It was not by chance that Vicente Fox selected the northern industrial city of Monterrey and the impoverished southern state of Oaxaca for official visits the day after his inauguration as Mexico’s first democratically elected president. Fox rose to power promising to build on the industrial north’s increasing linkage to the US economy through an expanded NAFTA, while closing the internal development gap between Mexico’s rural south and its relatively more prosperous northern region (itself divided by great disparities in wealth and well-being).
During the contest for Los Pinos (the Mexican White House), Fox described his governing philosophy as right wing if that means “enthusiasm for generating wealth” and left wing if the criteria are “redistributing income and solving problems of poverty, marginalization and human development.” As a former rancher and unabashed free-trader from the pro-business PAN party, Fox seemed convincing enough, if somewhat quixotic, in his call for European-style Common Market integration for North America. His bid as champion of the rural south, home to the highest population of indigenous peoples and the epicenter of peasant and indigenous rebellion, was less credibly received, evidenced by his inability to carry those states in the election. Fox must now match deeds to words, not only to make good on his promises to the south but to have any hope of success in his northern strategy.
According to data from the 2000 census, fully 75 percent of the population of Mexico lives in poverty today (with fully one-third of these in extreme poverty), as compared with 49 percent in 1981, before the imposition of the neoliberal regimen and, later, NAFTA. Meanwhile, the longstanding gap between the northern and southern regions, as manifested in poverty, infant mortality and malnutrition rates, has grown wider as the latter has borne the brunt of neoliberal adjustment policies. Chiapas, for example, produces more than half of Mexico’s hydroelectric power, an increasing portion of which flows north to the maquiladora zone on the Mexico-US border. Yet, even including its major cities of Tuxtla Gutiérrez and San Cristóbal de las Casas, only half of Chiapanecan households have electricity or running water. Additional water sources have been diverted to irrigate large landholdings devoted to export-oriented agriculture and commercial forestry, while peasant farmers have suffered reductions in water and other necessities as well as an end to land reform, even as they have endured a flood of US agribusiness exports that followed the NAFTA opening.
According to the Mexican government’s own official estimates, 15 million peasants will be forced to leave agriculture in the next one to two decades, many driven northward to face low-wage maquiladoras on one side of the border and high-tech militarization on the other. Any hope of an equitable North American economic zone and a relationship of open borders envisioned by Fox is inconceivable so long as subsistence farmers and small landowners are displaced in such numbers.