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Mexican industrialists want strong-arm approach to farm protests

(Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Diego Cevallos, Inter Press Service: MEXICO CITY - Industrialists in Mexico urged the government Monday to take a heavy-handed approach to protests by small farmers opposed to the lifting of tariffs in trade in agriculture with the United States and Canada, who have threatened new demonstrations and even a nationwide strike.

The strike may be called in February, if the government fails to accept the demands set forth by the country's peasant farmers, said Francisco Hernández, the president of the National Workers' Union, a powerful central trade union with ties to the political left, that claims to represent more than two million workers in this country of 100 million.

Mexico's small farmers are opposed to the second of three phases of liberalization of trade in agriculture as outlined by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

When the latest measures went into effect on Jan 1, a new wave of protest marches, roadblocks and demonstrations outside government buildings was triggered, after a week-long truce.

Business leader Javier Prieto, the head of the Confederation of Industrial Chambers, asked the government Monday to get tough with the peasant activists and their allies.

The country's industrialists defend the strict application of NAFTA, which provides them with access to imported raw materials at lower prices than those offered by local suppliers, while facilitating exports of manufactured goods.

After NAFTA went into effect, Mexico's exports expanded from 60.8 billion dollars in 1994 to 158.4 billion in 2001. In the same period, imports grew from 79.3 to 168.3 billion dollars.

''We must seek reconciliation, but only to a reasonable point,'' said Prieto, who accused the peasant farmers of taking action with the coming legislative elections, scheduled for July, in mind.

''When elections are on the horizon, social mobilizations heat up, because there is less of a chance of a harsh crackdown, and the opposition seeks ammunition to win votes,'' said Raúl Trejo, a researcher with the Center of Economic Research and Teaching.

The protests have been spearheaded by members of the country's leading peasant farmer organizations, linked to the leftist opposition parties and to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which governed the country from 1929 to 2000.

The farmers' associations have threatened to break off their talks with the administration of President Vicente Fox (news - web sites), complaining that the government is not willing to renegotiate NAFTA.

The trade unions have never held a national strike in Mexico's modern history, largely because most of them formed part of the corporatist structure of the once all-powerful PRI, which was defeated by Fox in 2000.

Mexico's farmers complain that ''the countryside can't take anymore,'' and blame all of their woes on the lifting of import duties on farm goods under NAFTA, the free trade bloc created by Canada, Mexico and the United States in 1994.

In one of their most high-profile protests, farmers rode horses into parliament late last year.

The farmers will paralyze the country and close the borders if the government does not agree to renegotiate the terms of NAFTA by late January, said the rural activists.

According to official figures, nearly all of Mexico's rural inhabitants are living below the poverty line.

In the past few decades, Canada and the United States have continued to subsidize their farmers at the same time that they opened their borders, while Mexico whittled away at its policies of support for the countryside.

Public spending in support of the rural sector shrank 95.5 percent between 1982 and 2001, said researcher José Luis Calva with the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

In 1982, when the country began to open up its markets, annual food imports totaled 7.8 billion dollars a year, compared to more than 11 billion dollars in 2001, Calva pointed out.

Analysts and politicians are discussing whether the crisis in the countryside is due more to the liberalization of trade or to a mistaken strategy of agricultural development applied by PRI governments over the past 20 years.

Fox insists that NAFTA is beneficial to Mexico and will not be renegotiated. But he offered to hold talks with the farmers in order to seek solutions to their problems, and said the government would adopt all of the necessary measures and safeguards to defend the rural sector.

The current wave of protests is led by the National Union of Autonomous Regional Peasant Organizations, which links 30 groups of rural producers with ties to leftist parties, and by the PRI- affiliated National Peasant Confederation.

The mobilizations began late last year, shortly before the start of the latest phase of agricultural liberalization, which has entailed the lifting of tariffs on 21 farm products among the members of NAFTA, including potatoes, wheat, apples, onions, coffee, chicken and veal.

The first stage of the opening of trade in agriculture accompanied the implementation of the free trade deal in 1994, and the third phase is scheduled to begin in 2008.

In 1993, when NAFTA was negotiated, then-president Carlos Salinas (1988-1994) agreed to the opening of the Mexican market to farm imports with the support of the country's most powerful associations of small farmers -- all of which are protesting the effects of the free trade agreement today.