By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 9, 2001; Page A14
MEXICO CITY, Aug. 8 -- Thousands of impoverished, rural Mexicans blocked off Mexico City's historic central square and several government buildings today in an angry protest against what they see as the pro-business, pro-U.S. economic policies of President Vicente Fox.
Carrying banners that read "Fox means misery," the farmers complained of being left behind in Fox's drive to modernize national political and economic systems built by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which governed Mexico for most of the last century.
"Fox promised change that would improve things for Mexicans, not a change that would increase misery," said Francisco Zazaleta, a coffee farmer from the state of Oaxaca. "There are Mexicans who are dying of hunger. As much as they work, they can't earn enough to provide for their families."
Mexico's campesinos, or rural farmers, have suffered from the effects of increasingly open trade with the United States, which has driven down prices for their produce. Zazaleta said his region has warehouses full of coffee that cannot be sold because imports have driven prices down so far.
Corn farmers say that imports from the United States have increased by nearly 15 percent a year since 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed, dramatically cutting into the prices of the home-grown variety.
Mexican sugar producers have similar complaints, and they have staged loud protests recently in front of government buildings in Mexico City. A nagging drought affecting northern Mexico's fertile farmlands has compounded the problem.
As a result, families that have farmed for generations now find their children fleeing for better-paying jobs assembling televisions or washing machines for export to the United States in plants along the U.S.-Mexican border.. Many more cross the border illegally to look for jobs -- in some cases ending up working on American farms that compete with those in Mexico.
The anger of rural Mexicans bubbled over today in a demonstration on the birthday of Emiliano Zapata, hero of landless peasants during the 1910-1917 Mexican Revolution. The revolution led to creation of the PRI and a system that provided rural farmers with government seed, fertilizer and other support in exchange for loyalty to the party. That formula was the backbone of the PRI's 71-year unbroken rule.
Some of today's protest seemed to stem from nostalgia for those days.
"Fox hasn't constructed any schools in my community, but he is discrediting the party that built things all over Mexico," said Juan Vasquez, a farmer from the state of Jalisco.
While Fox has said that reducing poverty in rural Mexico is a top priority, his administration's first major effort at fiscal reform has angered poor Mexicans.
The only good news for farmers today came from Washington, where the Inter-American Development Bank announced a 0 million loan to Mexico for a program that supports rural farmers.
Researcher Laurie Freeman contributed to this report.
August 9, 2001
Bombs Explode in Mexico Banks
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Filed at 2:03 a.m. ET
MEXICO CITY (AP) -- At least three bombs exploded and two others were defused in three Mexico City branches of Banamex, a bank acquired last week by Citigroup. No serious damages or injuries were reported.
``The intention was probably not to cause a lot of damage, but to get the public's attention,'' Mexico City Attorney General Bernardo Batiz told the television network Televisa after the Wednesday night explosions.
Televisa and rival network TV Azteca both reported that a group called the People's Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARP, had claimed responsibility in calls to the stations and two Mexican newspapers.
The callers also said they had placed explosives at the Italian Embassy and at the federal Senate building, Azteca reported. Batiz later said no explosives were found at the buildings.
The bank explosions burst some windows and at least one man was cut by broken glass, but no other injuries or damages were reported, Batiz said.
The word ``FARP'' had been spray-painted on a wall next to one of the bank branches.
Banamex was acquired by New York-based Citigroup last Friday in a .5 billion cash and stock deal that angered some of the taxpayers who had paid billions to bail out the bank.
The takeover, one in a recent series of Mexican bank sales to foreign owners, also sparked concern over the fate of Banamex's trove of Mexican art, which Citigroup apparently was to acquire.
Banamex's acquisition has caused some Mexicans to lament that the country is becoming a mere branch office for foreign firms. Almost all of Mexico's financial sector has been sold to foreigners over the past three years.
Attorney General Batiz said whoever had planted the bombs appeared to be more interested in attracting attention than causing serious harm. He said one of the bombs that exploded was quite primitive and had been designed to ``produce a lot of smoke and noise, but not to cause damage.''