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Seeking a New Globalism in Chiapas | The Nation

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Seeking a New Globalism in Chiapas

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I am spellbound by the woman in the photo sent by friends in Chiapas. She is a Mayan, a Tzotzil Indian in her 20s with long black braided hair and a turquoise sweater over a colorful blue-and-red blouse. This indigenous woman, whose name is Maria, is working at a modern industrial loom amid a long line of similar women. She is making sweaters at a new maquiladora named Trans Textil Internacional in the old colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Chiapas. The sweaters Maria knits are entirely for North American consumers, there being no local market. In fact, all the materials such as cotton come from the United States and Europe; the role of Maria and the other workers in the factory is simply to knit, cut, stitch and assemble. Companies like Liz Claiborne, the Limited, Guess and Victoria's Secret will buy Maria's sweaters for between $8.50 and $12 apiece and sell them at $80-$100.

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Maria makes 6 pesos, or less than 60 US cents, for each of the six sweaters she can finish in a day. She receives no benefits. She has two children back home in her village and used to commute every day, but the transportation cost most of her pay, so she now lives with two other workers in a cuartito, or small room, near the factory and goes home to her children only on Sunday, her day off. According to Trans Textil's manager, all the workers are young women because the older ones, those over 35, "don't produce as much as younger workers."

This is Ground Zero of globalization. The maquiladoras--the assembly plants that first emerged on the US-Mexican border in the 1960s, in which cheap labor is used to turn raw materials and parts from countries like the United States into finished products, which are then exported back to those countries--are now "marching south," in the phrase of Mexican President Vicente Fox, to the regions of direst poverty like Chiapas. The new strategy, known as the Plan Puebla de Panama, must be seen in several contexts: the long conflict over the rights of indigenous people, who are the majority in the path of el Plan; the hyperexpansion of NAFTA; the militarizing of Mexico's southern border against immigrants; and the low-intensity war against the Zapatistas.

The PPP is an attempt to revive the failed jobs promise of NAFTA. Sounding a bit like Ross Perot, the New York Times acknowledged last year that NAFTA had failed to close the divide "between the privileged few and the poor, and left the middle class worse off than before." Few would argue, the Los Angeles Times said, "that NAFTA has been anything but devastating for Mexican farm families, which account for 23 % of Mexico's 100 million people." Relocating the crisis-ridden maquiladora industry to southern Mexico, where wages are half those at the Mexican maquilas on the US border, is a desperate effort to prevent the hemorrhage of jobs to China, where "nimble Chinese hands," in the words of the Los Angeles Times, sew and stitch for 40 cents an hour, only one-sixth of the Mexican wage.

The Trans Textil plant where Maria works is Mexico's answer to the Chinese challenge, part of the global "race to the bottom," as poor countries compete for foreign investments. Another few dozen maquilas are soon to be opened in Chiapas as part of a vast export-oriented industrial zone in the heart of Maya country. The declining wages of Mexicans have not lessened the Bush Administration's zeal to expand NAFTA through the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). In this scenario the PPP is to be the pilot project in an expanding, investor-friendly economic bloc dominated by Washington. Those who extol globalization like to describe sweatshop labor as "the first step on life's escalator," as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof so blithely put it, ignoring evidence that a revolving cycle of poverty and cultural chaos is being produced instead.

Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico, despite being the richest in natural resources. Its territory is thick with oil and minerals, flowing water and ancient forests. The biodiversity is spectacular, including 40 percent of Mexico's plant varieties and 80 percent of its butterfly species. But when the Zapatistas revolted in January 1994, half the people in the highlands were illiterate, 70 percent of workers made less than the minimum wage and two-thirds of the shacks in which poor people lived lacked electricity, drinking water and drainage. The persistent misery has caused the involuntary urbanization of more than 100,000 Mayans, who have moved to the shantytowns ringing San Cristóbal in the past three decades, resulting in a 500 percent increase in their population in cities, according to the anthropologists James Diego Vigil and Jan Rus.

The PPP is a giant infrastructure and maquiladora zone starting in Puebla state in southern Mexico and rolling east through Central America, an area with 60 million people, most of them indigenous and poor, including thousands of Zapatistas and veterans of the region's revolutionary wars. The project, which is expected to cost billions, will be financed by the Inter-American Development Bank and other international bureaucracies that work for the benefit of multinational corporations.

The PPP would dam the Usumacinta River bordering Mexico and Guatemala, the largest river between Texas and Venezuela, to generate electricity on a scale approaching Egypt's Aswan Dam. The plans have included construction of two dams 132 and 330 feet high that would create reservoirs each over twenty miles long, displace thousands of indigenous people and flood up to eighteen ancient Mayan sites. Not by coincidence, the dams would also permit military control of the river, which is a haven to migrants and smugglers and borders the eastern edge of the zones now controlled by the Zapatista rebels. The Usumacinta, which rises in the Guatemalan highlands and flows freely for 600 miles, is identified as a world "BioGem" by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC, which, ironically, supported NAFTA as providing a basic floor for cross-border environmental policy, now laments that its inadequate standards have become a ceiling for other trade agreements. The NRDC notes that the proposed FTAA contains inadequate environmental safeguards, although the organization at this writing has taken no position on the PPP.

A scramble is under way as well to control the massive oil deposits that are suspected to lie in the mountains and rainforests of Chiapas, where the battle with the Zapatistas has raged. While projections are uncertain, there are significant deposits of high-quality natural gas and crude oil over several thousand square miles. One analysis puts potential reserves at 3.7 billion barrels, "only a bit less than the five-billion-barrel figure that the petroleum industry considers a mega-deposit," in the Chiapas region. Many of the oil deposits, according to a scholar at Mexico City's National Autonomous University, "are located near or directly beneath Zapatista communities" and the road projects and base camps of the Mexican Army.

Another strategic objective of the PPP is to build a modern highway infrastructure across the narrowest corridor of the Americas to facilitate east-west trade in containerized goods, with the Atlantic side serving US export companies and the Pacific side including a maquila zone for the Pacific Rim. Interlaced throughout will be a tourist-friendly "Ruta Maya" of archeological sites, presumably sanitized of any contemporary Indian threat. Genetic-engineering projects, which local people condemn as "biopiracy," are expected to complete technology's triumph over the natural world.

What is striking about this dazzling scenario is its disconnection from the people and natural environment. The projected economy of the entire region will look like one vast maquiladora. And like the maquiladoras, the PPP and FTAA models are imposed from outside as substitutes for existing organic communities, whose inhabitants must either adapt or migrate. Under the neoliberal globalization model, the primary factor that matters is investment capital; human beings are replaceable, unions and community groups are inefficient anachronisms and environmental impacts simply "externalized" costs to be borne by others.

But reality matters--what Mexico and Latin America are experiencing is the bankruptcy of the maquiladora model and neoliberalism itself. Though the initial rebellion began with campesinos, unrest is spreading throughout Mexico because of planned and rumored privatizations of key industries like telecommunications and energy. For example, before Enron imploded, the US energy giant was advising the Fox campaign and spinning off subsidiaries in Mexico's historically public energy sector. Where some progressive realists accepted the neoliberal model as the only option just a few years ago, today they agree with militant union leaders at Nike's Kukdong plant, a focal point of antiglobalization activism, who say the future of Mexican democracy depends on the unionization of those workers. The only alternative to economic democracy is traditional repression.

Like the Christian conquest before it, the neoliberal model cannot be installed without the threat or use of force. In addition to the tens of thousands of Mexican troops who have been engaged in low-intensity, low-visibility operations in Chiapas, economic globalization has been increasingly militarized since September 11, 2001. The borders of Central America and Mexico, as well as those of Mexico and the United States, are now under tighter military control than ever. Last year Central American military budgets experienced some of their largest increases in history. The Mexican government reinstated twenty military bases in the Chiapas conflict zone ten days after September 11.

For women like Maria, not to mention her children, the increased militarization does nothing about the faded promise of the maquiladoras and leaves few alternatives when they are dislocated from their traditional villages to the migrant trail. Typically, many become homeless, their families divided, begging on the streets of Mexico City (where former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is providing high-priced advice on policing them). Thousands eventually arrive at the northern border, where they encounter the misery spawned by the original maquiladoras, which were promoted as a solution to the southern poverty they are migrating to escape. I toured these border maquilas as a California official in the 1980s and remember most of all how a majority of the workers were teenagers. They came from southern rural areas and, I was told, would soon be magically transformed into progressive modern women with useful job skills. Now, two decades into that transformation, the lethal side-effects are dramatized in the body counts of young women raped, murdered, mutilated and missing. When more than 200 such murders were reported in Ciudad Juárez in 2001, a Mexican state attorney general said reports of violence against women were exaggerated because "there are many other cities where the situation is worse."

The alternative to the northern border maquilas for the Marias of Chiapas is to catch an aging bus north to places like the church at Altar near the Arizona line, then switch to trucks toward Sasabe, where they wait under moonlit trees by the hundreds, finally crossing into the deserts of Arizona or southern California. They are literally dying for work: Of four migrants who died in Arizona's southern Cochise County during one week I visited last year, three were from Chiapas. Those who survive the infernal dryness of the desert are frequently victims of vigilantes, sometimes aligned with Border Patrol officers, who target them as if the US-Mexican War had never ended. Because the intentionally cruel fences of the US "Operation Gatekeeper" push immigrants toward the most harsh and remote border regions, at least 2,000 people have died since 1994 (those who die on the Mexican side of the border are not even counted). Last June was the deadliest month in history on the southwestern border, with sixty-seven migrants perishing in the heat, most of them in the Border Patrol's Tucson sector. Fox's Bill O'Reilly recently proposed sending the US military to force these "Mexican wetbacks" back where they came from. O'Reilly should know that many migrants are children searching for their mothers who traveled north to seek work, from cleaning toilets to becoming nannies, in order to send paltry remittances back to the families they left behind. According to studies of such children, most are robbed, beaten or raped during their exodus, but they continue coming in many cases because, as the Los Angeles Times put it in a recent article, "they need to find out whether their mothers still love them." Sometimes they carry along photos of themselves cradled in their mothers' arms.

What began with the 1994 Chiapas rebellion against NAFTA has now spread to all of Mexico and Central America. I recently asked Rigoberta Menchú, the Mayan Nobel Prize winner from Guatemala, what she thought of the PPP. She rolled her eyes, threw her hands in the air and laughed with gusto. She had never been asked to participate in the decisions concerning the PPP's development projects. Communities of the indigenous are still not considered the subjects of their own history, except in cases where they are recruited to serve as paramilitaries for the armed forces. Since early 2001 there have been regional resistance meetings in Chiapas, Guatemala and Nicaragua involving thousands of delegates from 400 local organizations. Protesters have blocked roads, demonstrated at border crossings, at proposed PPP infrastructure sites and at World Bank offices; barricaded themselves in the San Salvador national cathedral; and even invaded the domed chambers of the Mexican legislature on horseback. Recently the Zapatistas have re-emerged from a long silence, marching by the tens of thousands in San Cristóbal and renewing their call for "the globalization of freedom." Protests are sure to escalate further when the World Trade Organization meets this September in Cancun, in the heart of the Mayan region targeted by the PPP, and at the FTAA summit in Miami in November.

Bush's FTAA proposal is meeting unprecedented resistance throughout Latin America. Last October Brazil, the world's ninth-largest economy, elected as president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has criticized the FTAA as "annexation" by the United States. (In an arrogant response to Lula, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has warned that Brazil can trade with Antarctica if it rejects Washington's terms.) Meanwhile, neighboring Argentina has fallen from the status of poster child for US-led globalization to that of a basket case. Since its government defaulted on $140 billion in public debt in January 2002, Argentina has been a scene of radical, even revolutionary, community actions, with hundreds of democratic assemblies taking responsibility for neighborhood recovery. In Buenos Aires alone, seventeen abandoned factories have been seized and reopened by dispossessed workers. Up to a million people have formed a barter-based economy to survive. The popular cry in the streets is Que se vayan todos! ("Throw them all out!") But unlike in Brazil, Argentines have no Workers' Party and no Lula, only the remnants of Peronism and the expectation of a meaningless election this April, in which thousands will cast protest votes for a cartoon character who has no hands and therefore can't steal.

And then there is Bolivia, where thirty people were killed in riots in the capital city of La Paz in February. The newly elected president was smuggled from his own palace in an ambulance to save his life. The cataclysm was caused by the International Monetary Fund's insistence that Bolivia lower its deficit to 5.5 percent of GDP. Leading the opposition in the streets was Evo Morales, an Indian and a Lula-style labor leader who did surprisingly well in the last presidential election.

On March 16 in El Salvador, the former rebels of the FMLN, campaigning against privatization of water, won elections in the capital of San Salvador and ten other cities, becoming the largest bloc in the National Assembly. And Ecuador has elected a military strongman, Lucio Gutierrez, who says the FTAA would be "suicidal" for his country. US military involvement in Colombia is deepening into a bloody quagmire. Efforts to overthrow left-wing President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, backed at least indirectly by the White House, seem to have failed. Even the US embargo of Cuba is opposed by a majority in the US House. As the Bush Administration goes to war in pursuit of empire from Iraq to Afghanistan, it is "losing" Latin America to radical nationalism.

Few in North America are informed about the passionate protests exploding to the south, largely because of the absence of press coverage. For the flavor of events from the ground up, take an eyewitness report of a street confrontation--on the scale of the 1999 "Battle of Seattle"--that took place in Quito, Ecuador, last fall during an FTAA summit meeting. According to an Internet account, 8,000-15,000 activists, including indigenous Ecuadoreans with rainbow-colored flags, traveled from remote mountain villages to face the assembled thirty-four US and Latin American trade ministers at Quito's Marriott Hotel. Included in the ranks were shamans, trade unionists, campesinos, students and Bolivia's Morales, who marched with coca growers with coca leaves taped to their foreheads. According to the eyewitness account, "old women chanted ceaselessly for four hours,
          No queremos, y no nos da la gana,
          Ser una colonia, norteamericana.

          ("We don't want, and it doesn't do us any good,
          To be a North American colony.")

The police bombarded the crowd with a massive dose of tear gas, hospitalizing numerous people, before eventually allowing a group of insistent protesters to address the ministers. While they spoke passionately under an Inca banner proclaiming Yes to an Integration Based on Solidarity, US Trade Representative Zoellick "stared fixedly at his shoe." Having made their point, they returned to join thousands in the streets dancing to traditional Quechua music for five hours.

The Quito confrontation was just one of many that are erupting across Latin America. Most North Americans would sympathize with the protesters' demands for minimum justice, agrarian reform, free collective bargaining, a meaningful voice in matters of trade and the inclusion of the indigenous as autonomous beings. The programmatic demands, for now, are more radically reformist than revolutionary, which makes their rejection all the more disquieting.

What is new about corporate globalization, and perhaps will prove its undoing, is that the process simultaneously pushes manufacturing jobs to sweatshops abroad while pulling desperate immigrants into the sweatshop economy of the United States. Without fundamental change, sooner or later Maria or her friends will be flowing northward with the human tide, where she will join the growing immigrant underclass increasingly demanding a living wage and political representation. Globalization as a return to nineteenth-century class domination under military watchtowers is a futile vision.

An alternative is emerging from the populist dynamic set in motion first in Chiapas and now across Latin America. Instead of NAFTA's corporate escape from New Deal-style regulation, the new agenda would be an extension of the most progressive elements of the New Deal to global society, a new social contract in place of market fundamentalism. Globalization from the bottom up. Instead of NAFTA-style agreements that solely protect foreign investors, this alternative model would offer enforceable protections to workers, women and the environment as well--on both sides of the border. Instead of sweatshops and child labor there would be unions and literacy programs. Instead of damming rivers and slashing rainforests, there would be conservation programs for future generations. If this seems too costly, it is well to remember that the net contribution of the US government to the UN's global war on poverty is tiny--the United States spends only 0.13 percent of its gross national product on UN programs combating hunger, disease and illiteracy, down 90 percent from the JFK era forty years ago.

Could the Democrats, heirs to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, overcome their current identity crisis and commit to expanding the best of the Roosevelt heritage? Not on their own. But as the crisis bred by globalization deepens to our south, and millions more Marias are pulled by the same globalization toward America's barrios, powerful new coalitions for change are being birthed.

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