Land to the tiller! Mexico and land reform

Mexican farmers have promised militant demonstrations at the WTO meeting in Cancun, Sept. 10-14, against the corporate-controlled globalization policies that are ruining them. A long history precedes this development.

The old, Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz, used to say “poor Mexico – so far from God, and so near to the United States.” Even with 100 million inhabitants, making it the 11th most populous country in the world, Mexico’s economy – including agriculture – is hugely influenced by what happens in the U.S.

From 1910 to 1920, Mexico fought a bloody civil war, partly over who was to reap the rewards of the rich Mexican soil. The most radical forces in La Revolucion were those grouped around Emiliano Zapata. Their central demand was “land to the tiller.” Zapata’s “Ayala Program” called for redistribution to peasant farmers of land that had been seized from them by big landowners. Though Zapata was killed, the symbolic power “agrarianism” has sunk deep roots in the national, political culture, including in the Constitution.

In the 1930s, left-wing Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas del Rio distributed millions of acres of land to poor farmers, but after he left office in 1940, the land reform effort petered out.

Post-Cardenas governments of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) paid lip service to “land to the tiller” until 1982, when, unable to pay foreign creditors, they took a definite turn toward the policies dictated by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the U.S. government.

The following president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, became an enthusiastic neo-liberal globalizer. Salinas entered with gusto into the negotiations with the United States and Canada on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Salinas’s secretary of Foreign Trade, Dr. Jaime Serra Puche, predicted that NAFTA would drive 13 million Mexican farmers and their kin off the land. This he said was good, because it would shift the rural economy away from producing food for Mexicans and toward production for foreign markets, thus helping Mexico’s foreign trade problems. These country folk would go to the cities, which was also “good” because it would create a new source of cheap labor, thus attracting foreign investment in industry.

To date, approximately six million Mexicans have been driven off the farms since the implementation of NAFTA, because while Mexico stopped the little support it was giving its farmers, the United States continued to subsidize its corn production. Mexican farmers were undercut and ruined by cheap corn from the North.

The downward pull on incomes created by the mass exodus from the farms has worsened living conditions for Mexican urban workers. The result has been a large increase in the immigration of poor Mexicans into the U.S., just as the U.S. has entered into a major anti-immigrant campaign.

Before 9/11, George W. Bush and Mexico’s President Fox had been negotiating a deal in which up to five million undocumented Mexicans would be legalized. However, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced recently there would be no big initiatives on the U.S.-Mexican immigration issue in the near future. Rather than challenging this, Fox’s foreign minister, Luis Ernesto Derbez, is going along with this and discouraging Mexican immigrants from hoping for any breakthroughs at the November meetings on immigration between the two countries.

However, Mexico and the United State appear to agree on the need for a new contract farm labor, or “bracero” program. But if it is anything like the old bracero program, it will be little better than 21st century slave labor. Most of organized labor in the United States is opposing it and instead calling for a harder fight for legalization, including organizing a coalition to support the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org