MEXICO: Farmers March Against Free Trade

Publisher Name: 
Associated Press

Thousands of farmers marched through the Mexican
capital Wednesday demanding subsidies and a halt to free trade -- posing
the most direct challenge yet to President Vicente Fox's 8-month-old
administration.

The march, on Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata's birthday, was a show
of force for the ''old Mexico,'' opposed to the new, entrepreneurial nation
that the businessman Fox has promised.

The protesters' rhetoric harkened back to Zapata's 1910-1917 Revolution,
which created the communal farms that served as the political backbone of
the former ruling party, whose 71-year reign Fox ended in last year's
elections.

Young and old marched in a sea of straw hats and baseball caps, cowboy
boots and dusty tennis shoes. Families with small children armed with toy
noisemakers joined men and women waving banners reading ''United States
out'' and ''Fox means misery.''

''Fox sees the values of the revolution as history, the past,'' said
Constantino Canstaneda, a 36-year-old tomato farmer who took a 10-hour bus
ride from central Zacatecas state to participate in the protest.

''But I see the revolution in the land I work every day and in the faces of
my children who will grow up to be farmers and have even less than I have
now.''

Streams of farmers chanted ''Zapata Lives! The struggle continues!'' as
they fanned out across the world's second-largest city to blockade
government offices and shut down a half-dozen major boulevards.

"Rural Mexico could explode,'' said protest organizer Alvaro Lopez Rios,
leader of the Agrarian Congress farm group. ''This could take us to the
edge of anarchy.''

While march organizers said more than 5,000 farmers participated,
Wednesday's turnout was lower than the tens of thousands promised by labor
unions. A number of separate marches cut slow, disorganized paces through
the city and, as the day wore on, some protesters used their banners to
shield themselves from the unrelenting afternoon sun.

The farmers are suffering from a prolonged drought that has withered crops
in northern Mexico and low prices for coffee, basic grains, sugar and
tropical cash crops like bananas.

They complained that Fox has abandoned any pretense at making Mexico
self-sufficient in food production, something to which the former ruling
party at least paid lip service -- largely to ensure farmers' political
support.

''With the trade opening and in the framework of globalization, the
government took the easy way out, saying, 'It's easier to buy cheap imports
than to support expensive domestic production,''' Lopez Rios said.

Fox drew the battle lines sharply Tuesday, when he encouraged farmers to
modernize, adopt new crops and rely less on government. He said he wanted
to end ''corruption, paternalism, political favoritism and bureaucracy'' in
farm policy.

But he showed no sign of stepping away from the two things that angered
protesters most: his commitment to free-trade agreements that have let in
cheap foreign grain and his close relationship with the United States.

''The United States and Canada protect their farmers with tariffs and
subsidies,'' Martin Altorre, a 51-year-old banana and sugarcane farmer from
southern Morelos state, said at a protest at Mexico City's Revolution
monument.

''In Mexico, the farmers are getting hit hard, and Fox likes that.''

Fox said Mexico doesn't have the money to compete in a subsidy race with
developed countries, and that farmers should leave behind corn and change
to crops where they have an advantage -- like the winter-vegetable exports
that made Fox's family wealthy.

Fox's administration says past policies encouraged farmers to waste scarce
irrigation water on marginal land and to cut down the nation's forests. He
has offered to clear up Mexico's historic land-title problems so farmers
can qualify for loans to modernize. But such measures may also tend to
break up communal farms, whose owners were only recently allowed individual
titles to their lots.

Such policies may prove difficult to implement in a country where corn is
king and small farms are viewed as the prized legacy of the revolution,
where ''socialist agricultural schools'' dot the countryside and the
19th-century agrarian movement still holds fast.

''This is not old Mexico against modern Mexico. This is Mexico's brain
telling Mexico's heart it's no longer needed,'' said Juan Sanchez, a
38-year-old wheat farmer from northern Durango state.

''Farming got this country where it is, and it will take Mexico into the
future.''

AMP Section Name:Trade Justice
  • 181 Food and Agriculture