Free trade in poverty, racial violence, repression and AIDS

The changes in the Mexican Constitution in preparation for NAFTA were officially hailed as a progressive step toward national economic growth and prosperity. But many social analysts correctly predicted that these measures would have devastating human and environmental costs. Indeed, thousands of small farms are being bought up by big land holders or confiscated for debt. The concentration of farmland into fewer hands, together with the flood of tariff-free US farm products into Mexico as result of NAFTA, have caused the mass exodus of more than 2 million landless peasants to the mushrooming city slums, where they have swelled the ranks of unemployed persons competing for jobs. Mexico's courtship with foreign speculative investment contributed to the crash of the peso at the end of 1994. In the first six months of 1995, the unemployment rate more than doubled; more than 1.4 million Mexican workers lost their jobs. Independent unions estimate unemployment and under-employment to be around 50 percent. The inflation rate reached 39.91 percent in July, 1994, while the sales of basic food stuffs decreased by 25%, a harbinger of widespread malnutrition.

With such a huge surplus of hungry people ready to work under any conditions, wage levels have dropped and the already minimal bargaining power of organized labor has been further weakened. The combination of falling wages and rising unemployment inevitably takes a high toll on people's health, especially that of children.

Along the US/Mexico border, many poor Mexican workers toil in the maquiladoras (manufacturing plants), which now number over 2,700. These sweat shops employ over 605,000 workers who have fled to the colonias (unincorporated areas) on both sides of the border in search of a better life. Including worker's families, more than 1.5 million men, women and children live in these slums in which "there is a pressing need for basic sanitation [and which] have no potable drinking water, sewer systems, garbage collection or adequate medical facilities. In many colonias, garbage is left in open dumps or scattered in urban streets, attracting and proliferating vermin and contributing to surface and groundwater pollution."

As landlessness, poverty, disease and unemployment in Mexico increase as a result of NAFTA and structural adjustment, more and more braceros illegally cross the US border in search of work. With increased job competition and unemployment in the United States, more people will resort to prostitution, drug peddling, and drug use. At the same time, fewer illegal immigrants will get the health care they need, since new legislation is threatening to reduce the opportunities for undocumented workers to receive public health services. If, as predicted, the US army is recruited to assist the Border Patrol, expulsion rates back to Mexico will increase along with the numbers of illegal workers. Thousands who have acquired sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and/or drug habits will carry their new afflictions home with them. The incidence of AIDS in Mexico is beginning to skyrocket as it has in Africa. For the poor of Mexico, however, concern about combating AIDS is at present eclipsed by the more immediate need to combat landlessness, joblessness, and hunger.

In the United States, NAFTA's effects are precipitating an upsurge of racism and human rights violations. As more US industries move factories south of the border to take advantage of low Mexican wages and weak enforcement of workers rights and safety, thousands of US workers have lost their jobs. According to an article by journalist Patrick Buchanan, "In the first eight months of [1994], 224 US factories--a factory every single day--laid off workers or shifted production overseas as result of NAFTA. NAFTA has put American workers into competition with 80 million Mexicans labor there is only 15% of the cost of US labor." Correspondingly, in the US the real wages of workers has continued to fall.

Because US workers are poorly informed about the root causes of their loss of jobs and falling wages, they tend to put the blame for their economic hardships on the influx of Latinos. This appears to be sparking racial violence.

Within eight months of the passing of NAFTA, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that, "Hostility towards immigrants and efforts by white supremacists to exploit fears about immigration are at their highest levels in 70 years, causing a rash of violent bias crimes against anyone who is perceived as 'foreign.'" This anti-immigrant paranoia is so severe that in November of 1994 the voters of California--a state which has a large immigrant population--passed the so-called "Save Our State" initiative (Proposition 187). This draconian initiative, if implemented (its constitutionality is being questioned in the courts), would prohibit undocumented children from utilizing public education and health services (except in cases of emergency). This is in blatant violation of the International Declaration of Children's Rights.

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