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MEXICO: Farmers March Against Free Trade

Associated Press
August 8th, 2001

Thousands of farmers marched through the Mexican capital Wednesday demanding subsidies and a halt to free trade -- posing the most direct challenge yet to President Vicente Fox's 8-month-old administration.

The march, on Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata's birthday, was a show of force for the ''old Mexico,'' opposed to the new, entrepreneurial nation that the businessman Fox has promised.

The protesters' rhetoric harkened back to Zapata's 1910-1917 Revolution, which created the communal farms that served as the political backbone of the former ruling party, whose 71-year reign Fox ended in last year's elections.

Young and old marched in a sea of straw hats and baseball caps, cowboy boots and dusty tennis shoes. Families with small children armed with toy noisemakers joined men and women waving banners reading ''United States out'' and ''Fox means misery.''

''Fox sees the values of the revolution as history, the past,'' said Constantino Canstaneda, a 36-year-old tomato farmer who took a 10-hour bus ride from central Zacatecas state to participate in the protest.

''But I see the revolution in the land I work every day and in the faces of my children who will grow up to be farmers and have even less than I have now.''

Streams of farmers chanted ''Zapata Lives! The struggle continues!'' as they fanned out across the world's second-largest city to blockade government offices and shut down a half-dozen major boulevards.

"Rural Mexico could explode,'' said protest organizer Alvaro Lopez Rios, leader of the Agrarian Congress farm group. ''This could take us to the edge of anarchy.''

While march organizers said more than 5,000 farmers participated, Wednesday's turnout was lower than the tens of thousands promised by labor unions. A number of separate marches cut slow, disorganized paces through the city and, as the day wore on, some protesters used their banners to shield themselves from the unrelenting afternoon sun.

The farmers are suffering from a prolonged drought that has withered crops in northern Mexico and low prices for coffee, basic grains, sugar and tropical cash crops like bananas.

They complained that Fox has abandoned any pretense at making Mexico self-sufficient in food production, something to which the former ruling party at least paid lip service -- largely to ensure farmers' political support.

''With the trade opening and in the framework of globalization, the government took the easy way out, saying, 'It's easier to buy cheap imports than to support expensive domestic production,''' Lopez Rios said.

Fox drew the battle lines sharply Tuesday, when he encouraged farmers to modernize, adopt new crops and rely less on government. He said he wanted to end ''corruption, paternalism, political favoritism and bureaucracy'' in farm policy.

But he showed no sign of stepping away from the two things that angered protesters most: his commitment to free-trade agreements that have let in cheap foreign grain and his close relationship with the United States.

''The United States and Canada protect their farmers with tariffs and subsidies,'' Martin Altorre, a 51-year-old banana and sugarcane farmer from southern Morelos state, said at a protest at Mexico City's Revolution monument.

''In Mexico, the farmers are getting hit hard, and Fox likes that.''

Fox said Mexico doesn't have the money to compete in a subsidy race with developed countries, and that farmers should leave behind corn and change to crops where they have an advantage -- like the winter-vegetable exports that made Fox's family wealthy.

Fox's administration says past policies encouraged farmers to waste scarce irrigation water on marginal land and to cut down the nation's forests. He has offered to clear up Mexico's historic land-title problems so farmers can qualify for loans to modernize. But such measures may also tend to break up communal farms, whose owners were only recently allowed individual titles to their lots.

Such policies may prove difficult to implement in a country where corn is king and small farms are viewed as the prized legacy of the revolution, where ''socialist agricultural schools'' dot the countryside and the 19th-century agrarian movement still holds fast.

''This is not old Mexico against modern Mexico. This is Mexico's brain telling Mexico's heart it's no longer needed,'' said Juan Sanchez, a 38-year-old wheat farmer from northern Durango state.

''Farming got this country where it is, and it will take Mexico into the future.''





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