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THE HUMAN FACE: NAFTA at 15

October 21st, 2009
Pantaleón Hernández Ignacio waits for his son's return

Every Friday a more disheartened Pantaleón Hernández Ignacio enters the Center of Orientation for Migrants of Oaxaca, hoping for news of his son, Roberto who left his home and family in search of a job.  He has been missing in the Arizona desert since May 3. A search and rescue organization has conducted several unsuccessful searches for Roberto and asserts that there is not “the least chance of survival”. Pantaleón chokes back tears and holds out for a miracle. 

When NAFTA was implemented in 1994, Mexicans were told that increases in trade, foreign direct investment, and exports would raise incomes and the standard of living in Mexico.  NAFTA’s promises included reduced migration, more and better jobs, and lower prices for goods. After 15 years, a straightforward assessment reveals that these promises have not been realized, and that the socio-economic situation has drastically worsened. While trade and foreign direct investment have dramatically increased in Mexico, only 10% of the population has seen elevated incomes and a higher standard of living, and millions have seen no other option but to migrate.

Roberto’s Dream

Roberto Hernandez had a dream: to work and earn enough to purchase land in Oaxaca, get married, have a family and live off the land. He didn’t ask for much; he wanted to live simply but with dignity in his homeland. 

When he was 16 he realized that he could not fulfill that dream in his small rural farming community in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Available jobs paid only enough to buy food for the day, not nearly enough to buy land. Roberto left and landed in Los Angeles where he worked in restaurants for five years. 

This past April he returned home for a short visit. His small community still offered no future for him and he knew that he needed to return to the U.S. to find work.   He said his goodbyes and left again. After walking for four nights, approximately 60 miles in a cruel, immense desert with little to drink or eat at temperatures that often reach 122 degrees Fahrenheit, Roberto was abandoned on May 3rd by his coyote (guide) and a friend from his home town.  Sick, fainting and exhausted, he could not continue, and was left to fend for himself between the towns of Ajo and Gila Bend, Arizona. He has not been heard from since.

Roberto’s story is not an isolated one. An average of 500,000 Mexicans has migrated each year since the implementation of NAFTA, compared to 28,000 per year before then. Two thirds of Mexican born immigrants in the U.S. came after 1994.  An estimated 4.13 million left Mexico due, in large part, to the influx of cheap subsidized grains from the U.S to Mexico under NAFTA, resulting in the decimation of at least two million farming jobs. This number doesn’t include an estimated eight million farmers who abandoned their land as subsidies, access to credit, and a guaranteed price for their products were stripped away with economic reforms that paved the way for NAFTA.

The 1.3 million jobs created during the peak period (1994-2001) of the maquiladora industry –assembly plants, typically foreign owned – have only provided a small portion of the jobs needed to cover the millions of agriculture workers pushed off their farms or for workers forced out of Mexico’s devastated domestic industries. Maquiladoras, originally touted as a job creator for Mexico, source raw materials for production usually from their own subsidiaries outside of the country, disrupting the chain of production that was dominated by Mexican industry before NAFTA. When foreign auto companies in Mexico began to supply their assembly lines with parts imported from third countries, auto parts workers lost their jobs by the thousands. Employment creation in the maquiladora industry has declined; estimates indicate that 1/3 of the new jobs created have been lost since 2001. The resulting workforce surplus has kept wages extremely low in Mexico. A Mexican immigrant in the U.S. can earn more in one hour than in a whole day in a maquiladora in Mexico.

NAFTA has resulted in skyrocketing prices for basic food items despite imported cheap grains. Prices for tortillas, which represent 75% of the nutrition for Mexico’s 50 million poor, increased by 571% during the first six years of NAFTA, and by January 2007 nearly tripled again. The collision of higher prices with low wages or outright job loss has resulted in a 15 year economic crisis for Mexico’s working people and farmers. This crisis, exacerbated by the world’s current financial predicament, has resulted in further job loss, decreased remittances, and an economic contraction of 8.5% in the first trimester of 2009. The NAFTA trade and economic model in Mexico has proven to be a creator of immigration, not jobs.

NAFTA has not lived up to its promises and has smashed the dreams of millions in Mexico with dire consequences.  Increasing numbers of U.S. citizens agree that NAFTA is not a viable trade agreement.

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