Mexico City, Mexico – Even before his win in the 2016 US presidential election, Donald Trump‘s inflammatory rhetoric directed at immigrants and Mexicans caused anger and fear in Mexico. But now that he’s taken office, there’s one part of his platform that many Mexicans feel they can get behind: a renegotiation or cancellation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
“If Mexico ends up outside of NAFTA, either because of Trump kicking us out or us deciding to leave, we would celebrate,” Alfredo Acedo, a spokesman for the National Union of Autonomous Regional and Campesino Organizations (UNORCA), told Al Jazeera. “That’s what we’ve been demanding for over 20 years.”
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UNORCA is one of several national peasant organisations and labour unions that have been fighting for the cancellation of NAFTA’s agriculture chapter since negotiations started in 1990. Now that Donald Trump is in the White House, they see a rare opportunity to make that demand a reality.
“Of course, we understand that what Trump wants has nothing to do with the interests of Mexican peasants,” said Acedo.
“We know he’s just trying to get even better conditions for his own country, for its producers, for the corporations, which, in this case, are the primary beneficiaries. But the very fact that the treaty is being reopened presents an opportunity for us to make demands, to unify, to push harder to get back what we had before 1994.”
On January 31, a protest march held by a coalition of rural farmer unions brought out 60,000 people in Mexico City demanding Mexico pull out of NAFTA, as well as the cancellation of an oil privatisation law and recent petrol price increases. The Authentic Rural Front (FAC) marched to the United States embassy to deliver a letter addressed to Donald Trump.
“Mr Trump, we are glad that you decide to build a large border wall between the United States of America and Estados Unidos Mexicanos, we encourage you to do it all around all your territory and isolate your country from the rest of the world,” reads the letter.
It goes on to encourage Trump to be “brave, congruent, determined and cancel the NAFTA, so that way we can start to build new real relations of commerce based on equality, thinking in the interest of our people, the Mexican and the North American.”
NAFTA on life support
January 31 was also the date of a planned meeting between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto that was cancelled after both sides refused to back down from red lines that they had drawn.
Mexican Secretary of Economy Ildefonso Guajardo said that Mexico would pull out of NAFTA before agreeing to pay for a border wall or allowing taxes on remittances, while Trump also claimed to be ready to end negotiations if Mexico doesn’t pay for the wall.
Last Thursday, Pena Nieto cancelled his trip in a rare show of defiance that surprised many of his detractors, who often accuse him of being too submissive to the US.
Peasant organisations like the National Agricultural Workers’ Union (UNTA), that usually have an antagonistic relationship with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), have even expressed cautious optimism about the relatively strong posture with which Pena Nieto has responded to Trump.
“The president’s decision to cancel his meeting with the US leader was a good decision, a necessary decision,” said Alvaro Lopez Rios, general-secretary of the National Agricultural Workers’ Union (UNTA), in a press conference on January 26.
“In response to Trump’s anti-Mexican agenda, we will be supporting measures by the president that defend national sovereignty and work towards reducing our relationship with the United States.”
The two presidents talked on the phone after the meeting was cancelled, and decided to keep further discussions of payment for the border wall secret. For the trade deal to survive, one of them will need to back down.
Legacy of underdevelopment and dependence
NAFTA’s agricultural provisions led to upheaval in the Mexican countryside as cheap grains, produced by highly subsidised US farms, flooded the markets.
Instead of fulfilling its promise of providing cheaper food to Mexicans, NAFTA deepened Mexico’s dependency on food imports, leaving it unprotected from volatility in international food prices and exchange rates.
“At first, it was cheaper to import grains when the exchange rate was 3.50 pesos per dollar, when NAFTA took effect, and that was one of the arguments they used to get us to open ourselves up to imports,” Ernesto Ladron de Guevara, technical secretary for the Mexican Senate’s Rural Development Commission, told Al Jazeera.
“But that lasted less than a year. These days, it’s almost never cheaper to import food.”
Mexico’s dependence on food imports has grown every year since the signing of NAFTA. Acedo said that by 2017, Mexico is importing over half of the food it consumes. The 2008 global food price crisis showed Mexico the dangers of food dependence, as global prices for grains rose by over 100 percent.
“We saw clearly with the 2008 food price crisis,” said Ladron de Guevara.
“We still have to buy food from international markets, but now it’s expensive. When international prices go up, our food gets more expensive, but when they go down, our food doesn’t get cheaper.”
Life after NAFTA
NAFTA is not the only reason that Mexican agriculture is underdeveloped, and the countryside would not immediately recover the day after NAFTA is cancelled. But many think that the end of NAFTA would allow Mexico to pursue policies to rebuild the countryside and regain food sovereignty.
“It’s not nostalgia, we’re not trying to go back in time,” said Acedo.
“We have the experience, we have the technical capacity. Now, we even have new technology that is better for the environment, that can help us become self-sufficient again, in corn, in beans. The only thing that is missing are policies that favour Mexican producers, especially small and medium producers, to recover self-sufficiency.”
The decline of Mexico’s relationship with the US and Canada could also lead to closer relationships between Mexico and the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Mexico is already part of the Pacific Alliance, a trade bloc that also includes Peru, Colombia and Chile, and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a regional bloc that includes all of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Acedo thinks that conflict with the US could bring opportunity for greater South-South integration.
“We need to rebuild the relationships that we’ve been neglecting because of our integration with the United States,” he said. “We need to look south. Because the other nations of Latin America, even if they’re not as geographically close to us, we have a much stronger cultural bond with them than with the United States.”
Ladron de Guevara has a sober but optimistic calculation of how the Mexican countryside could recover from decades of neglect.
“We could recover in about eight years,” he said. “In corn, especially, you could see improvements very quickly. It wouldn’t be overnight, but considering that it’s been 30 years of neoliberal governance, recovering in about eight years is pretty fast.”
But among the rural farmer movement, there’s a lot of optimism. Ladron de Guevara thinks that Mexican culture holds the key to rebuilding food sovereignty.
“Some societies, when they go through this kind of disruption, they don’t maintain their communitarian culture,” he said. “So, it’s very hard for them. But in Mexico, we still have that. That’s our guarantee.”