Mexico: A tale of two states

January 11, 1994|By Jeffrey Rubin

SUPPORTERS of economic liberalization argue that free trade promotes democracy.

But often it does not, and recent experiences in southern Mexico show all too clearly why.

In democracies, citizens are likely to press for attention to their nomic needs, especially during hard times. This means businesses must be willing to negotiate with workers over wages, working conditions, corporate practices and environmental policies.

But in an intensely competitive global economy, businesses are reluctant to invest in places where they face such negotiations and governments prefer to keep people from questioning the economic rules.

In Chiapas, the intensification of profitable logging and livestock enterprises in the 1980s, which will accelerate under the North American Free Trade Agreement, made it harder and harder for already poor people to survive.

The collapse of world coffee prices has made the situation even more desperate. In response to this impoverishment, peasants have become active in nonviolent grass-roots political movements. Supported by Chiapas' Roman Catholic bishops, these organizations fought to defend people's land and livelihood, develop innovative economic projects and secure democratic political rights.

But as the government has encouraged deregulation and rapid economic transformation in Chiapas, state officials have stepped up repression of peasants' organizations that have resisted those policies.

Preoccupied with furthering the free trade agenda (and with convincing other nations that ordinary Mexicans supported NAFTA), the authorities failed to address local grievances, violently disrupted political meetings and jailed and tortured peasant leaders.

The democratic movements that had grown in the 1980s stalled, and violent forms of opposition increased -- finally, to the point of rebellion and large-scale military violence.

In contrast to this weakening of democracy in Chiapas, a political movement of Zapotec Indians in the nearby state of Oaxaca has grown stronger over the past decade.

The city of Juchitan has been a laboratory for local democracy, one of the most vigorous in Latin America. A leftist political group, the Coalition of Workers, Peasants and Students of the Isthmus (the Spanish acronym is COCEI, pronounced ko-SAY) stood up to violent repression in the 1970s, and its supporters won local elections by pressuring the Mexican government to live up to its commitments to free elections.

COCEI has consistently linked formal democracy to real reform, pressuring local employers and national authorities to obey worker-protection laws and to improve long-neglected municipal services.

In the face of constant obstruction and repression by successive Mexican governments, COCEI has stimulated political debate, promoted fair elections, dramatically increased voter turnout, opened up government offices to oversight from citizens, and improved living and working conditions.

It has used the Zapotec language in its political activities, encouraged activism among women and built links to democratic movements.

Now that it runs the local government, COCEI has modified its past militancy. Local administrations have reached out to the middle class and made new alliances, including overtures to the private sector concerning guarantees for investment.

But despite its remarkable successes, COCEI has found it TC difficult to attract investment to the city.

The workings of democracy in Juchitan are tempestuous. Investors feel well treated one moment then betrayed when COCEI blocks the Pan-American Highway to protest unfair labor practices.

Peasants feel represented when COCEI obtains credit or insurance for them but angered when the organization welcomes reform-minded members of Mexico's ruling party into its municipal government.

Some COCEI leaders feel justified, in light of their achievements, in making decisions unilaterally, while other COCEI activists insist that internal procedures need to be more democratic.

This politics is complicated and turbulent to its core. It is sometimes explosive and exclusionary, even as it is competitive, open-ended and responsive. Not surprisingly, businesses are reluctant to invest in Juchitan. They prefer surrounding cities, which are more closely allied with the ruling party and its affiliated labor unions. Stores open in Salina Cruz, an oil center 20 miles away.

Small industries plan growth in an arc outside of Juchitan. A new highway may bypass Juchitan entirely, making it even harder for the city to compete.

U.S. investors lured to Mexico by NAFTA will avoid Juchitan, precisely because people there negotiate from a position of cultural and political strength, and local politics is unpredictable.

But if commitments to democracy on the part of the United States and Mexico are genuine, Juchitan is exactly where investment should be encouraged.

What better place to create jobs and wealth than this unruly city, where people not only compete energetically but have experience in forging creative paths to the future? What better way to foster democracy than to enrich a nucleus of democratic innovation and watch it expand?

"There is no such thing as free trade," Mickey Kantor, the U.S. trade representative, has said. "You have to have rules of the road."

If citizens and governments do not find a way to create new rules of the road, then economies will grow where order can be imposed from above, poverty and guerrilla movements will proliferate where it can't be, and all the talk about democracy will prove to have been a smokescreen for bigger profits.

Jeffrey Rubin, professor of political science at Amherst College, is a fellow of the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California at San Diego.

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