Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Dying to Live

Some days the sala is full, others it is empty. This depends on if the guests could find work that day. Sometimes, guests leave the house to rent a place of their own, and sometimes, they leave to go back to their home country. This depends on if the guest could find work. The general mood of the house also fluctuates with the availability of work. On days when work was abundant, people come home in high spirits and ready to go to bed early. It is days when no work was available that people are on edge, and problems arise. Finding work, one day a week, or two days a week, is the make or break for many guests. It determines if their family in Mexico will have food on the table. It determines how long they have to be separate from their families. A day of work means everything.

This week I will try to document the public policy and economic marginalization involved with the displacement of many native Mexicans—necessitating their migration north. I will highlight how the “workers” category at our house exists because of failed public policy.

Although migration north for work has been a phenomenon since the US acquisition of Mexican land in 1848, the recent waves of migration can be traced back to the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on January 1st, 1994.

This agreement, between Canada, Mexico, and the US, was reached in hopes to strengthen all three economies with more cooperation and a more free market. Essentially, NAFTA lowers tariffs on goods between the three countries, including the complete elimination of tariffs on 21 farm products. This would allow US companies to take advantage of the cheap labor in Mexico, without having to pay as much to get the goods back across the border. Also, without tariffs, it put the economies of all three countries in direct competition with each other, meaning that the Mexican corn farmer, the US corn farmer, and the Canadian corn farmer were all put head to head to see who could make corn the cheapest.

Mexico signed the deal hoping that the increased incentive for foreign investment would help to stabilize their economy. On the morning of January 1st, 2004, when NAFTA went into effect, Mexico woke up to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation declaring war on Mexico and using the date of the implementation of NAFTA as a symbol of the greater than one hundred years of oppression of the indigenous people of Mexico.

This immediate resistance to NAFTA could be traced to two main reasons. First, because the rural population of Mexico realized that the decreased tariffs would put them in competition with the US farmers and the huge US farm subsidies, therefore, putting them out of work. Second, a Ejido land system had existed in which land was constitutionally protected for certain communities to live on and cultivate. This land was the livelihood for many indigenous people. George Bush Sr. had given Salinas, the then-President of Mexico, an ultimatum that if he did not make the ejido land available for sale and for factory use, NAFTA would not be signed by the US. Salinas then amended the Mexican Constitution to allow for the sale of ejidos, leaving the land, and the people of the land, victim to wealthy landowners and government officials.

The declared Zapatista revolution had dramatic effects on an international scale. Hundreds of foreign investors pulled money out of Mexico as fast as they could, fearing the tumultuous state of the country. With money rapidly leaving the country, the value of the peso fell to less than half of its prior value. Concerned with the disastrous state of our southern neighbor, and the effect that could have on us, the US offered Mexico bailout money, but only under the condition that Mexico would cut social, educational, and infrastructural spending.

In the first year of the implementation of NAFTA, Mexico had witnessed the birth of a revolution, the value of the peso cut in half, and their freedom to spend where they wanted infringed by debt and dependence on US bailouts. The early days of NAFTA did not bode well.

Before NAFTA, one half of Mexico’s land was dedicated to corn production, with the help of two and a half million farmers. The implementation of NAFTA changed things. The US gives twice the amount of subsidies to its farmers than Mexico does, and therefore, the US farmers can grow corn for a much lower cost. Also, the US has an agreement that they will buy up any excess corn that the farmers produce. With the extra corn that the US buys, they then sell it in Mexico, flooding the market with cheap corn. These systems make it nearly impossible for Mexican corn farmers to continue, putting millions out of work. By 1996, two years after NAFTA began, 2.3 million Mexicans lost their jobs, the average cost of living rose by 80% while the average salary only rose 30%, and 20,000 small-medium size businesses went out of business. The disastrous effects of NAFTA seem very evident when you look at the numbers.

With a seemingly eternal tremulous economy in Mexico, there is a saying that, “When the US sneezes, Mexico catches Pneumonia.” This has been seen in the recent economic downturn. In the three-month period this year between April and June, the Mexican economy contracted 10.3% while the US economy contracted 1%. Currently 60% of the active working population in Mexico is working in the informal sector, trying to squeeze out a livelihood washing cars, selling papitas and so on. Of every 730,000 people that entered the labor market before 2008, only 80,000 found employment. Hearing these numbers, it is no wonder that since 1994 and the implementation of NAFTA, 500,000 Mexicans migrate to the US annually.

It is a portion of these 500,000 each year that show up at our door, in a state of crisis, looking to earn enough money to keep them and their dependents in Mexico alive. These people are the byproduct of disastrous public policy, and are the real, living example, of what went wrong. It certainly does something to see the numerical effects that NAFTA has on Mexico. But it is when you get looked in the eye and told by someone that he lost his job, his family went hungry, and now he is simply dying to live, that you can really absorb the pain, injustice, and errors of this particular public policy.