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.