|Apr. 15, 2001; 01:28 EDT|
|Mexicans pay price for NAFTA|
LATIN AMERICA BUREAU
"It was pretty scary," says Lopez, 22, who suspects that thugs from the government union tried to kill him as he was on his way home from a particularly nasty union vote at a factory in the Mexican Gulf state of Tamaulipas.
"They chased me and I lost control of my car when they rammed into me. I thought I was finished."
Today, Lopez has come halfway across northern Mexico to Ciudad Juarez to meet a Canadian church delegation, here to examine the effects of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.
He tells them that, seven years into NAFTA and its promise of better labour conditions, workers still lack legal protection to fight the big government-controlled unions that wield such enormous power.
"I am afraid, yes," says Lopez, who knows activists who oppose powerful interests get themselves killed in Mexico.
"Maybe they'll get me next time. But I believe that if we don't take risks, we will never have anything and that's another way of killing us slowly."
Free-trade supporters say NAFTA is a success, that it has brought jobs to Mexico. Sure, serious social problems remain, they say, but they will ease with time. They point to last year's election of opposition President Vicente Fox, and his promise of sweeping change, as proof old oligarchies are crumbling.
But here, in Ciudad Juarez, a dirty, polluted city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, the Canadians are getting a first-hand look at the human face of free trade.
Real life in Ciudad Juarez is the flip side of a sparkling macroeconomic picture that shows total employment grew from 33.9 to 39.1 million between 1995 and 1999.
The church leaders fully expected to find misery in Mexico.
But they are shocked to see how bad it is, right on the U.S. doorstep, and dismayed by evidence it is getting worse.
"Canadians are basically a fair and generous people," says Rev. Glen Davis of Toronto, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Canada, during a break in the recent trip of 18-hour days and images to last a lifetime.
"If they realized what is happening to people here, how they are forced to live, they wouldn't accept it. It is unconscionable."
Nothing, they say, prepared them for the heartbreak of Hilda Salinas, who works in a modern free-trade assembly plant and lives in a plywood shack, barely able to feed her five children; or for the pain of listening to barrio priest Father David talk about young factory workers who have been raped and killed, and whose murders have not been solved in a city where population growth is out of control and police are overwhelmed.
Nothing prepared them for the children.
This morning, they watched children with big bellies and open sores running around in the sewage-infested slums of Anapra, one of many barrios where hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers live within shouting distance of Texas, which seems like the promised land.
Their parents work in modern assembly plants and come home to the Third World, without water or proper hygiene.
The delegation walked along the borderline, where high fences and American patrols with dogs enforce "Operation Hold the Line" to keep Mexicans out of the United States. NAFTA did nothing to stem the desperate tide of illegals throwing themselves at the wall from Matamoros on the Gulf Coast to Tijuana on the Pacific.
Bodies of Mexicans who didn't make it are found floating in the muddy Rio Grande every week, or turn up in the desert, sometimes shot by "coyotes" who take their money to get them across, then betray them with a bullet to the head.
Anglican Archbishop Thomas Morgan, from Saskatoon, fights back tears.
"This morning, when we drove into those terrible slums, I was not prepared . . . It was a visceral experience for me. This is violence. We are talking about a crime in which even food, essential for human dignity and survival, is not a certainty," he says.
"And the children - I cannot even put my feelings into words . . . Anybody who has a heart must understand what it means to see children suffering . . . I want to go back home and tell anybody who will listen what it was like to walk where we walked this morning."
Rev. Robert Smith, former moderator of the United Church of Canada, from Vancouver, urges the federal government to reconsider its support for a larger Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) modelled on NAFTA.
"Free trade is here to stay, and it may even be a good thing," he says, "but not in the absence of programs to help those dispossessed by free trade."
Keith Christie, Canadian ambassador to Mexico, argues "the strength of the trade deal is that it has helped in Mexico's economic recovery." Without it, he says, the 1995 peso crisis would have been much more devastating.
But in Ciudad Juarez, gritty, dun-coloured and desperate, these church leaders quickly grasp the essence of the problem.
It's simple: more people, no money, no programs to deal with overwhelming social deprivation, and nothing but more of the same on the horizon. What happened, they ask, to NAFTA promises of social justice?
Mexico's border area is exploding with foreign-owned assembly plants, called maquiladoras, which employ 1.3 million workers and make up the only booming segment of the Mexican economy.
These plants are increasing because NAFTA locks in favourable investment rules that ensure no surprises, such as a sudden government decision to slap import tariffs on car parts. These plants assemble goods - from engine blocks to brassieres - using materials imported duty-free under NAFTA, then ship the finished products back over the border, again duty-free.
They pay little or no tax in Mexico, which is why Ciudad Juarez is unable to provide even minimal services to a population now officially at 2 million, and growing daily as Mexicans flood in from all over the republic.
Many new arrivals are farmers, forced off their land by NAFTA rules which ended agricultural subsidies. These free-trade policies coincide with moves to cut farm credit and open up Mexican markets to cheap food imports from the U.S., including corn, which once was the mainstay of Mexican agriculture and remains the key dietary staple.
Nobody says farming is easy, but people say they weren't living in squalor the way they are in Ciudad Juarez.
"We have heard stories of repression by the army, of death squads that force people from their homes and of fear and suffering," says Priscilla Solomon, from the Sisters of St. Joseph in North Bay, and a member of the Anishnabe nation. "We could see the pain and grief and, in all cases, the common denominator is the disempowerment of people."
The most difficult for her, she says, was the visit to the Tarahumara highlands, southwest of Ciudad Juarez, where indigenous villages are fighting the international logging companies that find Mexico increasingly attractive under liberalized logging and shipping rules related to free trade.
The Tarahumara Indians, losing their forests and livelihood, are starving. One woman brought her dying baby to the delegation, but there was nothing they could do.
This trip has reinforced their anger.
Since Canada's first free-trade deal with the U.S. in 1989, Canadian churches have joined labour, environmental and human rights groups to criticize agreements they believe place corporate values over human values.
They say free trade is about cheap labour, and everything else is window-dressing. They see it as a "race to the bottom," in which Canadian and Mexican workers are reduced to Mexican standards, not the reverse.
"The problem with free trade," says Catholic Bishop Jean Gagnon, from Quebec city, "is that it doesn't share the wealth.
"So my car costs less because it is assembled in Mexico but people have to live the way they do here. I can't accept that."
After listening to union organizer Lopez, United Church minister Smith says he's angry the Canadian government signed a NAFTA labour side agreement which does nothing to protect Mexican workers fighting for independent unions.
Lopez was involved in a year-long drive to bring an independent union to the Duro Bag manufacturing plant in Rio Bravo. It failed when, on March 2, workers voted 498-4 for the officially sanctioned government union, CROC, against its upstart rival.
According to testimony from international labour delegations, workers at the U.S.-owned plant were threatened with firings, harassed with guns, locked up overnight in the plant on the eve of the vote and forced to vote in front of thugs from the official union.
In Mexico, unions have traditionally been controlled by the government. Newly elected President Fox says he abhors the situation and wants to introduce labour legislation to change it. But critics call Duro a test case, and say Fox failed to uphold a pledge to promote collective bargaining rights, including secret ballots.
"The new government promised us many things, but only the colours of the party have changed," says union organizer Lopez.
"It's true there are more jobs under NAFTA, but is it worth it to live like this? I don't think so."
The company says workers weren't threatened with losing their jobs. "We said that if this activity (the independent union drive) goes on, and we lose customers over this, people may lose their jobs," Canadian-born Bill Forsprom, Duro's manufacturing vice-president, told The Star from Kentucky headquarters.
Duro makes decorative bags for Hallmark and logo merchandise bags for, among others, The Gap, eatons and Sears Canada.
"We offered our workers the chance to stay overnight because we worried about their safety. We thought there was a possibility of violence," said Forsprom. And he added "the law says it's an open ballot unless all parties agree otherwise."
Rio Bravo operations are back to normal. CROC (Confederation of Workers and Campesinos) officials declined comment.
There are lofty promises on the summit agenda. Ottawa says it must be "responsive to the real concerns of the citizens of the hemisphere," and have "a clear focus on people (and) commitment to social equity to the benefit of all citizens of the Americas."
But, says the United Church's Smith, "there is no reason to believe the government of Canada means one word of that stuff."
Smith says "NAFTA didn't spring full-blown from the head of Zeus in 1994." Policies to open up Mexico to foreign investment began in the 1970s and "we have been seeing 30 years of the destruction of communities."
He insists International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew's argument that things take time is "simply nonsense . . . they've had time.
"They should come here. I can't look in the face of a mother who can't feed her babies, while this kind of obscenity is being encouraged.
"We are paying the price with the lives of children and it is not worth it."
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