April 2nd, 2008
By Robert Saper
During George W. Bush’s five-country visit to Latin America last week—passing through Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala, and ending in Mexico —the president stated repeatedly that the U.S. is committed to alleviating poverty, improving healthcare, and increasing access to education in the region; in a pre-trip address to the U.S.-Latin American Chamber of Commerce, he touted these same objectives as the content of U.S. policy in our Western Hemisphere “neighborhood.”
Unsurprisingly, Bush left out a few pieces in the policy discussion.
While strolling through the neighborhood, he failed to disclose the whole story on free trade agreements, including the botched promises of NAFTA and its devastating impacts on poor communities in Mexico. Few places are poised to illustrate free trade failures more acutely than Mexico, the president’s final Latin American destination.
Thirteen years of “free” trade under NAFTA, while resulting in more Mexican billionaires, have left laborers and small agricultural producers unable to afford life in Mexico. Mexican markets have been flooded by heavily subsidized U.S.agricultural business, making local food production expensive and increasingly unviable. Consequently, many poor farmers sell their land to finance migration northward.
While U.S. embassy officials in Mexico and even Bush recognize that free trade agreements are not bringing prosperity to the majority in the short term, they refuse to seriously question the economic model that generates them. They classify the rural crisis provoked by NAFTA, which has pushed people to migrate in search of work, as a “development issue” rather than a casualty of a failed free trade economic policy.
Mexico under NAFTA, rather than providing employment options for the poor, has become dependant on migration to satisfy the demand for work and keep the nation in relative peace. The remittance of over $24 billion from immigrants in the U.S. to their families in Mexico last year accounts for the second largest portion of Mexico’s foreign revenue and may soon grow to be the largest.
It comes as no surprise that Mexican president Felipe Calderón, among many others, demands that Bush implement immigration reform and radically rethink border militarization and the construction of the wall.
It is quite astounding, on the other hand, that political decision-makers fail to call into question the economic policies that have virtually built the invisible wall between impoverishment and prosperity. Free trade agreements stoke the fires of migration, present few if any viable alternatives in the rural sector, and continue privatizing public services and energy resources.
These policies, resulting in scandalous poverty in regions that are rich in natural resources, have set the stage for popular outrage. Demands are on the rise for alternatives to current governance and U.S.-backed policies that curtail democratic participation and obliterate hopes for sufficient employment and subsistence; hence, the Zapatistas’ implementation of autonomous communities in Chiapas and the recent example of the ongoing popular movement in the state of Oaxaca, where 76% of the mostly indigenous residents live in poverty.
Over the past nine months, the Oaxaca social movement demanding the governor’s resignation has been fueled by the negative effects of top-down imposition of U.S.-backed economic policy: wages, educational funding, and healthcare availability are declining, living costs are rising, international agricultural prices are unfair, and traditional forms of government have been suppressed.
To date, 23 people have died at the hands of federal and state police and paramilitaries in the Oaxaca conflict. Yet, just as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ignored the human rights violations leading to their deaths and the other alarming increases in repressive state violence throughout Mexico (opting instead to highlight conditions in nonconformists Cuba and Venezuela in her February 6 Global Human Rights Report), so too did the president fail to acknowledge that social devastation in the Americas is partially the result of “neighborly” U.S. policy.
Instead, Bush boasts of nearly doubling the amount of poverty-directed foreign aid to all Latin America to $1.6 billion per year. What is that in the face of 125 million Latin Americans who live on less than $2 per day?
No amount of U.S. taxpayer charity can counteract the negative effects of failedU.S. economic policies, let alone actually improve healthcare, education, and poverty rates in Latin America. If President Bush truly wants to be a good neighbor, he should drastically overhaul economic policy to save taxpayers money and actually encourage a stronger, more stable hemisphere
Robert M. Saper, a graduate of Gannon University in Erie, grew up in West Sunbury, Butler County, and currently works for Witness for Peace in Oaxaca,Mexico.