Today, the World Court settled the issue of the maritime border of Chile and Peru, an issue going all the way back to the War of the Pacific in the late-19th century. Peru wanted the border extended, while Chile refused to recognize Peru’s claims. The issue was particularly relevant in terms of economics, as where the border rested could determine who had access to fishing grounds in the Pacific. As for “who won,” the answer appears to be….it depends who you are. The Court did extend the border for Peru, which could seem like a victory, but it didn’t extend it as far as Peru had claimed it should go, leaving the fisheries in Chilean territory and not providing any real material gains for the Peruvian economy and those tied to the fishing industry. It will be interesting to see how the two countries respond to the new borders in the longer-run, and how they go about patrolling/securing their own borders (and how lax or strict that patrolling will be). That said, the decision does have the potential to bring at least some resolution to an issue that’s well over 125 years old.
On the level of minutiae, my favorite part was this:
Outside the presidential palace, scores of people who had watched the verdict being read on two giant TV screens shouted “Long Live Peru” afterward, though there was some confusion as to whether their country had won or lost.
Who says nationalism is dead?
-Peru has launched its biggest exhumation ever, as it tries to find victims from the violence between the Shining Path and the Peruvian state between 1980 and 2000.
-Peru is not the only country exhuming victims of violence. In an attempt to find two missing police officers, forensic scientists in Mexico got more than they expected when their search led to the discovery of 64 bodies buried in mass graves in Jalisco and Michoacán, with the bodies showing signs of torture and indicating they are the victims of ongoing violence between cartels. In spite of the discovery, the two police officers remain missing.
-In the wake of a close election and allegations of electoral fraud, Honduras will hold a recount after thousands took to the streets in support of Xiomara Castro, who allegedly lost the election to conservative candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez (who got 37% of the total vote) and whose husband, former president Manuel Zelaya, was removed from office in a coup d’etat in 2009. The recount comes amidst outsiders’ observations allegations of chicanery and after Honduras’s electoral council was very slow to issue the data from the November 24 election, adding to suspicions of fraud.
-Rio de Janeiro governor Sérgio Cabral announced that he will leave office 9 months early after seeing his popularity plummet in the midst and wake of protests last June, when millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest a number of causes, including political elites’ disconnect and corruption. Cabral himself became a particular target of that anger in Rio de Janeiro.
-The bad news for governors is not limited to Brazil. In Mexico, former governor of Tamaulipas Tomás Yarrington faces charges in the US of having ties to the drug cartels while he was in office during his 1999-2004 governorship.
-Costa Rica closed a probe into the 1984 bombing that killed 7 journalists and Nicaraguan Contras and wounded 20 more people, after forensics revealed that the attacker died in the late-1980s.
-Mexico’s Senate has approved electoral reform that would allow reelection and would strengthen Congressional power in the face of executive power even while approving President Enrique Peña’s efforts to increasingly privatize the state-run PEMEX oil company in Mexico.
-Francisco Flores, the former president of El Salvador for the conservative ARENA party, is under investigation for the misuse of upwards of $10 million that Taiwan donated to El Salvador during his presidency, money that apparently never made it to its intended institutional destinations.
-Finally, in Brazil, Guaraní indigenous leader Ambrosio Vilhava, whose struggle to help protect Guaraní land was documented in the 2008 film Birdwatchers, was found stabbed to death after his father-in-law allegedly killed him. While the circumstances around his death remain unclear, the fact remains that his death marks the loss of an important activist and leader in Brazilian indigenous mobilization.
Since Thanksgiving evening and through today, millions of people in the US are descending on retailers to try to take advantage of deals offered only one day, simultaneously trying to take advantage of the worst excesses of materialism in the US, even while further encouraging the system that creates such excesses.
Sadly and more than a little bizarrely, “Black Friday” has stopped being a strictly US phenomenon. Yesterday was just any old other Thursday in Brazil – the next-to-last day of the workweek as summer approaches. And yet today, numerous Brazilian stores and online retailers are promoting “Black Friday” to try to get Brazilians to shop, too, participating in a decidedly-US phenomenon without any of the traditional celebrations that define the US’s Thanksgiving the day before. And while the hordes in the US set out to find that great deal on the 60-inch TV but settle for a cheap juicer they won’t even use when the TVs are sold out by 3AM, Brazilians hoping for a deal are often going to find themselves disappointed or ripped off, as many of the “deals” are either false, or tied to other conditions. And it’s not just traditional retailers. Even Carta Capital, one of the more widely-published and generally-respected progressive print journals in Brazil, is offering “Black Friday” discounts on subscriptions today.
Scholars and critics of globalization often lament the homogenizing and capitalist-driven effects of an increasingly globalized culture. That the very idea of “Black Friday,” or US consumerism at its most bare-faced and vulgar is now becoming the model for other countries is doing little to challenge that perception.
Following the protests in São Paulo (and supporting demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro) last Thursday, the weekend saw protests spread throughout the country. On Saturday, as the Confederations Cup kicked off in Brasilia, protesters demonstrated against the costs of preparing for the Confederations Cup and World Cup. Those expenses were also subject to protests in Rio de Janeiro yesterday, protests that turned violent when police launched tear gas and attacked protesters who voluntarily chose not to provoke the cops (to little avail). And though a Facebook RSVP is far from a rock-solid statistical analysis, over 200,000 people on Facebook said they would attend protests in São Paulo today. As the unrest continues at least in the short term and begins to become something more than an isolated protest gone awry, the question remains: what exactly is going on?
First thing’s first: it’s not a “Brazilian Spring.” The “Arab Spring” was a wave of popular movements demanding an end to decades of repressive and undemocratic regimes; despite the flaws in Brazilian democracy [or democracy more broadly], such conditions do not apply to Brazil, nor is it the subject of protest for Brazilians in the streets. Though police violence was common both in the countries of the Arab Spring two years ago and in Brazil now, the broader political systems are fundamentally different, as are the issues confronting the people. And it’s far from some widespread movement; thousands have taken to the streets, and that’s not insignificant, but in metro areas of 20+ million (São Paulo) and 11+ million (Rio de Janeiro), thousands or even hundreds of thousands is far from a mass movement. That’s not to say people don’t quietly support the demands and issues without taking to the streets, or to say it can’t grow further. But calling it a “Brazilian Spring” (or any popular expression of discontent) is as lazy as slapping a “-Gate” on the end of every political scandal in the US.
So what is it? Well, simply put – it’s complicated. While a quick glimpse seems to suggest a broad movement, the causes of protest in Brazil over the last few days have varied, from bus fares in São Paulo and then to police violence and even to soccer. Throughout it all, on the surface there has not been a unified message that offers a coherent set of political demands. That said, these seemingly disparate issues actually tap into some of the broader, and more historically rooted, processes that are fueling the protests. Indeed, when looking at the actual structural issues at play in bus fare increases, government spending on athletics, or police violence, one sees the long-term historical processes of governance that helps the few at the cost of the many as a common thread throughout.
On the one hand, the bus fares are about a basic issue – increasing the cost of travel for the majority of an urban population, even while the wealthy, with their cars (or helicopters), who can most afford increases in daily expenses, remain exempt from such increases. This issue is not a new one in Brazil; in the 1950s and 1960s, student movements regularly protested against bus fares and demanded exemption for students who had to travel to school. Nor was such activity limited to students; as JF String reminds us, Sao Paulo witnessed protests over an overnight bus fare hike in 1958. Such protests were not just minor incidents of public anger, either; the 1958 protests left four dead after the police and protesters came into conflict.
Which leads us into a second process that has deep historical roots. The brutal and grotesque use of tear gas and rubber bullets against unarmed civilians last week was but another incident of police violence in what is a decades-old phenomenon (and one that arguably has its roots in slavery in Brazil). Throughout the twentieth century, police violence was a feature of arrests and crowd control, especially in poor areas. Even in the 1960s, police death squads operated in favelas during the military regime, prompting the press to distinguish between death squads against “criminals” and torture against political prisoners. The end of the dictatorship did not bring an end to such violence, in no small part because such violence well predated the military regime of 1964-1985, and such violence has continued to define police tactics and methods throughout much of urban Brazil well into the 21st century.
Likewise, government largesse going to those who need it the least also has deep historical roots. The First Republic (1889-1930) was an oligarchy in which regional elites were able to look out for their own interests; the creation of Brasilia in the 1950s gave Brazil a flashy capital to show the world even while it failed to provide for the rural poor who helped build the high modernist capital; the “Brazilian miracle” of 1967-1974 dramatically expanded the gap between Brazil’s rich and poor even while it laid the groundwork for the economic “lost decade” of the 1980s; and the neoliberalism of the 1990s, whose zealous quest for privatization affected everyday expenses in Brazil in a dramatic fashion even while multinational corporations got richer. The government spending on the World Cup itself is vulgar; the costs of preparing for the World Cup have been astronomical, with $13.3 billion originally scheduled for preparations, money that went to new fancy stadiums far more than it did to infrastructural improvements that would benefit all Brazilians. That so little of that money went to infrastructural improvements that would genuinely affect the lives of most Brazilians is unsurprising, just as it is unsurprising that some are now bristling at it.
But these are historical processes that go back decades. Why are Brazilians protesting now?
In part, the answer is because the political space and will are there. There is no openly repressive dictatorship that will support the immediate, disproportionate use of police violence to silence dissent, and that’s not nothing – though it seems a long time ago, it’s only 49 years since Brazil’s 21-year military regime began, and only 28 years since the country returned to democracy (and 24 years since the first direct presidential elections since 1960). Certainly, in many ways, socially, economically, and in terms of police power, Brazil remains undemocratic, but it is still a functioning electoral democracy that cannot support police repression openly the way the military regime did. That’s not to say the police won’t try to use such repression – indeed, that’s exactly what they are trying to do – but in an electorally democratic system, the federal government cannot support such violence without losing much of its legitimacy.
But it’s not just a change in political systems that help explain why these protests are taking place. After all, Brazil was under an electoral democracy throughout the 1990s, when stories of police-led massacres were common, be it the Candelaria Massacre of eight unarmed street children in 1993 or the murder of 102 prisoners (another nine apparently died at the hands of their fellow inmates) in the 1992 Carandiru Massacre. And even in the 2000s, as many condemned the ongoing violence, it did not bring people to the streets. So what has changed?
I think in part, it comes back to what has happened in the past ten years. At the macro-economic level, the gap between the rich and poor overall shrank somewhat, but it’s still grossly unequal. On top of that, the economic message, both within Brazil and projected to the rest of the world, has I think played no small part in helping to explain the protests. By the second Lula term, both the government and outside economic analysts were pointing to Brazil as a new emerging global powerhouse. They pointed to its ability to weather the global recession of 2008-2009 and the efforts to eliminate extreme poverty as example of Brazil as a new economic haven, one that had finally found the path of widespread growth and stability after decades (or centuries) of exploitation, inequalities, and uneven growth. Even its inclusion in the fictional BRIC [Brazil-Russia-India-China] made it seem like a new economic age had arrived, one that disregarded the lack of unity between the four countries and smacked more of analytical laziness than any genuine explanation of global economics. Many commentators viewed Brazil winning the right to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics as the final example that the country was set to show the world how far it has come.
And at first, many people in the mid-2000s began to feel this change. The purchasing power of the working class expanded, even while analysts trumpeted the apparent growth of the middle class. For decades, many Brazilians had been told that the economy was about to give them more, only to find such promises to be hollow. The last ten years seemed to suggest to many people that finally, the time had arrived where they, too, could finally have “more” – more stuff, more purchasing power, a more improved standard of living, a more just and equal society. Yet such promises may have been premature, as recent macroeconomic policies and trends have once again shaken Brazil in the global economy. Yet this time, things are different than previous times when economic success was promised, only to not arrive to a majority of the population. This time, it seemed the change could be real, that perhaps such promises of sustained and more-equally distributed stability could happen. Though it is “only” about ten years of relative economic stability for many (though certainly not for all), ten years is a long time in a country where dramatic economic troubles hit in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Indeed, for many Brazilians, recent years have marked the first time government optimism and reality seemed even close to corresponding for nearly a decade.
And then the bus fare hikes happened amidst growing inflation and economic uncertainty, affecting most those who could least afford it. And then the police turned to the same transparently repressive, brutal, and excessive tactics that they’ve used for decades. And then, on Saturday, Brazil kicked off a sporting event displaying opulence and excess to the world, even while it in reality benefited very few Brazilians in substantive ways (and indeed denied many the right to live in their own homes). And as these superficially disparate inequalities erupted at the same time, a general discontent that old structures of inequality have persisted became the discourse that draws these protests together. That helps to explain why some protesters are now (in many ways erroneously) equating the government of center-left president Dilma Rousseff with the conservative political elites; even though she has very real differences from conservatives in Brazilian politics, her government (and Lula’s before her) have apparently not done enough to erode those structures.
And in some ways, things have visibly changed for the better for many in the last decade. Programs like Bolsa Familia and Fome Zero have had real impacts for millions of Brazilians, and affirmative action has helped address racial inequalities in higher education. But, as the bus fares, the spending on athletic boondoggles, and the police violence all made clear in the last few days, many other things remain the same. The problems that brought Brazilians to the streets aren’t strictly economic, but economics is involved; they aren’t strictly social, but social struggles are involved; they aren’t strictly political, but the history of political hierarchies is involved. In short: the conditions for protest are perhaps new, but the problems fueling those protests are old.
I’m a bit late in getting to this, but last week, JF String had a great piece that reveals just how vital to the Chilean economy copper continues to be. Among other data:
The labor of every Chilean miner is today, on average, responsible for producing ~ $60 million (chilean pesos) in mineral wealth per year. That’s four times greater than a Chilean working in the banking sector ($15 million/year) and six times greater than someone working in the country’s retail sector ($10 million/year). [...]
In terms of the total percentage of federal budget revenues, the industry’s contribution represented 20.7% in 2011 compared to 10.5% in 1991. However, the 2011 figure is down from its peak in 2006 when the copper industry represented 34.1% of federal budget revenues. [...]
The wealth generated by copper in Chile has not been distributed equally across the nation. According to Meller’s study, per capita GDP in Chile’s copper regions is around 163% greater than in non-mining regions. The money that does leave, says Meller, is unsurprisingly concentrated in the wealthiest neighborhoods of Santiago.
Sting also has some interesting observations on the ways in which copper in Chile and oil in Venezuela compare and contrast with regards to their respective national economies. The whole piece is not too long and definitely worth checking out..
When I lived in Brazil six years ago, the country announced the discovery of a massive offshore deep-sea oil field, leading to high hopes within Brazil for the future energy needs and economic growth. However, from one perspective, it would appear things have not gone so smoothly:
Half a decade has passed since Brazilians celebrated the discovery of huge amounts of oil in deep-sea fields by the national oil company, Petrobras, triumphantly positioning the country to surge into the top ranks of global producers. But now another kind of energy shock is unfolding: the colossal company, long known for its might, is losing the race to keep up with the nation’s growing energy demands.
Saddled with a nationalist mandate to buy ships, oil platforms and other equipment from lethargic Brazilian companies, the oil giant is now facing soaring debt, major projects mired in delays and older fields, once prodigious, that are yielding less oil. The undersea bounty in its grasp also remains devilishly complex to exploit.
Now, instead of symbolizing Brazil’s rise as a global powerhouse, Petrobras embodies the sluggishness of the nation’s economy itself, which, after racing ahead at 7.5 percent in 2010, slowed to less than 1 percent last year, eclipsed by growth in other Latin American nations like Mexico and Peru.
Macroeconomically, that certainly sounds troubling. But from a social perspective, things appear a bit different. From the same article:
[...]Petrobras is building new refineries, pursuing offshore oil and buying most of its equipment from Brazilian companies, all of which have created tens of thousands of jobs and delivered some tangible political benefits.
“My life is better,” said Adinael Soares Silva, 38, a welder at a Petrobras refinery under construction in Itaboraí, a city near Rio de Janeiro. He said he was pleased with his salary of about $800 a month. “Where I was, I didn’t have enough to have a savings account,” he said. “Now I do.”
And then there’s the fact that,
Despite the challenges it faces, Petrobras remains profitable and much less constrained by political ideology than some other large national oil companies. In Mexico, for instance, Pemex has long retained its monopoly status despite production declines, and now the government is considering opening it to greater private investment.
Petrobras is also far more transparent than Petróleos de Venezuela, the national oil company that President Hugo Chávez, who died this month, transformed into an extremely politicized pillar of his government, purging it of thousands of employees after a bitter strike and forcing it to focus on new tasks like food distribution.
Maria das Graças Foster, the chief executive of Petrobras, has been exceptionally frank about the company’s problems. In recent conference calls with analysts, she said that oil production should remain steady this year or perhaps even decline slightly again. But she also responded sharply to critics, claiming that output from the new deep-sea fields had reached 300,000 barrels a day. By 2020, the company expects to double overall production to 4.2 million barrels a day.
A few quick comments regarding these seemingly contradictory views. First, this isn’t the first time that energy dependence on importing oil/gas has caused economic problems in Brazil. Indeed, the oil shocks of the 1970s and Brazi’s dependency on foreign oil played no small part in the end of the economic “miracle” and the rising inflation of the 1970s and early 1980s. That’s not to say that this new situation is nothing, nor is it to say that the inflation crises of the 80s and 90s are going to repeat themselves now; for the time being, this seems a hiccup, and an addressable one.
One way to address that situation that is probably not available, however, is to privatize Petrobras. It is not just because such an option is off of the table for Dilma Rousseff; it is because the Brazilian population would likely push back against such a process. How do we know? Because of the 1990s. Between 1995 and 2003, president Fernando Henrique Cardoso implemented neoliberal policies that privatized many state-run industries, and (unsuccessfully) attempted to even privatize Brazi’s federal education system. However, when he considered privatizing Petrobras, he ran up against such significant public opposition that he had to abandon the full privatization and selling off of the company. Indeed, in many ways, the election of Lula in 2003 marked a repudiation of Cardoso and his party’s neoliberal policies, which by 2000s had led to significant problems in the Brazilian economy once again, even while social programs had failed to address gross socioeconomic inequalities that affected an not-insignificant portion of the population. Privatization hit Brazil (and much of Latin America) particularly hard in the 1990s and early-2000s, leading to the rise of the so-called “Pink Wave”/”New Left” of leaders throughout the region.
Certainly, Brazil’s energy challenges (and the related economic issues) are not limited to just gasoline. A burgeoning population is creating real questions in energy policy beyond gas. This is not to say the Petrobras issue is inconsequential, or that these economic issues are phantoms; rather, it’s to say that the economic level is not the sole, nor even the final, determinant of success or impact.
The battle between state and federal power in Brazil has heated up recently. Last year, Congress passed a law that transformed the distribution of oil revenues in Brazil. Under the old system, the royalties from oil revenues mostly went to the states that were closest to the offshore deposits – in this case, Espírito Santo, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo. This created a natural disadvantage for Brazil’s interior states or for states like Bahia that do not have oil deposits off the shoreline. Additionally, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo historically have been Brazil’s richest states for hundreds of years; with the oil royalties remaining there, they continued to benefit from better infrastructure and social programs than areas like the poorer Northeast, perpetuating and further exaggerating regional inequalities. In order to address this issue, last year Brazil’s Congress passed a law designed to more equally redistribute oil wealth throughout the country. Naturally, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo howled – people in Rio took to the streets to protest the law in late 2012 – as they faced reductions in their state budgets from the law. Compounding matters is that the law would immediately go into effect on all current contracts as well as future contracts. In order to try to find a solution, President Dilma Rousseff used her line-item veto to make the law applicable only to future contracts, allowing Rio, São Paulo, and Espírito Santo to maintain the monopoly on royalties from current contracts. However, Congress has overridden her veto, making the law applicable to both present and future contracts. Unsurprisingly, opponents to the law in oil-rich states are fighting back, with some occupying airports while Rio’s governor has suspended all the state’s payments and legislators prepare to appeal to the Supreme Court. In sum, it has turned into quite the debate over the question of resources, capital, and national wealth versus state wealth.
Certainly, the outrage in Rio, São Paulo, and Espírito Santo is understandable. As the article points out, Rio alone is set to lose nearly $1.6 billion in revenue this year alone under the new law. At the same time, though, it’s an entirely defensible law. On sheer numbers alone, helping 27 states instead of three states is entirely reasonable.
And that’s not taking into consideration the regional inequalities that have defined Brazil for centuries. After the Dutch occupation of Pernambuco and surrounding areas between 1630 and 1654, the sugar economy that had been the central pillar of the Brazilian economy since the latter half of the 1500s began to decline. Portuguese Brazil, centered in the Northeast (in today’s states of Bahia and Pernambuco in particular) had maintained a near-monopoly on sugar production up to that point, but after the Dutch occupation, Brazil faced competition from the Dutch and English Caribbean; though the Northeast continued to be the colonial center throughout the 1600s, the sugar economy was not as strong as it had been. By the early-1700s, settlers found gold and diamonds in the Southeast in Minas Gerais. The new colonial economy increasingly relied on mining throughout the 1700s, leading to a shift in settlement and wealth in the Southeast, with Rio de Janeiro increasingly serving as the port for importing slaves to the mines and exporting minerals to Portugal. By 1763, the regional shift was complete, as the colonial capital relocated from Salvador da Bahia in the Northeast to Rio de Janeiro in the Southeast, marking the broader economic shift from one region to another.
And so it has remained throughout most of Brazil’s history. Rio was the capital until the inauguration of Brasília in 1960. São Paulo became an economic powerhouse, first with its coffee production in the 1800s and then becoming the industrial center of Brazil in the 1900s. These two states were not alone in wealth; southern states like Rio Grande do Sul also became increasingly powerful, both economically and politically. Nonetheless, the Southeast came to be the richest part of the country, even while the Northeast and North continued to confront socioeconomic inequalities at the most basic levels of society, from income to education, from land ownership to literacy. The Southeast got richer while the Northeast continued to languish. Indeed, in part the rapid growth of Brazil’s cities (from a 70%-30% rural/urban society in 1930 to a 30%-70% split in 1980) was due in no small part to the poor from the Northeast moving to cities like Rio and São Paulo hoping to find work in the bustling cities, often ending up in favelas [suffice to say, the issue of internal inequalities in cities like Rio are a powerful reminder that, even within the wealthiest states, said wealth does not benefit all citizens equally]. These migrants were not always welcome – for example, in São Paulo, people not-irregularly apply the derisive term “baianos” to everybody from poor drivers to less-”cosmopolitan” individuals, implying backwardness that carries more than a hint of racism while revealing the regional inequalities that citizens of states themselves perpetuate. Even today, after programs like Bolsa Familia and Fome Zero [Zero Hunger], designed to improve the lives of Brazil’s poor, notably in the Northeast and North, regional inequalities are still evident – for example, through oil revenues.
All of this is to say that, while the outrage in Rio, São Paulo, and Espírito Santo is perhaps understandable from a state level, it is ultimately hard to feel terrible for these states in the face of the new law. Certainly, they are going to have real challenges in governing with reduced incomes, and there aren’t necessarily any easy solutions to that problem. But to continue the regional inequalities that have defined Brazil for centuries in the name of local governance in the wealthiest states is not a solution to those inequalities either, and Congress’s actions are entirely understandable, even if they hit the largest states in Brazil the hardest.
Nineteen years ago today, the neoliberal North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, and in response, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation Army; EZLN), a group of rural indigenous peoples and leftist intellectuals, rose up, using the internet and a global community of rights activists to object to the impact of neoliberalism on economically-marginalized peoples.
Though implemented during the Clinton administration, NAFTA had its roots in the first Bush administration. Changes in global banking networks, monetary policies, and the deregulation of financial institutions throughout the 1970s and 1980s had led to neoliberal policies becoming increasingly prevalent in the global economy by the end of the 1980s. Countries like the US and European nation-states increasingly turned to neoliberal policies, notably free trade agreements, while the International Monetary Fund and World Bank (which the US and Europe effectively controlled) pressured other countries throughout the world to adopt similar neoliberal measures. In this context, the United States, Canada, and Mexico entered into negotiations in the early-1990s to establish a free-trade agreement between the three countries (extending 1988′s Canada-US Free Trade Agreement) that would eliminate tariffs between the three countries.
In January 1993, as George H.W. Bush was preparing to exit office, he, Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney agreed on the terms of what came to be known as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The three leaders had promoted the agreement,saying it would reduce illegal immigration, increase trade between the countries, create jobs, and lead to prosperity for all three countries. As it was a treaty, however, the agreement needed Congressional approval, something new president Bill Clinton pushed for and ultimately achieved in November 1993, though not without a fight: though the Senate approved the treaty 61-38, the vote in the House (234-200) was much closer. With Clinton signing the bill in December 1993, NAFTA went into effect on New Year’s Day, 1994.
However, while the political elites of both Mexico and the US sang NAFTA’s praises, not all were eager to see the agreement go into effect. Coinciding with NAFTA’s official start, a group of indigenous peoples in the southern part of Mexico rose up in the last major Latin American guerrilla movement of the 20th century. Made up primarily of Maya indigenous peoples and drawing on the language of agrarian reform that they traced back to the struggles of Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919), a council of 24 Maya comandantes and one non-Maya known at the time only as Subcomandante Marcos demanded the repeal of NAFTA and greater rights for Mexico’s indigenous peoples and rural poor. Under this leadership, the EZLN effectively declared war on the Mexican government, hoping to spur revolution throughout the country. Hundreds of men, women, and children wearing masks launched attacks on army outposts in southern Mexico, capturing several towns, including the second-largest city in the state of Chiapas. Though they had early successes, Salinas de Gortari quickly sent troops, rocket-equipped aircraft, and helicopter gunships to the region to suppress the EZLN. By 12 January 1994, a tenuous cease-fire was agreed upon, though the EZLN did not disband, and fighting continued periodically throughout 1994, leaving at least 154 people dead, the majority of them Mayan peasants.
However, the ceasefire did not mark the end of the EZLN’s efforts to counter the neoliberal policies that NAFTA embodied. While NAFTA remains in effect, the Zapatistas have drawn considerable attention to the impacts of NAFTA in particular and of neoliberal policies more generally on many of Mexico’s economically marginalized social groups. Indeed, shifting from a guerrilla movement to a broader social movement, the EZLN has had a not-insignificant role in shaping policy and bringing attention to the causes of Mexico’s rural poor and indigenous groups. In 2001, a group of Zapatistas marched from Chiapas to Mexico City, where, led by Comandanta Esther, they spoke out in favor of indigenous rights legislation before Mexico’s congress, providing what Maylei Blackwell recently argued was a powerful counterpoint to the state’s own (gendered) language of indigenous groups in Mexico. In a mildly-ironic twist, the global reach of the internet has played no small part in the EZLN’s own efforts to call attention to the detrimental impacts of neoliberal globalization. Though the EZLN was not able to force the elimination of NAFTA or to prompt an uprising throughout all of Mexico, it continues to provide a powerful voice in opposition to neoliberalism in Mexico both in Mexican politics and, through its website and its activism, through transnational networks.
Meanwhile, the actual impact of NAFTA on North American economies in many ways has been the exact opposite of what was pledged. As has been the case so often in the past, the liberalization of the economy ultimately helped society’s wealthiest members, both in Mexico and the US. North of the Rio Grande, industrialists and capitalists were able to ship jobs to Mexico, where labor was cheaper, even while Mexican economic and political elites profited the most. In the US, industrial jobs disappeared as they were relocated first to Mexico, and then later overseas. In Mexico itself, over 2 million farmers who owned small plots of land ultimately found themselves dispossessed of their land, as they lost out to the cheaper and more mechanized agricultural production of larger agribusinesses. This shift led to a growing number of farmers moving to cities in Mexico, where jobs were unavailable, leading to many migrating to the United States. Thus, while NAFTA’s proponents swore free trade would lead to a reduction in immigration to the US, it actually dramatically increased in the 1990s.
Nor did NAFTA fundamentally improve the long-term industrial output in Mexico; as multinational corporations ran up against relatively progressive labor laws in Mexico, many companies that had originally established factories south of the Rio Grande ultimately relocated their businesses to countries with far less stringent labor codes, including China and Bangladesh. The economic impact of NAFTA on Mexico was immediate and devastating: between December 1994 and 1995, the Peso lost 46% of its value, inflation rose, and interest rates were above 100% in some parts of the country, even while the Mexican stock market collapsed and banks foreclosed on urban and rural properties. Mexico was learning, albeit belatedly, that the promises of economic prosperity and stability via neoliberalism was a chimera. In response, the Mexican government launched austerity measures that only reinforce the fact that, nineteen years later, the alleged rewards of NAFTA still have not actually extended to most of Mexican society, even while it has also taken its toll on millions in both the United States and (to a lesser extent) Canada.
-In a potential step towards addressing human rights, Mexico has announced it will move to prosecute military officials accused of human rights violations in civil courts, rather than in secretive military tribunals. Traditionally, military officials who are involved in the drug violence and repression have faced a state of virtual impunity through military courts; while it’s too soon to say this is indeed transformative, it could mark a turning point in prosecuting state agents’ human rights violations in Mexico.
-A Venezuelan judge who spent three years in prison in a case that garnered international criticism has published a new book in which she claims she was raped and had to have an abortion while in prison. Her case echoes other allegations of sexual abuse and increasing violence in Venezuela’s prison system.
-While the US and much of Europe continue to struggle with employment, Brazil announced its unemployment levels have dropped to 5.3%, its lowest level in ten years.
-For one day, all of Bolivia completely shut down as the country conducted its census this week. In addition to being the first census for Bolivia in eleven years, with the expected redrawing of municipal boundaries, it also marks the first time “mestizo” (of Spanish and indigenous descent) is not included as a racial category in the census. Instead, Bolivians will be able to pick from 40 categories, including a variety of indigenous groups, as well as “Afro-Bolivian” or simply “Bolivian.”
-In the wake of this year’s presidential election, in which Venezuela’s opposition had its strongest showing in years (albeit in a losing effort), opposition politicians have begun efforts to seek an amnesty for over 100 exiles and political prisoners in a request that could be seen as a test of Chávez’s and opponents’ willingness to engage in more direct dialogue.
-In another example of the ongoing persecution and assault on land rights that Brazil’s indigenous peoples regularly face, a community of Guarani-Kaiowa people say a massive ranch has poisoned their water supply in an attempt to drive them out, and Brazilian police have begun investigating the case. The ranch occupies land of cultural importance to the peoples, and the government has begun mapping out their territory, with growing opposition from ranch-owner Firmino Escobar.
-In another reminder of the Jewish population in Latin America and the challenges it continues to face, Venezuela has posted police at a synagogue in the wake of an anti-Israeli protest that led to demonstrators hurling anti-Semitic remarks and fireworks at the building
-Murder rates in São Paulo have skyrocketed this year, as the Primeiro Comando Capital (First Capital Command; PCC) gang has ordered attacks on police, including many who have been murdered while off duty. The violence marks a return to antagonisms between one of São Paulo’s largest gangs and police in a conflict that had been relatively quiet in recent months after a truce was declared.
-In the wake of Venezuela’s admission to (and Paraguay’s suspension from) Mercosur, Bolivia appears to be the next country set to join the South American trading bloc as a full member. Currently, Bolivia is associate member of the organization, but full membership will give it a more direct voice in negotiations in the bloc.
-As peace talks continue, Columbia’s FARC released three Chinese hostages and their translator after 17 months of captivity in what the organization called a “goodwill gesture.”