Don’t Celebrate Mexico’s Independence…Yet

Mexican EagleContrary to common belief in the United States, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s national holiday. That date is September 16, which this year marks the bicentennial of the independence of Mexico. In 1810 Mexico started its independence struggle against Spain, its formal colonial ruler. One hundred years after that, in 1910, Mexico rose up to free itself from three decades of dictatorship under Porfirio Díaz and leave behind the unjust redistribution of wealth, the concentration of large extensions of land (latifundios) in a few hands, the exploitation of workers by capitalist industrialists, corruption, the denial of democracy in elections, and other historic problems.

Although most of these problems continue today, and in some cases have intensified, today the government of Mexico will throw a lavish celebration in Mexico City that its embassy and consulates will replicate in many U.S. cities.

Sadly, it’s not the time to celebrate just yet. Because of Mexico’s dependency on the U.S. market and the prospects of U.S. military intervention under the pretext of the “war on drugs,” millions of Mexicans like me feel skeptical and unenthusiastic about cheering for either our independence or our revolution.

Collateral Damage in the Drug Wars

Hillary Clinton’s recent declarations that “Mexico is looking more and more like Colombia looked 20 years ago” and her branding of narcotraffickers as “insurgents” have once again triggered fears among Mexicans that the United States will ratchet up the war on drugs. True, President Obama jumped in to contradict Clinton, and explain that Mexico and Colombia are different situations. But the administration nevertheless appears to have concluded that military aid through the Merida Initiative has so far failed and greater military intervention is in order.

Since President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006, in an election marked by fraud, almost 30,000 Mexicans have died in a Washington-backed war against drugs that has been marked by a surge of human rights violations. Even the Mexican military has recently accepted its culpability in the murder of civilians, including minors. Since 2006, complaints of abuses by the Mexican military — including torture, forced disappearances, and arbitrary detentions — have increased by 1,000 percent. Organized criminal groups have also expanded their reach to include other illicit activities such as extortion, human trafficking, and kidnappings. The most terrible example of the latter was the recent massacre of 72 Latin American migrants who were crossing through Mexico on their way to the United States and who refused to work for the drug traffickers who had captured them. This is just one example of the many abuses suffered by migrants in transit in Mexico, some with the active participation or the calculated indifference of Mexican officials.

The so called “war against drugs” that Calderón initiated in 2006 has largely failed, but the United States keeps propping it up with taxpayer money via the Merida Initiative. Despite calls from U.S., Mexican, and international human rights organizations to withhold funding, the State Department issued a report to Congress earlier this month that alleges the Mexican government has made progress fulfilling four human rights conditions, effectively triggering the release of $36 million in conditioned funds. In a shift with the past, this same report states that the State Department will withhold part of the funds from the 2010 supplemental until it sees further progress by the Mexican government in passing human rights legislation.

According to Edgar Cortez from the Mexican Institute of Human Rights and Democracy ,the Obama administration’s praise of Calderón’s “courage commitment” in his fight against drug trafficking is inconsistent with the stated principles of U.S. foreign policy. “It is necessary to remember that both the U.S. and Mexican governments signed the Merida Initiative, which has commitments on human rights,” Cortez says. “The secretary of State does not make any mention of the human rights situation in the war against organized crime: the thousands of deaths, the executed, tortured, forced disappearances, among other irregularities.” This “collateral damage” of the drug war is a very high price for Mexican communities to pay. Mexican journalists are also exposed to this danger. According to the International Press Institute, of the 52 journalists murdered in the world so far in 2010, 10 were in Mexico.

NAFTA and chronic dependence to the U.S. economy

Before the implementation of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, former President Salinas de Gortari, whose election was also marked by fraud, carried out the most important single act of reversing Mexico’s revolutionary ideals. He changed Article 27 of the constitution, which proclaimed Mexicans as the sole owners of the land and water of the nation. This article called for an agrarian reform and land redistribution to peasants, and provided for common ownership of the lands, also know as ejidos. Salinas said he wanted to “modernize” the countryside, so he allowed for the privatization of communal lands and brought Mexico’s property laws into line with its NAFTA partners. This is why the indigenous people of Chiapas, heirs to the Zapatistas of Mexico’s Revolution of 1910-21, started their rebellion in 1994. This “modernizing” of the countryside and opening it up to “free trade” has destroyed millions of livelihoods.

After 16 years of NAFTA, Mexico’s economy is stuck in a structural impasse. It is completely dependent on the ups and downs of the U.S. market. The millions of Mexicans who are rapidly joining the ranks of the unemployed (or “underemployed” in official terms) have little to celebrate. An estimated 7.5 million young Mexicans between 12 and 29 years ni trabajan ni estudian (neither work nor study). Even in northern Mexico, which until not long ago was supposed to be the prosperous showcase of NAFTA’s virtues, unemployment has surpassed the official national average rate of 5.3 percent. According to official figures reported by the Mexican newspaper Reforma, in the northern cities of Saltillo, Tijuana, and Aguascalientes, unemployment rates have reached 8.5, 7.9 and 7.5 percent respectively. In general, unemployment in the north has taken only five years to double, partly as a result of the rapid flight of maquiladoras to other countries, mainly China.

And perspectives are bleak. According to the OECD, Mexico’s economic growth in 2010 will not be strong enough to correct the labor market’s deterioration during the recession, and in 2011 unemployment levels in Mexico will remain higher than those that existed before the crisis started in 2008. However, the present Mexican government won’t change its stubborn, three-decade-long focus on the export sector, which has only benefited a small group of large transnational corporations. Although Mexico was the country in Latin America worst hit by the crisis that originated in the United States in 2008 — its economy dropped almost 7 percent in 2009 — today’s hopes for Mexico’s recovery depend solely on the recovery of the U.S. market, as Agustín Carstens, the governor of the Bank of Mexico, has recognized.

In the meantime, small- and medium-sized businesses in Mexico that employ most of the country’s workforce continue to struggle because of the lack of credit from commercial banks or minimal support mechanisms from the Mexican government. These companies are also left behind by the few larger companies that have boomed since NAFTA came into effect. Even Jaime Serra Puche, Mexico’s main negotiator of NAFTA, said that Mexico’s exports have “a low multiplier effect,” given the “low content of national products.” But NAFTA was designed precisely to do just that: help large corporations increase their intra-firm trade by eliminating rules of origin and prohibiting governments from imposing performance requirements like acquiring parts from local producers.

Frontal Attack on Unions

When he leaves office in 2012, Calderón will very likely leave behind a legacy of tremendous failure on the economic and security fronts. But he also would like to boast of another legacy, his breaking of Mexican unions (otherwise known as destroying the “rigidities of the labor market”). In addition to failing to stimulate Mexico’s internal market, the government has beat up on independent trade unions, destroying jobs and depressing wages.

Last year Calderón unconstitutionally did away with the jobs of 44,000 members of the Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas (SME) as well as those of 1,200 copper miners in the three-year strike at Grupo Mexico’s Cananea mine, all as part of a strategy to privatize services to the benefit of large companies.

The repression of these workers is part of the pauperization of most Mexicans. In the last 30 years of economic “reform,” the purchasing power of the minimum wage has dropped 70 percent. Meanwhile, fantastic fortunes have been created. Aided by privatization policies and NAFTA, billionaire Carlos Slim became the richest man on Earth in the last few years.

Postpone Celebration

The prospects for Mexico today are indeed grim. This is what I hear every time I go to Mexico: that there is “no way out,” that the country is “shattered.” The United States must work with Mexico to rectify the situation. This includes stopping the flow of arms into Mexico and reducing the demand for drugs flowing north. The Obama administration must also restrain itself from becoming militarily involved in the violence taking place south of the border, for such involvement is only adding fuel to the fire. Obama should also fulfill his commitment to renegotiate NAFTA with the full participation of civil society, so that trade relations between the two countries stop working for the tiny elite class and Mexico can better develops its own internal economy.

Despite the grim situation in Mexico, I do want to celebrate my country because I still feel proud of its history, its immensely rich and diverse culture, and above all the resilience with which Mexicans withstand and confront historic injustice.

Therefore I will not miss the celebration; I will simply postpone it. This is in keeping with Mexican history. After all, Mexico’s independence and its revolution both took a decade or so to complete. So too perhaps will the true centennial and bicentennial celebrations of these events come later, after independence is secured and revolutionary ideals are achieved.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Manuel Pérez Rocha is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.