New Threats to the Peasants' Gains:
Free Trade and the Global Economy

During the 1990s a new and bigger obstacle has threatened to reverse the gains in land and health achieved over the years through the Piaxtla initiative. This new threat stems not so much from the local or state levels as from international and global forces. It is a consequence of the post-Cold War New World Order with its pervasive push for liberalization of national economies (see Chapter 11). In the 1980s this liberalization process was to a large extent implemented in Mexico through structural adjustment policies dictated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). In the 1990s this neo-liberal agenda has been further expanded through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an accord between Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

In preparation for NAFTA, the United States pressured the Mexican government to eliminate the progressive land reform statutes from Mexico's Constitution. It argued that these statutes--primarily the size limit for private land-holdings and the ejido system that safe-guards small farmers from losing their land through sale or debt--are barriers to free trade. Since these constitutional clauses were preventing US agribusiness from buying up huge tracts of Mexico's land to grow winter vegetables for export into the US, the White House insisted that the Mexican Constitution be changed. As it turned out, then President Salinas de Gotari was quite willing to disembowel the Mexican Constitution of its progressive land policies. The ruling party (PRI) was (and still is) controlled by a powerful club of bureaucrats, businessmen and big land owners who for decades have sought ways to sidestep the equity-enforcing statutes of the country's Constitution. The US pressure for free trade provided a perfect excuse to dismantle the revolutionary statutes that protected the needy from the greedy. So, even before NAFTA was passed, President Salinas and his Congress gutted the Mexican Constitution of its progressive land statutes. The ejido system was dismantled and laws limiting the size of land holdings were repealed. In effect, these regressive changes in the Constitution catapulted Mexico back to the pre-revolutionary feudal system with its latifundia or giant plantations.

To convince poor farmers to accept the spaying of their Constitution, which could cause millions of small farmers to lose their land, the Mexican government launched a massive disinformation campaign telling farmers that, with the end of the ejido system, at last they could become full owners of their own land, to do with it as they chose. This official media blitz--broadcast day and night on radio and TV--for a time caused a split within poor farmworkers' organizations throughout Mexico. Even within the Piaxtla program a division arose. Some farmers swallowed the government line and said, "For the first time the land is completely our own!" But those who were more astute understood that, with the loss of the ejido system, small land owners would soon begin to lose their land, either selling it in hard times or forfeiting it for debt.

Nevertheless, the constitutional changes instigated by NAFTA have effectively terminated the legal reclamation and redistribution of large land holdings. Before NAFTA, the campesinos in the Sierra Madre had proudly invaded large holdings as citizens defending their constitutional rights. Now, under the modified Constitution, if they invaded large holdings they would be common criminals, and treated as such.

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