Bush in Mexico

Ten years ago this month, masked rebels emerged from the mountains of Chiapas, the poorest region in Mexico, and stepped onto the world stage. They called themselves Zapatistas, taking up the Mexican Revolution’s unfinished mission of promoting land reform and democratic liberty. They also connected their struggle to the age of globalization. The Zapatistas chose January 1, 1994, the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, and with their uprising said “Ya Basta!” — enough is enough.

When President Bush recently traveled to Monterrey, Mexico for the Fourth Summit of the Americas, the rebels in Chiapas were far from his mind. Bush went hoping to smooth out the tensions between the United States and the governments of Latin America that were sparked by recent trade disputes and by the White House’s push for war in Iraq. But the tenth anniversary of the Zapatista uprising proved a portentous time for a Mexican visit. Instead of being welcomed uncritically by a body of docile allies, Bush was confronted with an unruly Latin America that is making his administration’s vision of a hemispheric free trade zone seem ever more remote.

While heads of state enjoyed several smile-filled photo ops in Monterrey, and while their summit ultimately produced a statement that included support for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), underlying tensions simmered throughout — and at times boiled into the open.

In highly publicized addresses, Brazil’s Lula da Silva argued that “After the ’80s — the so-called lost decade — the ’90s was a decade of despair,” brought about by a “perverse model that wrongly separated the economic from the social, put stability against growth, and separated responsibility and justice.” Nestor Kirchner of Argentina warned that a trade “pact that does nothing to resolve deep imbalances will do nothing but deepen injustice and the breakdown of our economies.” And Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez demanded “a new moral architecture” in Latin America “favoring the weakest.”

It’s important not to over-emphasize the significance of any politician’s rhetorical posturing. Talk is cheap, after all. But more than just focusing discussion on social issues, Latin America’s “New Left” succeeded in removing a concrete deadline for the FTAA from the conference declaration, upping the odds that the embattled agreement may never actually materialize.

If one thing has changed in Latin America in the ten years preceding the past week’s summit, it is the idea that the United States’ “free trade” advance is uncontroversial and unstoppable. That’s where the Zapatistas come in. Many point to the Chiapas rebellion as a defining moment in the genesis of the modern movement against corporate globalization. Although the Zapatistas rose up against the Mexican army, they did not aim to seize state power or to impose a set ideology on others. Instead, they fought against a homogenous, monoculture brand of globalization. They called for a “world where many worlds fit.”

The idea that alternative “worlds” could actually exist in international economics may sound foreign to those accustomed to the U.S. media. In this country, the policies of increased financial mobility and corporate expansion that have been promoted by the U.S. Treasury, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank are known simply as “globalization” — a term that suggests a benign, inevitable transition to a high-tech age. In Latin America, the same policies are called “neoliberalism” and are recognized as a specific set of political choices designed to benefit multinational corporations, often with steep costs for developing countries.

The guerillas in Chiapas did not provide a political model for producing leftist governments. But the attitude of Zapatismo has exerted a powerful influence on an insurgent international movement. Few have done more than the Zapatistas to spread the critique of neoliberalism throughout broad networks of social activists, or to foster the hope that other globalizations might prevail.

In retrospect, the early years of NAFTA may have marked the apex of a system that is now in decline. Recent meetings in Cancún and Miami produced results ranging from disastrous to underwhelming for U.S. trade boosters, and an increasing number of mainstream economists are defecting from dominant IMF stances in development policy.

Of course, the global justice movement does not deserve all, or even most, of the credit for fracturing the “Washington Consensus.” Neoliberalism is feeling the consequences of its own failure. As Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research consistently notes, the reigning orthodoxy has performed poorly even in the terms that bankers most easily understand: economic growth. From 1980-1999, twenty years in which neoliberal principles held sway in Latin America, income per person grew by a meager 11 percent, compared with 80 percent over the period from 1960-1979. Hence Lula’s “perverse model” of “despair.”

Furthermore, neoliberal dictates have produced dramatic economic and social crises in places like Argentina and Bolivia, leaving even some right-of-center governments wondering if there isn’t a better plan for development than what Washington puts on the table.

It is arguable that Brazil’s most damaging blow to the Bush administration agenda has not been joining with Venezuela or social movement activists in making heated denunciations, but providing an influential example for those more conservative regimes. Despite his concerns about social issues, Lula da Silva has taken a pro-trade position in FTAA negotiations — one that challenges U.S. trade officials to open their own markets. The United States has always backed “free” trade more in principle than in practice, maintaining $19 billion in annual subsidies for its farmers. In a context where Latin American nations, even those who do not see themselves as radicals, are increasingly willing to stand up for themselves and defend their national interests, U.S. refusal to move from this “do as I say” hypocrisy bodes ill for future talks.

Increasing skepticism about the failures of neoliberalism, the example of governments less obsequious than in the past to U.S. demands, and the United States’ own intransigence in trade negotiations together form a roadblock that will likely prevent a substantive FTAA from ever getting back on track. That won’t altogether stop Bush’s trade team, which will seek out other means, like one-on-one, bilateral treaties with poorer nations, to push its agenda. But it will be good news for those who never believed that corporate globalization offered the best, or the only, possible future — those who, in Monterrey as in Chiapas, have said “Ya Basta!”

– Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached via the web site http://www.DemocracyUprising.com. Research assistance for this article provided by Jason Rowe. This article first appeared on TomPaine.com.

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