Mexico and the world: “For the good of all, the poor come first”

JIM HODGSON

As Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), gets ready to meet Thursday, Nov. 18, with U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Nov. 18, I prepared a few notes to keep in mind.

In the lead-up to the summit, much attention is paid to U.S. “Buy America” initiatives that threaten the (messy and often-unfair) market created after 1994 by the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). On that issue, Trudeau and AMLO will each back the other, especially with regard to the automobile industry.

But there are other issues.

Most media fail to understand the Mexican president, or worse: they misrepresent his intent to put impoverished people at the centre of policy-making. I’ll touch on two issues here—energy and Mexican proposals on international development—but their treatment has an impact on climate, deforestation, corruption and migration.

AMLO in Juárez, Chiapas, July 2014–campaigning four years ahead of the 2018 election. Behind him, the lower part of his party’s banner says in part: “We reject the energy reform.” Photo: Jim Hodgson

Energy—and learning about coal and colonialism

One of the points of tension in the Glasgow climate negotiations was the enormous advantage the rich countries of the global “North” have over countries in the global “South,” most of which still struggle to overcome colonial and neo-colonial exploitation. 

And one of the countries that gets criticized for not doing more is Mexico, where energy policy has been a hot topic for most of the past century. (In 1925, when Mexico declared all petroleum products to be of “public use,” and then in 1938 when Mexico expropriated assets of foreign oil companies, the United States (which always sees its corporations’ interests as national interests) objected. Mexico excluded energy from NAFTA, but governments from 2000 to 2018 began allowed limited foreign investment in the sector. AMLO is now trying to reform those reforms.)

While the Mexican representative in Glasgow criticized the last-minute move by India and China to change the language on coal from “phase-out” to “phase-down,” Mexico currently has no phase-out policy in place

In Glasgow, Prime Minister Trudeau repeated his campaign pledge to stop the export of “thermal coal” (the kind used for power production) by 2030. It’s an easy promise to keep: just five per cent of Canadian coal exports are of thermal coal. Most of the Canadian production that is exported is “metallurgical coal” (the kind used for making steel—also harmful to the atmosphere, but harder to do without). 

But Canada does not track shipments of thermal coal that originate in the United States. During the Glasgow summit, a coalition of Canadian groups demanded that Canada end thermal coal exports by 2023

In front, you see the Roberts Bank Superport, and just beyond it, the Tsawwassen B.C. ferry terminal. The superport is owned by Westshore Terminals Ltd., and is the largest single export coal terminal in all of North America. Further back, you see Point Roberts and Mount Baker in Washington state. Photo: Jim Hodgson

Indeed, comparisons of Canadian and Mexican CO2 outputs typify the hypocrisy of global North promises from the perspective of people in the global South. Here’s a comparison of per capital CO2 output based on information from Our World in Data:

Canada (1980 18.14t)  2000 18.52t     2020 14.20t (a 23% drop)
Mexico (1980 3.95t)    2000 4.00t       2020 2.77t (a 31% drop)

And yes: Canada has a colder climate, and our population is spread thinly. But the CO2 output of Mexicans is far lower than that of Canadians, and it’s dropping more quickly.

Development, or something like it, in the face of climate change and migration

Every time someone utters the world ”development” these days, I shudder. Much of what rich countries have done in the name of development over the past 80 years has worsened inequalities and perpetuated colonial patterns of exploitation. But let us rescue what we can….

Front page of La Jornada Nov. 10: AMLO at the UN; cartoon by José Hernández, Nov. 10

In a speech to the UN Security Council on Nov. 9, AMLO proposed a plan that would lift about 750 million people living on less than US$2 per day out of extreme poverty. The plan, which would raise about U.S.$1 billion each year, has three sources:

  • An annual voluntary contribution of four per cent of the fortunes of the 1,000 richest people on the planet
  • A similar contribution from the largest 1,000 private corporations on the planet
  • A contribution of 0.2 per cent from each of the members of the G20.

“Never in the history of this organisation has something substantial been really done for the benefit of the poor, but it is never too late to do justice,” he said. “Today is the time to act against marginalisation, addressing the causes and not only the consequences.”

AMLO said that the main problems of the planet are political, economic, legal and financial forms of corruption, and that these lead to inequality, poverty, frustration, violence, migration and grave social conflicts. Using the pandemic as an example, he noted that pharmaceutical companies have sold 94 per cent of their vaccines, but only six per cent has been distributed to the COVAX facility for use in the developing world—a painful and “complete failure of inclusion.”

It was the second international development plan proposed by AMLO this year. At the end of April, he proposed extending a Mexican government agricultural support program to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—with U.S. financial support—as a way to address root causes of migration.

The program, Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life), has been running in Mexico for over two years and is intended to generate jobs in the small-farming sector, reactivate the economy in areas affected by out-migration, and overcome deforestation. “The plan seeks to overcome social exclusion and the poverty that afflicts 61 per cent of the rural population.” It includes focus on community-controlled farms overlooked or attacked by successive neoliberal governments in power in Mexico between 1988 and 2018.

Critics warn, however, that Sembrando Vida is not sufficient. “It won’t but the brakes on deforestation or other degradation, because it’s not having a direct impact on the causes of these problems,” said Danae Azuara of the Mexican Climate Initiative. Additional programs are needed to end deforestation.

Canada, Mexico and the United States are heavily dependent on fossil fuels for their development and, official pronouncements aside, their governments are likely happier in a phase-down world than in an phase-out one. 

But none is exempt from extreme weather events—heat domes and drought, hurricanes and floods—related to climate change.

Climate change—unpredictable cycles of rainy and dry seasons—is a driver of migration from Central America and Mexico to the north. In talks with Biden, Mexico wants the United States to regularize the status of 11 million Mexicans living in the United States, and to negotiate a temporary foreign worker program not unlike the one that Canada already has with Mexico.

Antidotes to neocolonial “development” in Central America

Santa Marta’s school, church and a greenhouse

Following on my post yesterday about the Biden Plan: what would it take for a development plan to work for Central Americans? We need to unwrap that word “development.”

Over many years, it has been my joy to work with organizations created by people in the region who talk about their aspirations in ways that are different from the White House or the World Bank.

In May 2018, I found myself in conversation with one of the founders of the Association for Economic and Social Development (ADES) in the northern part of Cabañas department in El Salvador. ADES sometimes describes itself as a “social movement that is organized as a non-governmental organization” (NGO).

I asked one of the founders, Alonso, about the word “development” in the organization’s name. In response, he gave me what he called the “A-B-C-D of all of this.” The roots of community organization in the area were in the growth of base Christian communities (CEBs) in the 1960s and 70s, he said. Because of persecution during the civil war in the 1980s, the people of Santa Marta fled to Honduras. As the war came to an end in the late 80s and early 90s, and as the people of Santa Marta returned in October 1987, ways had to be found for the people “to defend themselves” against local and national governments. Alonso said: 

“We had to create conditions for life. We wanted development in rural areas. We sought water, land, health. Later, this was organized in a more intentional way [with the creation of ADES in 1992]. The first thing we did was to build a community centre for events, parties, weddings, and meetings.” 

Over time, people—especially women—began to see different possibilities for changing their conditions. Women began a small store that they owned cooperatively. Other projects began and spun off: micro-credit, community radio, the regional AIDS committee CoCoSI, among others. The United Church of Canada and the Anglican Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund were supporters from the outset. Alonso added: 

“For us development means to improve a the conditions of the people a little bit: having water in the communities, sharing land, getting access to health care and education, and transportation.”

Today, formal education is one of Santa Marta’s great successes. More than 100 people graduate from high school each year. ADES continues to lead in agricultural development and training in northern Cabañas. Even so, about half of the young grads choose to leave each year to continue their educations or to work in other cities, but they leave with a huge educational advantage.

Leaders of ADES in 2016

Throughout Central America, churches and NGOs support a wide variety of initiatives that benefit small farmers, emphasizing good ecological practice including reforestation. They also work to strengthen the voices of women in community and in their churches.

The challenges are growing. Climate change has meant both prolonged drought and more severe storms, including two hurricanes this past November. Part of the problem, especially in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, is high levels of violence that is partly related to the illegal drug trade and to the growth of street gangs. Those are factors leading to migration away from the region. 

In the face of violence in El Salvador, churches work to build a “culture of peace.” For example, Emmanuel Baptist Church (IBE) in San Salvador backs a program for youth led by youth. In a meeting in June 2019, 17-year old Laura said: “The way to achieve peace at the national level is to start from what is small. Begin with childhood. If someone beats a child, tell them not to, that’s not good. You have to treat them the way you want to be treated.” Peace, then, is the way of non-violence, providing people with the skills they need so they need so as not to be subject to the logic of the gangs. 

“Perhaps we are just a few people,” said Laura’s friend Michelle, also 17. “But if we come together, not just as church, not just as school, not just activists, but everyone, and if the government would support us, peace can be achieved.”

Yes. And:

In a conversation around the same time with another friend, Jorge, a leader in Guatemala’s LGBTI community, I said that it seemed to me that the violence in some Central American countries had to do with the failure of the peace accords that ended the civil wars, and the failure to provide some sort of authentic development across the region. 

But Jorge replied: “No, in fact, it has all worked out exactly the way that the elites and the big business-owners wanted: people are fighting with each other, too afraid to raise their voices, and they are afraid of their neighbours.” 

In that sense, the work of ADES and IBE represents signs of a future still to be attained. Part of the logic of ADES was for the people to live as if they had won the war: land was re-distributed, people were empowered for change.

But on the larger scale, our efforts for peace and a more inclusive vision of human development were largely defeated by a U.S.-backed military strategy and then by the imposition of a toxic development model, the one that has resulted in incredibly high rates of violence and unconstrained migration toward Mexico and the United States.

Neo-colonial inertia and development plans for Central America

The shopping mall model of development (Honduras, 2009)

In October 2008, in a classroom in Ciudad Juárez—one of the most violent cities on the planet but on the border with the richest country—an international ecumenical group considered the latest official development plan for Mexico and Central America.* 

After hearing from Raúl Moreno, an economist from El Salvador long active in the Hemispheric Social Alliance of groups that questioned free trade and other top-down, capital-intensive development schemes, I wrote in a report:

“When you look at the extreme violence occurring in Juárez, the de-population of rural Mexico, the official development plans in Central America (and consequent dislocation of rural populations), and the extreme violence carried out in Colombia to drive rural populations from their land, you come away with the impression of a development model that has been continuously applied since the days of the “wild, wild west” in the United States. The model is now extended all the way to Colombia and beyond: drive Indigenous peoples on to ever more marginal lands; destroy small farmers; insert mines and hydro-electric projects where convenient to the interests of large capital; and reward allies by granting them the lands of the displaced.”

I suppose it’s progress of a sort that the masters now see the need to incorporate ecological goals into their development plans.

But these plans have at their core a neoliberal notion of development: cut protection for workers, reinforce free trade agreements, and protect private-sector investment. 

The latest plan, promoted by President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris and the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, does not correspond to the real needs and aspirations of the people: land redistribution, legal reform, ecological justice, human rights, and for Indigenous peoples: full implementation of free, prior and informed consent.

On Monday, April 26, the same day that Harris held a video conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, the progressive Mexican daily newspaper La Jornada questioned the U.S. approach. During the U.S.-led Earth Day summit that was held a few days earlier, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador proposed extending a Mexican government agricultural support program to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—with U.S. financial support. 

The program, Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life), has been running in Mexico for two years and is intended to generate jobs in the small-farming sector, reactivate the economy in areas affected by out-migration, and overcome deforestation. “The plan seeks to overcome social exclusion and the poverty that afflicts 61 per cent of the rural population.” It includes focus on ejidos and other community-controlled farms overlooked or attacked by successive neoliberal governments in power between 1988 and 2018 in Mexico.

In her meeting with Giammattei, the Vice-president Harris announced $310 million in U.S. government support for humanitarian relief and to address food insecurity in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. This is in addition to $4 billion announced by President Biden on the day of his inauguration that is intended to “address the root causes of migration” from Central America.

Graffiti in Honduras, 2009: “Long live the people in resistance.”

“Without strong collective action, this will mean MORE money for militarization and neoliberal economic policies that will continue to displace people from their lands and communities,” said a statement from the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). CISPES, joined by other solidarity and religious groups, demanded an end to U.S. police and military assistance in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and an end to development policies that “promote climate change, privatize natural resources and public services, violate workers’ rights and destroy Indigenous and communal lands.”

One of the last people I met before the pandemic lockdown began in mid-March 2020 was Giovanni Batz (G’io B’atz), a U.S.-Guatemalan researcher. He was in Toronto for a two-day conference about Central American migrants and refugees at York University. In this essay, he denounces the latest U.S. plan and explains why it will fail. By supporting further militarization and neoliberal development in Central America, the United States contributes to displacement. “When discussing climate change, hunger, and poverty as causes of migration,” he writes, “land redistribution, reform, and rights must be discussed as solutions.” 

La Jornada’s editorial noted that Biden-Harris roll-out is through a series of bilateral meetings. “The White House has not accepted multilateral treatment of human displacement and the environmental crisis, the newspaper said. 

It reflects the historic preference of the White House to negotiate individually with each country, a terrain in which the superpower can more easily impose its terms and conditions. As it confronts the migration issue, we hope that the Democratic administration will go beyond the colonial inertia that shapes every foreign policy action from a position of advantage over and against the other, and that it will recognize that behind the migration flows there are economic and social components apart from climate change which must, nevertheless, be confronted with the same urgency as global warming.

* Plan Puebla Panamá had just given way that year to the Proyecto Mesoamérica (the Project for the Integration and Development of Mesoamerica), which would later become the Comprehensive Development Plan and then the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework (MIRPS).