MEXICO CITY (IPS)–Industrialists in Mexico recently urged the government to take a firm hand with small farmers protesting the lifting of tariffs in trade in agriculture with the United States and Canada.

The farmers have threatened new demonstrations and even a nationwide strike, which may be called in February, if the government fails to accept the demands set forth by the country’s peasant farmers, said Francisco Hernandez, president of the National Workers’ Union, a powerful central trade union with ties to the political left. The union claims to represent more than 2 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 weeklong truce.


Business leader Javier Prieto, the head of the Confederation of Industrial Chambers, has asked the government 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 manu-factured goods.

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

“We must seek reconciliation, but only to a reasonable point,” said Mr. 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, 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 a year, compared to more than $11 billion in 2001, Mr. 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.

Pres. 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 first stage of the opening of trade in agriculture accompanied the implementation of the free trade deal (NAFTA) 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.