Plan Puebla Panama and Chiapas

“I am opposed to terrorism, but we have to look at who constructed terrorism. We have to keep in mind Vietnam, Chile, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala when we think about terrorism, says a member of the Center of Economic and Political Investigation and Community Action (CIEPEC), based out of San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. As George Bush and the US government escalate their war on terrorism the world is becoming increasingly polarized between “good” and “evil.” During the Cold War, any person or group of people who disagreed with US foreign policy was immediately labeled a communist. Today the terminology has changed and anyone who objects to the intentions of the US government, who rejects capitalism and imperialism, is a “terrorist” and should fear for their life. If you are considered to be a “terrorist” by the US government, no human rights law will protect you.

The new world order after September 11th threatens those who struggle for human rights around the world and strengthens the force of the US government and their allies. Bush’s now famous words ring clearly throughout the world, “You are either with us or you are against us.” Mexican president Vicente Fox is considered by the US government to be one of the ¨”good” people and is clearly “with” the US in its fight against terrorism.

Since September 11th, the US government’s centuries long struggle to control this hemisphere has been strengthened as people around the world live in fear of US force. The Plan Puebla Panama is the name of the proposed plan that seeks to pacify and “develop” the most impoverished and volatile region in the western hemisphere. The PPP will create a trading block for the United States that will better rival that of the European Union.

The Plan Puebla Panama extends from the state of Puebla, Mexico to the Panama Canal. The plan will affect the nine southernmost states of Mexico including Puebla, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, Tabasco, Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo. For the purposes of this article I will focus on how the PPP will affect the state of Chiapas.

The PPP is strongly backed by George Bush, Vicente Fox, and the Interamerican Development Bank, the World Bank, the Central American Development Bank, among others. According to the Mexican government, the PPP will bring sustainable development to the most underdeveloped region in the hemisphere. This development will come with the creation of infrastructure, including highways, trains, ports, and hydroelectric dams throughout the region. Seventy-two maquiladoras are planned to provide employment to those seeking refuge in the cities, when they are displaced from or can no longer maintain their land for economic reasons. The plan has already begun to be implemented. On their official web page The Interamerican Development Bank says, “The goal of the PPP is to take advantage of the human and ecological riches of the Mesoamerican region within a framework of sustainable development and respect for its ethnic and cultural diversity.”

Despite the official lines of the Mexican government and the Interamerican Development Bank that the PPP will bring sustainable development to the region, people throughout the region are strongly opposed to its implementation. In order to understand why and how this plan is being implemented we must look at the current situation in Chiapas. The questions must be asked, “who will benefit from these plans, and what will happen to the people who have lived in these areas for centuries?”

One-third of the population of Chiapas is indigenous to the area. In the Mesoamerican region live a majority of Indigenous and Afro-Caribbean populations of the continent. Chiapas is also the home of the Zapatistas, a popular movement that rose up in 1994 in opposition to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and to fight for the rights of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. Since 1994, the indigenous people of Chiapas have lived in a state of military occupation and have suffered what has been estimated to be thousands of deaths at the hands of the Mexican military. Enlace Civil, a Chiapas based NGO, confirms that at this time there are two hundred and fifty reported military bases in the state of Chiapas. The Zapatistas have been accused by the Mexican government numerous times of engaging in terrorist activity.

Though the Mexican army continues to patrol indigenous villages throughout the region, Fox insists that there is no longer war in Chiapas. Last June while on a trip to El Salvador approving the PPP, Fox is quoted in the Nicaraguan Prensa as saying that, “Chiapas is in a state of saintly peace. The Plan Puebla Panama is a million times more than Zapatismo or any indigenous community in Chiapas.” This statement, later republished in the Mexican press, made Fox’s intentions clear to the people of Chiapas. The PPP is not about people, it is about profit. It is also an effort on the part of the Fox administration to suppress the Zapatista movement.

At the end of April, the Zapatistas completed a year in silence. The silence was initiated after the passage of the Indigenous Rights Bill in the Mexican Congress last spring. The law does not give the indigenous people the autonomy and control of natural resources that they have been fighting for and was promised to them in the San Andres accords signed by the Mexican government in 1996. However, though the Zapatistas remain in an official state of silence, many communities in the region have stated that they are not willing to be displaced from their land as a result of the PPP. Rather, they have expressed their intent to fight for the rights to their land and the preservation of their cultures.

Zapatista communities reject any government assistance and function autonomously and collectively. Many indigenous communities throughout the state and the country, both affiliated and non-affiliated with the Zapatistas, work and own the land collectively as is allowed for under the Mexican ejido system. Yet, the PPP threatens to privatize land and displace many communities in order to build infrastructure.

CIEPEC outlines five points of the PPP: the construction of infrastructure, maquiladoras, migration, militarization, and destruction of biodiversity. One of the main proposals of the PPP is the creation of highways throughout the region. In the conflict zones of Chiapas the highways will make the military occupation more efficient. Highways will also provide better access for the extraction of the natural resources of the region, namely oil. It will be easier for outsiders to come in and extract natural resources, which will in turn benefit the Mexican government and the corporations who will control their sale. The construction of dams would in many areas result in flooding the jungle and archeological ruins, in effect destroying people’s homes and livelihoods.

The PPP proposes the idea that displaced peoples can immigrate to the cities and work in maquiladoras. When I was in Chiapas, I had the opportunity to visit and speak with the manager of a new maquiladora that has just opened in San Cristobal de Las Casas. The factory seeks to employ 1,000 locals, preferably women, to manufacture sweaters for export to the US. It has contracts with Express, The Limited, Liz Claiborne, among other companies. The workers receive the minimum wage of thirty-eight pesos a day, roughly equivalent to about $3.60. In an interview with the manager of the factory, he admits that a living wage would be at least three times that amount. He says that the government has been promising for years to increase the minimum wage, though it has not been done. However, he tells us, that if the wage were raised, the companies would move to where there is cheaper labor, such as China. One of the incentives of the PPP is to encourage companies to set up shop in southern Mexico because northern Mexico has become too expensive compared to other countries in Asia. Southern Mexico provides the prospect of a cheaper labor force.

In respect to migration issues, Fox is currently trying to negotiate with George Bush a plan to legalize the Mexican workers that are already in the US. The idea is that once these workers are legalized, other Mexicans can enter the US and Canada as guest workers, in effect recreating a Bracero like program similar to that implemented after WWII. Guest workers would not be protected by US labor laws.

Moving on to the fourth point, migration to Mexico from Central America would be controlled along the Mexico-Guatemala border. This border would be heavily militarized so as to control unwanted migration. Because this border is remarkably shorter than that between the US and Mexico, it could be more easily patrolled. 12,000 US soldiers have already been dispatched to this area.

The fifth point has to do with biopiracy and the destruction of the biodiversity of this area that I have already mentioned. Natural resources will be privatized and transnational corporations will have free access to extract and exploit what they desire. The development of biotechnology disrupts the earth and disrespects the people who have lived on it and cultivated it for centuries. The companies get rich off the land while the campesinos are pushed off it and the land is chemicalized and made unfarmable. According to CIEPEC, 15,000 acres of African Palm and 120,000 acres of coconut palm plantations are planned. The care of these plants is extremely chemically intensive and would result in the destruction of fertile soil. These plants would be cultivated in the region for export with little benefit to the communities in which the plants are grown.

A coalition of non-governmental organizations who met in June 2001 in San Cristobal, Chiapas state in their report For Biological and Cultural Diversity, “The PPP hands over the independence and autonomy of the country, it is a project of death that means slavery to the transnational corporations, a second colonization, and the robbery of our natural resources.” It is clear that the PPP is a project that will result in devastation for the masses and profit for the already rich.

In Chiapas, people are organizing against the PPP. CIEPEC is holding popular workshops in communities throughout the state informing people of the plans for the PPP and planning alternative projects, which will “sustain life” rather than create destruction.

While Mexicans and Central Americans are organizing resistance to the PPP, most people in the US remain in the dark, unaware even of the plans that are in place. Here in the US we are in the belly of the beast. As the US government rallies the people to the cry of war and we are living in a time of extreme nationalism, we need to educate people that what happened on September 11th was a result of US foreign policy. As a Chiapan organizer intently expressed to me, we in the US need to recreate a historical memory. If we look at recent history, it is easy to understand the resentment and hatred of the US government by people around the world and by some of its own residents. We must challenge people to ask themselves how does a country become a superpower? What kind of development are we promoting throughout the world? What is the role of the US military around in other countries? How far can power and greed really take us before there is no more space left to overtake and control? How can we start over and build a world based on values of respect and community? We must give people other perspectives than what they see on NBC nightly news and read in the New York Times. We need to ask our friends, neighbors, and family members these questions and create a dialogue of resistance that could hopefully eventually become a movement.

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