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The Real Cancun Part II: Voices of the Campesinos

by Andrei Thursday, Nov. 13, 2003 at 11:11 PM


The Real Cancun Part 2 -- RW ONLINE

The Real Cancun Part 2

Dos Rumbos/Two Roads -- Voices of the Campesinos

by Luciente Zamora

Revolutionary Worker #1219, November 16, 2003, posted at

RW correspondents Luciente Zamora and Nikolai Garcia traveled to Cancún, Mexico to document a first-hand account of the protests against the World Trade Organization, September 12-14. The following is the second in a series of articles from the frontlines in Cancún. "Part 1: The March of the Campesinos" was in RW #1216 and can be found at

A campesino sits at the edge of a curb. His indigenous features are young. His cheekbones are prominent. His dark eyes are bright. His skin is the color of dark earthy clay. He has traveled from Chiapas to protest the WTO. Not another day, he says, can he live without doing something to stop the machine that is grinding up his people. "The government wants to change the direction of the country. Well, the people also want to change that direction. There are two roads--either the government will win or the people will."

Throughout the week of September 10-14, thousands of campesinos gathered in Cancún, Mexico to protest the World Trade Organization (WTO). Busloads and caravans arrived from Veracruz, Morelos, Chiapas, Puebla, and Oaxaca and many hundreds more came from other areas all over Mexico. Peasant and farmer contingents from other countries arrived from the airport in spirited groupings. Most had traveled thousands of miles and made tremendous sacrifices to raise money to make the trip.

The presence of the campesinos was decisive in delivering a sharp indictment. By protesting the WTO they wanted to expose to the world the human cost of "global free trade"--and find ways to "globalize" their struggle.

They talked about how much their lives have been changed by the "rules and guidelines" for "free trade" the WTO uses to intensify the exploitation of people and resources in Third World countries around the globe.

The campesinos spoke about the maquiladoras--sweatshops that assemble goods for export to the U.S.--that are spreading like a plague; roads that are paving over green forests and jungles; government policies that make it difficult or impossible for them to continue to cultivate their land; and the increasing numbers of people forced to make the difficult journey from the countryside to urban slums.

The lives of the campesinos in Mexico and peasants around the world continue to be deeply affected- -and in many cases have been ruined--by the way their countries have been opened up to "new markets" and "investment." Many are coming to realize that the life-and-death problems they face in their countries are not theirs alone. They are increasingly becoming aware and suspicious of everything the governments say will bring them "modernization," "progress," and "free trade."

"Progress" and "Free trade"-- For whom? For what?

On September 10 at the Marcha Campesina , a group of campesinos and youth marched behind a bright red banner that said: "Revolución es la solución." They chanted, "Repudio total a la cumbre imperial." ("To Hell with the Imperialist Summit")

Campesinos and youth from the Movimiento Popular Revolucionario approached the guarded fence wearing red T-shirts with Marx, Lenin, and Mao on the front and "Without State Power All Is Illusion" on the back. As they stood face-to-face up against the fortress where the WTO was being held, one campesino shouted: "The ones to blame for our lives of poverty are right here. The WTO is an instrument of imperialist domination. This handful of imperialists and their puppets have no right to hold their meeting to decide the future of the world in their exploiting interests!"


Many campesinos have never had a formal education. They don't have international business degrees. Most have never set foot in a political economy class. But they are becoming deeply familiar with the tremendous shifts in the world economy and the price campesinos have to pay.

In 1994 the Mexican and U.S. governments announced that Mexico was officially entering a new era of "world trade" and "progress" when it signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), making the U.S., Mexico and Canada a unified trade area.

The NAFTA rules on imports have allowed highly subsidized U.S. corn, wheat, rice and beans to flood the market in Mexico. Meanwhile Mexican authorities have cut off credit and support for Mexican farmers. Tens of thousands of peasants have been driven off the land because they can't compete with the prices of cheap U.S. imports. Their land has been snatched up by agribusiness and other types of big business.

Almost a decade later, Mexico's economy is even more tightly controlled by the United States. Agricultural products from the U.S. have ruined the livelihood of the campesinos. Only big landowners with connections to U.S. transnational corporations can export their products. And the free trade rules of the U.S. basically treat the campesinos who produce food to feed their families as "an obstacle to progress."

Valentin is a campesino from southern Mexico who was picked to represent his village at the demonstrations in Cancún. He said that people worked tirelessly to raise money for bus fare for two people. Groups of students and campesinos stood at bus stations with donation cans telling people what the WTO represents and the importance of opposing it. Others took their fundraising cans to marketplaces and schools.

As soon as Valentin arrived in Cancún he began leafleting the neighborhoods, talking about why people are against the WTO, encouraging residents to participate in the protests, and raising money to produce more informational leaflets.

Valentin's eyes were intense and thoughtful as he set down a metal can full of donations. He said, "A [Mexican] government representative said, `If there are 25 million peasants, we must reduce it to five million.' I think that's exactly what they're doing with all these treaties. On the one hand they want to create a large number of people in the cities that they can use as workers. When there are a lot of peasants who don't have land, they become workers and there's a surplus of cheap labor available. The super-rich take advantage of this, put them to work in maquiladoras and other industries at very low wages.

"The super-rich tell us that NAFTA will bring everyone progress and well-being. The truth is that NAFTA has only brought us more misery.

"About five or 10 years ago the price of coffee plummeted. The coffee market was in crisis and that crisis has worsened. Many people are leaving the countryside because of it. There are many who have gone to the cities, and they're forming belts of poverty in the colonias. From there, some go to el Norte [the U.S.] and they come back dead. If they don't die, we lose contact with them for many years or they just never come back.

"We don't know anything about the ones who don't come back. Many of them die trying to cross the border. Many die in the U.S. There the Migra chases them or the police kill them, accusing them of crimes they didn't even commit."


Campesinos from different regions thoughout Mexico and of different economic backgrounds participated in the protests. There were poor peasants who have little or no land and cannot survive unless they work in the cities or cross into el Norte. There were indigenous peasants from southern states like Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guerrero. There were also rich peasants who have tried to export their products but are losing everything and middle peasants who are being forced off their land.

Even peasants who were formerly able to sell their products at local markets, survive off their land, and sometimes employ other workers are being financially ruined by a flood of cheap U.S. products into Mexico. The U.S. is able to produce massive quantities of agricultural products at a cheap price, largely because it has the technology and machinery to facilitate this--making it impossible for Mexican peasants to compete and sell their products at prices lower than the U.S. In increasing numbers these peasants are being ruined by "world trade."

Some of these Mexican campesinos admitted that when the NAFTA was first signed they believed it would bring "progress" and "prosperity" to Mexico. They believed NAFTA would open the doors of free trade and that U.S. investment in Mexico would improve Mexico's standard of living. They believed that maquiladoras would provide good jobs and help modernize Mexico. Some campesinos invested all their money and bought tractors and fertilizers they believed would increase their productivity to enable them to trade freely and sell their products to American buyers.

Like many other countries worldwide, Mexico is in a situation where U.S. agricultural corporations are drowning the peasants with cheap U.S. grain and other agricultural products subsidized by the U.S. government. These products are then sold at a price below what the peasants can compete with. As a result peasants are losing their land and the country no longer produces as much of its own food and must buy it from the United States.

Sara is from Morelos. She has spent her lifetime growing organic rice. She takes pride that her crop is free of genetically modified seed and free of chemicals or pesticides. She says, "In Morelos we mainly grow rice, sugar cane, and tomatoes. Our rice is top quality. But with the cheaper rice imported from the U.S., the price of our rice devalues. Our rice costs 7 pesos, U.S. rice costs 3 pesos or 2.50. Of course, as poor people we buy what's cheapest."

Now with NAFTA it's impossible for Sara to sell her crop at a price that will allow her to continue to cultivate and live off her land. She says that NAFTA is not only devastating the peasants and the environment in the countryside by cutting down the forests and polluting the water, but it's also destroying their way of life. "Imagine what would happen if the countryside is destroyed. We would eat pro- cessed junk. The countryside is the source of life of all humanity."

Felipa, a woman from Chiapas, said, "A lot of canned, processed, and junk food has been coming into our region--even chickens that are cheaper than the ones we grow. Of course they've been frozen for a very long time. As people from the countryside, we offer fresh products. We even take the animals alive to the marketplace. But they don't want to take it. They offer us 10 pesos for each animal, or 20 or 30 pesos. We don't breed an animal per week. An animal is bred in months, sometimes six or seven months."


On September 10, at the Marcha Campesina , Lee Kyung Hae died after he stabbed himself in the chest with a pocketknife. He wanted his death to symbolize the death and destruction the WTO has brought to people in South Korea and all around the world.

Lee, who had once been the president of the Korean Advanced Farmers Federation, had at one time been a prosperous cattle and rice farmer after he spent five years developing farming methods that allowed cows to graze on very steep terrain.

Lee's small herd of cattle grew to over 300. He prospered. Then, shifts in international trade opened the South Korean market to imports of Australian cows. This dramatically brought down the price of beef. Lee took out loan after loan in an attempt to compete with the Australian beef, but it was impossible to keep up. Lee's farm became worthless. He sold his cows to repay the loans, but soon he ran out of cattle to sell and the bank repossessed his land. Lee was ruined. From then on he dedicated himself to political activism. He became a frontline fighter in protests and participated in bloody street battles and went on hunger strikes against the policies of the WTO.


Francisco rested his feet for a few minutes in the shade of a tree. He patted his face with the bandana tied around his neck. The shade from his straw hat covered his face. As he took off his hat to say hello, I felt a sense of confianza , familiarity, with him. When he smiled, the deep lines at the corner of his eyes resembled the way the earth crackles after a summer storm. I sat down and shared his patch of grass under the tree.

Francisco grew up as a campesino in Quintana Roo and worked cultivating beans, squash, and corn, until Cancún (a city in Quintana Roo) was developed as a tourist resort. When Francisco spoke he constantly flashed from past to present. The tension in his voice was bitter. "Doesn't Mexico belong to the Mexican people? The foreign [investors] want Mexico to belong to them. The government is selling us to those foreign [investors]. If we let them destroy everything, what will we leave our children?"

He fears that his grandchildren will inherit a world that is barren, polluted, and decaying. He smiles as he tells stories of a time when the land was green; when the white sand beaches were open for everyone to enjoy and not just for people with tourist permits; when organic corn stalks free of pesticides grew as tall as a person; when forests and jungles--the lungs of the planet--weren't being cut down by lumber industries; when entire villages didn't leave their birthplace to go to the cities or across a militarized metal wall to sell their labor.

Francisco flashed back to the present. He no longer works the land. It's impossible to survive off it. Now he hides his white hair under his campesino hat and tries to sell his brazos fuertes --strong arms--at construction sites throughout Cancún.


The day-to-day survival of the campesinos is difficult. Most campesinos grow crops for very limited subsistence a few months out of the year. The rest of the year they roam from city to city-- including in the U.S.--looking for work. The peasants make up the growing cinturones de miseria, belts of misery, that stretch throughout the countryside, into the cities, and across the U.S./Mexico border.

Life for people in the countryside is so desperate that there are entire villages in Oaxaca, Guerrero, Zacatecas, and other southern states which are composed primarily of old people because the younger people have left to work in big cities throughout Mexico and in el Norte. There are villages of primarily women and children. Some villages are disappearing altogether because there are no means for people to survive.

Rodolfo, a campesino from Chiapas, told us, "The WTO means death for the people in Chiapas. It's death for the indigenous people. For us the WTO is one more thing to make us poorer. They get richer. They are planning another world."

He says he can already see the future the WTO is planning. People who have been living in misery for generations are experiencing new levels of destitution and hunger. Subsistence farmers are no longer able to live off the fruit of their land and are increasingly consuming comida chatarra (canned food and other forms of processed food).

The peasants feel they have no future as peasants in Mexico's current situation. "Free trade" has pushed millions of campesinos to leave their land and "development plans" like Plan Puebla Panama only have more misery in store for the peasants.

Plan Puebla Panama promises to "bring progress to forgotten peoples" by building roads, dams, power grids and developing the infrastructure of nine southeastern states of Mexico (Puebla, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Veracruz, Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatán) and the seven countries in Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Belize, Panama).

PPP plans to "de-ruralize" the south of Mexico and parts of Central America by uprooting indigenous peoples from their land, further militarizing the countryside, and herding the displaced peasants into "population nodes" near "maquiladora corridors" close to "transportation corridors."

This plan is a strategy to completely restructure the region in line with U.S. imperialist needs over a 25-year period. It calls for a huge influx of imperialist investment in three main areas: production (principally in maquiladoras and agrobusiness), gigantic infrastructure projects, and security to protect investments and crush resistance. It is about remolding the economies in this region in order to make it even easier for U.S. domination and exploitation.

Rodolfo traveled with a group of campesinos from Chiapas. His eyes were determined when he said he'll do whatever it takes to stop Plan Puebla Panama because it will further exploit the people and it threatens to destroy the jungles that are home to great biodiversity and tremendous beauty. He will not allow the archeological sites, culture, and language of his Mayan people to be killed off.

"Many governments, like the U.S., are looking at Chiapas because they say there's oil, uranium, and rivers for the dams that they want to build. But what good will Plan Puebla Panama do us? It will bring maquiladoras and they are going to have us working like slaves."

Dos Rumbos/Two Roads

The future the imperialists are bringing into being means unprecedented levels of exploitation of the people and the Earth's resources. But this future is being met with fierce resistance throughout Mexico.

With fire in his eyes and a deep sense of urgency Valentin said, "We're not here to tell the WTO to be more humane, we're here to say that we don't want it.We don't want the Free Trade Area of the Americas or Plan Puebla Panama. We don't need it."

In 2002, campesinos in Atenco stood up to President Vicente Fox's plans to make way for a billion dollar airport. They rejected his offer to buy their land at 7 pesos (about 65 cents) per square meter. The campesinos fought courageously and made the government back down.

They braved tear gas, rubber bullets, the federal police, and threats from the government. They demonstrated through the streets of Mexico City, riding horses and holding their machetes high in the air. They took over their town and drove all government officials out. When the government tried to occupy their town, the people blocked roads and mobilized thousands of people from all over Mexico to defend the land and the people from an unjust expropriation. New terms were set for the struggle. In the heat of battle a woman shouted, "Blood will flow, but we will not give up our land!"

A campesino from Chiapas said, "We belong to the land, not to the foreigners that want to fuck us over. Although they wage low intensity war against us--we are not going to let them continue. We will resist."

Peasants faced with losing their land and nowhere to turn are raising many questions. They are faced with tremendous obstacles, but they are also opening their eyes to new possibilities and challenges.

A campesino from southern Mexico said, "The people need to understand that Mexico needs a very profound change." He asked, "But who will lead? Where will the [struggle] end up? The campesinos persist and keep going. Their anger against the [government's] reaction is brewing. When this is the situation, the implications are huge."


A banner with a vibrant painting of the planet breaking free from chains--a symbol associated with the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement--moved freely with the breeze as the youth and campesinos at the Anti-Imperialist Camp prepared for another day of protest. Young men gathered food together to prepare lunch for the entire camp. Young women piled rocks, sticks, and bottles into shopping carts. Peasants from southern Mexico, high school students, university students, women, men, youth who grew up in the ghetto and others who are from middle class backgrounds grouped together into teams that would go to neighborhoods in Cancún and introduce themselves and their struggle to win support.

Valentin stopped and smiled in this whirlwind of activity and said, "Otro mundo sí es posible." Another world is possible.


A collage of clouds gathers together in a concentration of strength. They are on the verge of bursting into a magnificent storm.

To be continued

Part III--No Somos Globalifobicos! Somos Anti-Imperialistas!

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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