AMLO outside the Senate, Monday, October 26

Worker's Party Deputy Mario di Costanzo Tears Apart Carstens Economic Plan

Monday, June 23, 2008

So Where'd You Go to College, Presidente?

Robert Lansing, former Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, wrote in 1924 that "Mexico is an extraordinarily easy country to dominate, as it necessary to control only one man: the President. We must abandon the idea of installing an American citizen in the Mexican presidency, as that would only lead us, once again, to war. The solution requires more time: we must open the doors of our universities to young, ambitious Mexicans and make the effort to educate them in the American way of life, in our values, and in respect for the leadership of the United States. Mexico will need competent administrators, and over time, these young people will come to occupy important positions and will eventually take posession of the presidency itself. And without the United States having to spend a single cent or fire a single shot, they will do what we want, and do it better and more radically than we ourselves would have done."

Lansing's counsel, directly or indirectly, was well-taken: the United States did not subsquently place a puppet onto the Mexican presidential chair, as it did with a laundry list of Mexico's Latin neighbors, and over time, it did open its doors for Mexico's political elite to come and study at its illustrious centers of higher education. A simple look at its roster of Presidents over the last twenty-five years confirms the success of Lansing's prescient vision: Miguel de la Madrid (1982-1988) - Master's in Public Administration, Harvard; Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) - Ph.D. in Economics, Harvard; Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) - Ph.D. in Economics, Yale, currently a Yale professor of International Economics and head of the Yale Center of Globalization; Vicente Fox (2000-2006) - supposedly studied at Harvard, but definitely sold a lot of Coca-Cola; and Felipe Calderon (2006-how much longer will he hold out?) - Master's in Public Administration, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard. The year 1982, not coincidentally, marked a watershed in Mexican public policy, it being the year the country's leadership took advantage of the peso crisis to institute a neo-conservative, IMF-approved policy of economic shock therapy (see my previous post "Shocking and Awe-ing"), and has not looked back ever since. The results, as Hugo Carbajal Aguilar puts it (, "are on view for anyone who cares to look: rampant unemployment, drug trafficking on the increase with a consequent tsunami of insecurity, massive migration abroad - with all the risks that implies - disintegration of the family, lack of expectations for young people, students or not, deliquency in droves, ecocide..." As grandfathers around the world, eyebrows raised and brow furrowed, might ask in chorus: "What are they teaching you at that school of yours?"

Actually, that question is not at all hard to answer. Just as the proliferation of universities through the land-grant system were key in "winning the west" and just as the explosion of Latin-American studies programs in the 1960's was an instutional response to fears that we were "losing Latin America," US colleges and universities take in and groom future foreign leaders, no less than in Lansing's time, in "the American way of life, our values, and respect for the leadership of the United States." Said values entail massive privatizations, the scaling back of essential government services in the name of budgetary discpline, a hard-money, inflation-busting policy (note the Bank of Mexico raising interest rates lasty Friday in the face of a clearly-slowing economy) and the "opening" of the nation to foreign "investment" (or dumping, as the case may be). Anyone who opposes such obvious - and academically-tested measures - is a "protectionist," or worse, a "nationalist," as opposed to an internationist, cosmopolitan, English-speaking member of the trilateral world elite come home to be big fish. Father knows best: just check the framed diplomas on his wall. Whereas would-be dictators without an academic pedigree are simply sent to the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia to learn how to torture; those with 'more of a head on their shoulders' are sent to Harvard or Yale and taught to do regression analyses that demonstrate how cutting taxes raises revenues and other such - dare I say? - white man voodoo. The process is the same: the pimping of institutions to power. An austerity plan is one thing; an austerity plan by a Harvard-trained Ph.D. in a country which has been taught to fear and loathe itself is quite another. Didn't we learned from Kennedy's best-and-brightest Harvard-boy disasters in Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs not to trust those places once and for all?

Of course, educating the Latin-American elite is not all. Once their term of office is expired, or once the ignorant masses of their countries throw them out, the Ivy-League graduates usually wind up gravitating like magnets back to the source of their force. In a perverse form of retro-alimentation, Harvard, Yale and Stamford happily bestow their venerable names on the Salinises, Zedillos and Calderons, send them home to wreak havoc, and then welcome them back with open arms, padding out their faculty lists with an impressive line-up of former presidents and finance ministers to show off to the Alumni Board. Zedillo, as previously mentioned, schlepped right back to Yale to pimp globalization. Salinas and Calderon have been back to visit and gave stately talks. And most recently, Doctor Luis Carlos Ugalde (Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia), fresh from doctoring the 2006 election as head of Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute and finding himself out of work ahead of time (wonder why....) found a comfortable sinecure in the Government deparement teaching Latin American Politics at Harvard. How a hack like that can lie into the camera before millions of Mexicans who saw their decades-postponed hopes of a genuine democratic transition dashed before their eyes, only to be allowed to lope across the lawns in professorial robes in Cambridge, Mass. is enough to make any honest person's blood boil. Lansing, however, would be proud: without spending a single cent or firing a single shot, America is getting what it wants out of Mexico, and then some.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Free for Whom? (part 2)

An article by David Bacon entitled "How Do You Say Justice in Mixteco?" that appeared this week on the Truthout news site ( begins by discussing the case of several Mixteco farmworkers living in California who were evicted from their trailers at the butt of a forklift, which lifted the trailers into the air and tipped them over, possessions still inside. One of the farmworkers, Erasto Vasquez, had lived in the trailer for seventeen years and raised his family there. Though the workers eventually won a settlement thanks to the efforts of the California Rural Legal Assitance (CRLA), the case is emblematic of the new wave of Mexican immigration into the United States and the dangers that new wave of immigrants faces. Bacon writes: "While farmworkers 20 and 30 years ago came from parts of Mexico with a larger Spanish presence, migrants today come increasingly from indigenous communities...[E]conomic changes like NAFTA are now uprooting and displacing Mexicans in Mexico's most remote areas, where people still speak languages that were old when Columbus arrived in the Americas." According to the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, 500,000 indigenous people from Oaxaca alone are currently living in the United States, 300,000 of them in California.

In another piece on the Truthout site (, Maya Schenwar considers the implications of the Plan Mexico, which is at the point of being tucked into the - note - Global War on Terror supplemental spending bill and approved, to the tune of $1.1 billion dollars over the next three years. After objections from Mexican lawmakers that they didn't want any strings attached to the funding, the American Congress (how nice of them to have listened!) dutifully took all the teeth out of the accountability and human rights provisions. Senator Chris Dodd, after first warning that the United States doesn't write "blank checks," later stated that the US would drop any provision that "smacks of certifcation." Yes, Chris: sounds like the only smacking that's going to be done is US-bought weaponry on the backs of protestors' heads.

The circle at work here is so elementary, yet so effective: free trade aggravates poverty, increasing immigration - US employers benefit from low-wage labor - increasing poverty aggravates social conflicts in Mexico - US contractors benefit from the sales of weapons used to crack down on the restive populace. Schenwar references a Mexican government study which concluded that 90% of the illegal guns seized in Mexico come from the United States (not to mention what the government acquires: a friend of mine, during the Oaxaca conflict of 2006, found and photographed tear gas cannisters from Pennsylvania among the debris left behind by the crackdown here - having breathed in said gas, I can attest to their effectiveness). As she further points out, much of the Plan Mexico money will never leave the States, but will go to buy "Bell Helicopters, CASA maritime patrol planes, surveillance software, and other goods and services provided by private US defense contractors." The drug trade, of course, will not be stopped - the Mexican government and military is far too complicit in it and demand from the US is certain not to fall off anytime soon. Not to worry: the militarization model is "easily and inevitably adapted to fighting internal dissidence." Gives 'em something else to do, you know.

Needless to say, the US is not alone in benefiting both coming and going from this most vicious of circles: the Mexican political elite do quite fine by the process themselves, thank you very much. It has often been said that immigration functions as an "escape valve" for the Mexican economic structure, siphoning off workers the system can't provide jobs for and getting back money in turn in the form of remittances the immigrants send back to their families from the States. This is doubtlessly true: with the twin pillars of remittances and oil money, a rigid, corrupt and hierarchical system has propped itself up for decades without ever having to face the need for a fundamental housecleaning. Less often mentioned, however, is how this "escape valve" functions in a political sense, siphoning off potential dissent. Forced immigration breaks up families, breaks up communities, and it is a no-brainer that communities that are less cohesive, less united, are easier to control and keep down. There are entire pueblos in Oaxaca where there is hardly an able-bodied man to be found, leaving behind women and the elderly to run the roost. Mixteco, for example, is the language spoken by the majority of those indigenous farmworkers in California, and it is in fact the case that the Mixtecs who have stayed behind are not, as a whole, as politically active in the state of Oaxaca as the Zapotecs of the coast (where the first ever socialist government was elected a generation ago and which is still a hotbed of activism) or the Trique or Mixe, groups who, not coincidentally, have also been more active on the linguistic front, preserving and promoting their languages. This is hardly the Mixtecs' fault - the loss of their forests years and years ago have led to their arid territory in the northwest part of the state becoming amongst the most eroded landscapes in the world - but rather a commentary on how displacement fosters passivity. The United States knew this very well in places like Vietnam, Guatemala and El Salvador: to control a nation, civic and religious groups must be broken up and ethnicites split up and moved. What the ancient Scandanavians called landnama - claiming the land you inhabit by naming it and ideally becoming one with it - must be reversed to make for rootless, disoriented peoples, whose only goal is to survive, both psychologically and culturally. And mass immigration from Mexico to the United States does this work for those in power without their having to lift a finger. Escape valve, indeed.

For me, one of the most telling parts of the documentary Fraude by filmmaker Luis Mandoki, which documents the fraudulent Presidential election in Mexico in 2006, was the part of the interview with Andrés Manuel López Obrador where he recalls receving the results of a national poll in his tent in Mexico's Zocalo, where he lived for a month-and-a-half along with his fellow protestors. The poll, taken by the respected Mexican polling firm Mitofsky to gauge the political climate in Mexico at that moment, found that a full 10% of those polled were willing to take up arms against the government. Projected onto a nation of over 100 million, that makes for fully 10 million potential citizens in open revolt. And even if many, or even a majority of those polled wouldn't actually go through with it, the fact that they felt strongly enough to say so to Mitofsky should indicate to somebody who's listening that even the escape valve won't be able to let off enough pressure to keep the tottering old system in place forever. López Obrador, to his credit, has eschewed the route of violence, opting for non-violent civil resistance. Provoke enough more people with American arms through the Plan Mexico, however, and it may become harder and harder, if not impossible, to convince people with nothing to lose that the path of non-violence is the most appropriate one to take.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Free for Whom?

As the speculation-fueled global food crisis aggravates Mexico's already-dire economic situation, now is a good time to shake a stick at the free-trade Santa Claus and see if the gifts he has promised to produce from his magic sack have actually made their way into any little boys' or girls' hands.

Santa's promise in the North America Free Trade Agreement of 1993 (the Tratado de Libre Comerico, or TLC, in Spanish - as noted before, in Mexico, it is a treaty whereas in the States it is merely an Agreement) was the same as the one perenially made by free-trade economic theory: by eliminating tarriffs and other hidden costs, free trade lowers prices for consumers while at the same time, by providing greater choice, it stimulates healthy competition between domestic and foreign producers, thus improving quality and efficiency. And like most economic theories out of a textbook, it looks good on paper, but depends on a heavy dose of naivité regarding how the world really works. Anybody who's ever been to a schoolyard knows that artificially leveling the playing field between unequal opponents (or in economic jargon, "trading partners") means essentially throwing the game to the stronger. That distinction is particularly bald in the case of Mexico vs. the United States, where Mexican producers are forced to compete against giant, multinational corporations who not only benefit from the obvious economies of scale, but are also the happy beneficiaries of all kinds of governmental largesse, from tax breaks (the oil companies) to subsidies (agro-business) to fat contracts (defense contractors) that the Mexican government, even if it weren't leaking millions by the minute in corruption, could hardly compete with (and if they did, would be lambasted by the World Bank, IMF and WTO). Not only, then, is the big kid on the schoolyard allowed to beat the puniest into a pulp in a "fair fight", the principal's office is paying for his membership at the gym and talking his teachers into letting him out of class early and getting him out of having to do his homework in order to give him time to go and lift weights, all the while humilliating the puny kid in front of his classmates for his inability to stand up for himself like a man.

No problem, say free trade advocates. Every country has a "comparative advantage" in something, and if each side can only exploit that advantage, both stand to benefit. Unfortunately, the miniscule benefit Mexico has gained in exploiting the comparative advantage of its low-wage labor pool is mostly located along a small strip of maquiladora factories located along the border, where workers slave away at the five-dollar a day wages that have hardly risen since NAFTA's infancy, with the cold comfort that they are making slightly more there than the even-worse pay they might get elsewhere in the country. Meanwhile, the American companies located along the border revel in tax concessions and freedom from pesky safety, health and union regulations - those that are on the books are hardly being enforced by the gang-that-couldn't shoot-straight currently in power. The devastation of the Mexican countryside, caused by farmers' inability to compete ("like a man") with their lavishly-subsidized neighbors to the north, along with NAFTA's recent removal of the last protections against bean and rice imports, means that there will always be a limitless army of unemployed refugees from the countryside willing to work for that little, or if not, to cross the desert in search of work in the US in a hellish odyssey across the desert that makes Dante's Inferno seem like an amusement-park funhouse, and which allows US companies to benefit from the human arbitrage opportunities showing up, hungry and desperate, right on their doorsteps.

At least in the late nineteenth century, when American imperialists like John Cabot Lodge were prying open markets for American overproduction at the butt of a gun, they were more forthright about they were up to. "Gunboat diplomacy" was just that. But the current feeble treacle of free-trade pap is supposed to make the losers not only accept getting reamed in the exact same way as before, but feel thankful for now being the glorified dishwashers of the global village. To be fair, prices for some consumer goods - cars, electronics - have come down for the average Mexican consumer over the last several years. But the questionable benefit of that boost to the consumerist lifestyle pales in comparison to the stagnant wages, dribbly economic growth, crippling monopolies, and massive immigration of family and friends that the average Mexican grapples with daily, not to mention - to return to the beginning of this post - the skyrocketing prices in staple food items. Meanwhile, Walmart has become Mexico's number-one private-sector employer, and was an active campaigner amongst its staff and customers for Felipe Calderón in 2006. Poorer countries, you see, have to accept that free trade means the domination of its economy by foreign multinationals. The policy that the US has the luxury of calling "stimulating domestic production" is scoffed at in the Latin American sphere as the "import substitution," as if the natural state of affair for our Latin amigos is to depend on somebody else making everything for them but letting them, at least, be the ones to sell it to their brothers and sisters.

In the final analysis, as I believe only Noam Chomsky has consistenly pointed out, NAFTA is not really a free-trade agreement at all - it is, in his words, an "investors' rights" agreement allowing multinational companies to shift production and profits in a shell game in and around their international subsidiaries for labor and tax advantages. The lion's share of the much-vaunted post-NAFTA increase in trade between the US and Mexico, in fact, has been just that - internal shifting around of goods within corporations with one foot on both side of the fence, straddling it for that good old comparative advantage. Have the American engineer design it, have the Mexican line worker assemble it, declare the profits in the Cayman Islands or the losses in the States, and each movement of the good from subsidiary to subsidiary counts as trade. Magic. We're all better off. Haven't you noticed?