayed the process until 1934, when Cardenas was elected.

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Cardenas is regarded as the most radical and most honest President in the history of Mexico. He cleaned up corruption in government, including arresting his predecessor Calles and having him and his top deputies deported to the United States.    Cardenas brought about what can only be called a socialist indigenous revolution in policy. His three pronged approach on behalf of the campesino population was to 1) Push implementation of Article 27 claims reducing the power of the Haciendas and restoring the ejidos, 2) establish a free public education system to oppose the control of the church, and 3) support worker cooperatives and unions to oppose the worst excesses of industrialization. Cardenas also ended capital punishment, frequently used on political rivals during the revolution.   And, in a move that enraged the elites in the UNITED STATES and Mexico, he nationalized Mexico's oil.

The program was so successful that by 1992 half of all farmland in Mexico was under the control of ejidos. But that didn't stop elites' continued efforts to force the indigenous population into the labor market. Resistance to the ejidos by the elite had begun to rise after joint efforts of UNITED STATES and Mexican investors spawned the maquiladora industry in the 1970's which required cheap labor. Mexican farmers with strong social and economic ties to their communities had no desire to uproot to border towns to furnish it. The ruling class then killed support for rural programs, forcing many campesinos to abandon their subsistence autonomy and become wage laborers, migrating to the border cities.

What was really at stake was the age old fight between cooperative sustainable cultures and a capitalist extractive economy. NAFTA now upped the ante, with billions to be made by offshoring American manufacturing jobs just across the border. Again the problem was that the ejido was an economic and social model that indigenous people saw no need to abandon. That is why Article 27 had to go. When President Carlos Salinas de Gortari rescinded Article 27 in 1992 because of "low productivity", thousands of applications for restoration of other ejidos that communities had fought to advance for generations were summarily rejected.

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Zapata Lives!

One group said no. The Zapatistas, led by a former school teacher who goes by the name of Subcommandante Marcos, issued their First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle on January 1, 1994, declaring revolution against the Mexican government for signing NAFTA, and their loss of rights. They have revived the traditional Zapatismo Mayan philosophy and infused it with elements of anarcho-syndicalism and Marxism. They demanded their traditional autonomy and that resource extraction produce benefits for locals.

Along with their message approximately 3,000 armed Zapatista rebels seized numerous towns and over 500 haciendas in the state of Chiapas, freed jail prisoners, burned police and military barracks until they were counter attacked by the Mexican Army. A ceasefire negotiated by the church was violated by a government invasion of a 70,000 man army to attempt to capture the Zapatista leaders. They found mostly empty villages with Zapatistas and their leaders having slipped through their lines into the mountains.  

Recognizing that they could not fight the whole Mexican Army the Zapatistas focused on a non-violent media campaign to the world and the use of direct action to set up their own alternative government system. The movement continues its socialist focus and is involved in the international anti-globalization movement. In 2003 they set up Juntas of Good Government which are shadow governing structures that carry out all the functions of local and regional constitutional governments. They are made up of community representatives who are pledged to service and only serve for a two week time period with the membership changing every week.

Zapatismo focuses on three elements: health care, education and collective economic development.   Every Zapatista village has its own school and a clinic where preventive and emergency care are provided. Collective economic development is done through cooperatives many of which raise organic shade grown fair trade coffee. Signs in Zapatista country shout their autonomy, "You are in Zapatista rebel territory. Here the people command and the government obeys. Trafficking of weapons, planting of drugs, drug use, alcoholic beverages and illegal sales of wood are prohibited. No to the destruction of nature."

NAFTA the grim reaper.

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Unfortunately the rest of Mexico did not rebel and suffered the consequences. President Salinas was well on board with Neo-Liberal economic policies, going after Cardenas' legacy like a Republican foaming over FDR's New Deal. In addition to NAFTA, he had previously pushed through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1986, sold off state industries and pushed through changes that redirected subsidies for small farmers to incentives for mechanization and irrigation systems aimed at large commercial operations.

Nowhere did the impact have more severe results than the traditional production of corn. The elimination of Article 27 by the bill for "Cooperative Agrarian Reform" in 1992 meant that communal land now fell to individual ownership. The "advantage" was it could be rented or sold by the individual farmer. While NAFTA induced Neo --Liberal policies allowed U.S. subsidies to corn farmers to continue (Over $10 billion in 2000) those in Mexico were deleted with the treaty's implementation. On January 1, 1994 NAFTA went into effect; in December of 1994 Mexico fell into an economic crisis.

The mainstream press and official line was that Mexico had tried to reduce inflation by fixing the value of the peso. Inflation overvalued the peso causing a deficit financed with instruments redeemable in American dollars. The supposed cause of the collapse of these instruments was the Zapatista rebellion and the assassination of the PRI Presidential candidate Luis Colosio and two other officials leading investors to sell off these bonds.

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John Kelley is the Managing Editor of a monthly progressive newsmagazine, "We the People News", in Corpus Christi, Texas

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