Over the past two decades, the chief survival strategy for many rural Mexican communities—particularly in the south—has been to send young people away, wait for them to find jobs, and hope they send large chunks of their earnings home. The country has been so flooded with cheap, subsidized U.S. corn and other foods that its small traditional farms are no longer sustainable. The countryside has been bleeding population. In some southern states like Puebla, Oaxaca and lately Chiapas, the bleeding has become a hemorrhage.
Indeed, it’s becoming harder and harder to find young adults in the rural communities of southern Mexico. “In some Chiapas villages these days...the only residents are women, children and old men,” reports John Ross, the estimable gringo chronicler of popular Mexico. With a hundred-year low in world coffee prices, says Ross, “500 Chiapas coffee farmers are pulling up stakes each month.” Many of these rural outmigrants head for jobs in regional capitals like Puebla City or Tuxtla, Chiapas; a good deal more go to Mexico City; even more, until a recent slowdown, to northern maquiladoras; and still-growing numbers to minimum wage work in the United States. And the survival strategy has some merit: Last year, the Bank of Mexico conservatively estimated the annual level of international family remittances—money sent or carried home from abroad—to be about $9 billion, slightly less than the $13 billion the country received in oil revenues.
Mexico’s business-oriented government wants to replenish the disappearing workforce of southern Mexico with something called Plan Puebla Panama (PPP). President Vicente Fox says he wants to develop the region from the south-central state of Puebla down through Central America with tourism, maquiladoras and the more efficient harvesting of natural resources. He also wants to recoup the maquila jobs his country is losing on its northern border. Long drawn to industrial parks in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez by cheap wages, U.S. manufacturers are increasingly being lured to places like China and Vietnam where disciplined employees will work for a quarter of what firms have been paying on the U.S.-Mexico border. In southern Mexico and Central America, reason the Foxistas, workers just might be desperate enough to compete with the Chinese. All this would bring people back to their homelands and provide a willing, available workforce for the transnational employers who would move in.
As with any creation of a wage-labor force, there’s a pull and a push associated with the already well-advanced PPP. The pull is the creation of minimum wage jobs in tourism and maquiladoras; the push is the continual undermining of traditional agricultural and people’s ability to survive on the land. Of course, this has bred resistance, particularly from indigenous groups, but the plan is well underway.
Tourism is already thriving in Oaxaca and along “La Ruta Maya,” stretching from the Yucatán peninsula into Guatemala. Major highways are being built along both coasts along with a cross-border Central American electrical grid financed, in part, by the Spanish power company Endesa. Controversial bioprospecting is well underway. The city of Tehuacán, Puebla has become a major maquila center, and the first low-wage maquila has made its appearance in San Cristobal, Chiapas. As far as the bottom line is concerned, the Inter-American Development Bank has offered a $4 billion line of credit for the project.
In early August, a group of southern Mexican women, many of them members of indigenous communities, met in Oaxaca to talk about the PPP and the lives of women. They resolved to protect their lands from the PPP as best they could and to struggle to be included in plans for regional development. “Though the PPP appears to be a ‘Foxista’ proposal,” writes a friend who attended the gathering, “we understand it as a U.S. plan to expand NAFTA and solidify their economic control over the region. And though it’s called a ‘plan,’ we see it as already in place.” The struggle to be included, she writes, has little to do with the government of Fox, and much to do with the global institutions that are financing the plan. This participatory struggle, emanating from dozens of other gatherings and conferences from Managua, Nicaragua to Xalapa, Veracruz, is part of a wide-ranging “globalization from below.” In the long run, while neither “revolutionary” nor socialist, it is a struggle to transform global capitalism. Like the old labor struggles that transformed capitalist economies in the industrialized countries, it is a struggle to be included—to be taken into account. Some version of the PPP seems to be a done deal. The question is, which version?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fred Rosen is the NACLA director.