Zapatista’s Warning Over NAFTA Rings True 2 Decades Later
Zapatistas correctly predicted that neoliberal economic policies like NAFTA would exacerbate poverty and undermine democracy
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
As our regular viewers know, we’re currently constructing our new building. We’re in a temporary studio, and there’s construction happening all around me. So we apologize for any noises you hear in the background.
Much of the mainstream media is focused on the 20-year anniversary of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. The deal broke down trade barriers between Mexico, U.S., and Canada and promised to create jobs and sustained economic growth.
But there is another 20-year anniversary that’s getting a lot less attention. On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista uprising was launched in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. [Omd] Mayan peasants–the Zapatistas warned that corporate-driven globalization like NAFTA would destroy Mexico’s already impoverished indigenous communities. Instead, they demanded local autonomy and access to land, food, health, education, and work as fundamental rights.
And while 20 years later much of the press is heralding Mexico as the biggest winner from NAFTA, the Zapatistas’ message is ringing true. Subsidized U.S. food imports have flooded into Mexico, costing the livelihoods of over 2 million Mexican workers.
Now joining us to discuss this is Gustava Esteva. He’s a Mexican grassroots activist and public intellectual.
Thank you so much for joining us.
GUSTAVO ESTEVA FIGUEROA, COORDINATOR, UNIVERSIDAD DE LA TIERRA EN OAXACA: Thank you for inviting me.
NOOR: So we wanted to ask you: what was the link between the launching of NAFTA and the Zapatista uprising 20 years ago? We know the link is partially symbolic. The Zapatistas trace back the history of their struggle to 500 years. And they made it clear that it wasn’t just about the Mayan peasants, but it was about all Mexicans, all impoverished Mexicans that were going to be suffering from these policies.
ESTEVA: And that is right. The question is of course they were suffering not only after 500 years, but [incompr.] they were suffering extreme misery. They were dying like flies. We were talking that in the highlands of Chiapas we were committing genocide, because it was really terrible. Subcomandante Marcos said once that in their villages there were no children because all of them were dying. It was normal to talk with a woman saying, oh, I had nine children, but only two survive. That was the normal situation.
But I think the association with NAFTA is very clear, because in 1992, as a precondition for NAFTA, there was the constitutional reform that eliminated the last protection for indigenous people and for the Mexican peasants. That was the possibility of having land and keeping that land out of the market. That reform, promoted by President Salinas in preparation for NAFTA in 1992, was the last sign of terrible destiny for the peasants and for the indigenous people. Then the association is very clear, being in terrible misery, [incompr.] will be worse for them because of NAFTA. And that is why in January 1 the uprising started.
NOOR: And so you were a negotiator for the Zapatistas with the Mexican government and adviser. Talk about what the Zapatistas were able to accomplish, what [incompr.] able to accomplish over the last two decades.
ESTEVA: Well, the first, most important point is that they put the indigenous question and the first point in the national agenda. It had almost disappeared from it. And because of the Zapatistas, today the indigenous people are again one fundamental issue in Mexico’s life, not in the way we want to be, not in the way we want to clarify the situation for the indigenous people, but at least it’s one very important point in the political agenda of Mexico. That was the first point.
The second was I think they offered us hope. That is one of the most important contribution of the Zapatistas. In 1994, some people were seeing neoliberal globalization, as I said. Some other people are seeing them [incompr.] promise. But most people were taking globalization, neoliberal globalization as a fact. The Zapatistas were the wake-up call. All anti-systemic movements today acknowledge this. They tell us, you know, we can say no, we can say basta to this terrible prospect of neoliberalism.
And the next point opening and opportunity for hope, it was an opportunity for self-affirmation of an indigenous people. I will say that 20 years ago, whenever an indigenous person spoke in public, they started to speak in Spanish, the best Spanish they could get. And today, in every public event, when an indigenous people speaks, they start talking for one, two, three minutes in their own language. This is one expression, one symbol of the affirmation of the indigenous people after the Zapatistas. This can be clearly associated [incompr.] one before and after the Zapatistas for the presentation of indigenous people in public.
And finally, after 20 years, we can see the reality of the Zapatistas. They have been inviting thousands of us to visit the communities. They are opening the doors for these thousands of people. And we are seeing how they have transformed, from scratch, without a penny from the government, they have transformed completely their own reality. You can see there is no exploitation. The material conditions have improved fantastically. There is no hunger in the [incompr.] in the area Zapatista. They have their own clinics, their own schools, their own system of government. There is no oppression, no exploitation. There is a very radical and spectacular change.
It is not only the material conditions. These are very important, but it is basically the possibility of self-government, real democracy, the people in charge of their own lives, and taking the decisions of what they want or what they don’t want. And they are telling us all of the people in Mexico, all the other indigenous people, all the Mexicans, but also to many other people in the world in this current situation, when many people see the most profound crisis in the history of humankind and they don’t see any option, the Zapatistas are telling us there is an option. You can construct something else, a different kind of society, in the belly of the beast, within this system, this oppressive system that we are suffering.
NOOR: Gustavo, so I wanted to ask you, if you turn on the TV or open up the paper in America today, you see that it’s being reported that Mexico was the biggest beneficiary of NAFTA. What has been the real impact of NAFTA on Mexico, on all of Mexico, and especially the indigenous population?
ESTEVA: I think that the main impact, that does explain those news, because the main impact of NAFTA is that it was possible for Mexico to produce some of the richest men on earth and some of the poorest. This is the same phenomenon, the same thing. To produce these rich people, like Carlos Slim competing with Bill Gates as the richest man on earth, this is the same phenomenon. To produce these very rich people that are clearly the winners of NAFTA, we need to have some of the poorest.
If you think that according with our last estimate a third of the Mexicans are living out of Mexico because they could no longer live in their own places, this is one of the most important migrations in history. People cannot live in their own place, can no longer stay in their home, stay in their land, and stay in their place. They cannot have life here. And we have more poor than ever as a proportion of the total population. The number of poor in Mexico has increased continually.
The basic staple of Mexico is corn. This is–we have suffered. We are importing now a third of the corn that we need, basically producing a lot of damages for the peasants, and particularly for the indigenous people.
And because of NAFTA, thanks to NAFTA, the government has been able to sell 40 percent of the Mexican [incompr.] in concessions, 50 years concessions to international companies. And the government has now the obligation, because of these concessions, to clear the land, to clear the land of people.
And, of course, the indigenous people are resisting this aggression, this final aggression to dispossess them of their means of subsistence, of the possibility of living their own lives.
This is NAFTA for us. It is a very real situation that brought us the worst kind of balance that we have suffered in our history. It is even worse than the balance that we suffered before in our revolutions and these kind of things. We are on edge because we’re at the edge of real disaster. We are before the possibility of having the worst kind of civil war, that is, the civil war [incompr.] you don’t know who is fighting against whom. We are in the midst of extreme misery, extreme violence, and with many Mexicans unable to live in their own country.
NOOR: This is very similar to what the Zapatistas warned of two decades ago.
Gustavo Esteva, thank you so much for joining us.
ESTEVA: Thank you.
NOOR: You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter, Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.
Thank you so much for joining us.
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