Many of the ills plaguing Mexico are directly related to NAFTA, which killed the traditional agricultural sector.
The landslide election of the veteran Mexican politician Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, AMLO for short, to the presidency and the rise to majority in the National Assembly of his party MORENA (Spanish acronym of the Movement for National Renewal) signals a break with the last decades dominated by a politically conservative but economically liberal oligarchic establishment. Lopez Obrador has been for most of his long career a fiery left-wing reformer who almost made it to Los Pinos (the Mexican presidential mansion) in 2006 and was probably only kept out then by ballot fraud against which he vociferously protested with millions of his supporters for months after refusing to accept the results. It is said that the George W. Bush administration in the United States worked behind the scenes with the long-ruling PRI to have its preferred candidate Felipe Calderon declared the winner by a very narrow margin in order to keep out the anti-NAFTA AMLO.
As befits an elected head of state, Lopez Obrador now strikes a more conciliatory and moderate note, but he has vowed to concentrate more power into his hands in order to fight the endemic corruption and the extraordinarily high level of gruesome violence and lawlessness that the country suffers from since decades. Some 30,000 people are killed every year, mainly in drug and kidnapping related crimes and armed gangs rule the roost in many areas, often with the complicity of the police and local authorities. People are shot, decapitated, hacked to pieces, sometimes buried alive in mass graves. In the just completed election, some 130 politicians and political workers were murdered. Atrocity has become the new normal. A recent book by Professor Oswaldo Zavala (The Cartels Don’t Exist, 2018) raises serious doubts about the official version of the narcotics industry as an economy controlled by a few mighty drug lords such as the notorious El Chapo. Zavala shows why there are reasons to believe that those rival drug kingpins may be strawmen used by factions of the deep state in Mexico, the US and other countries to hide the real identities and positions of their handlers and patrons.
To take control of this ghastly situation AMLO would have to exercise dictatorial powers and use a mixture of ruthlessness and diplomacy to pacify society, rehabilitate the outlaws who can be and to eliminate or lock up those who cannot be. His chances of success are small, given the deleterious socio-economic climate, but it may be useful to take a quick look at the not-so-ancient history of the region to find reasons for this collapse into endemic criminality which affects all of Central America and impacts the US through a constant flow of illegal immigrants and refugees.
The eventful past of the banana economy in Central America reads as a textbook case of colonial capitalism which decisively shaped the region’s politics. The United Fruit Company, owned by US WASPS acquired much of the land of small Central American countries which became, through the familiar mechanism of excessive borrowing leading to insolvency, Washington’s protectorates dedicated to the monoculture of the Gros Michel variety of banana for the US market. In the 1930s, following the notorious striking workers’ massacre of 1928 at Cienaga on behalf of the company by the Colombian army, ownership shifted, by merger and acquisition of the nearly bankrupt UFC to an immigrant from Russian Bessarabia, Samuel Zemurray settled in New Orleans, who owned a smaller rival banana company and was reputed for his rough business methods. To avoid being taxed by a bankrupt Honduran state in 1912 he had hired underworld hitmen and bought a ship and a cargo of weapons to overthrow the Honduran government and bring back to power an exiled former President who was his puppet. In the 1950s, then one of the richest men in the US, Zemurray hired a nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays to expand the market with new promotional techniques.
Bernays had worked for years as a marketing executive for a number of companies and, as an adviser to the US government to “sell” the Second World War to the domestic public by buying or bribing the press to print his propaganda. As a consultant to the tobacco industry he had organised a promotional campaign to make women smoke by convincing feminists that cigarettes were “torches of freedom”, even though he did not smoke and knew it was harmful. He was also hired by bacon manufacturers to convince Americans to eat bacon and eggs at breakfast by making it sound almost patriotic.
Bernays—later nicknamed “the father of spin” —developed the theory of “engineering consent” through marketing techniques inspired by psychoanalysis, arguing that people can be manipulated into acquiring new consuming habits and addictions or forming political convictions and he probably coined the term “psychological warfare”. He claimed that the Nazi propagandist Goebbels had adopted his methods. The Zemurray-Bernays team exercised control over Central American states through the UFC empire. Among the consequences of the former’s transformation into what O’Henry aptly called Banana Republics, formally ruled by tin pot dictators, one can list the impoverishment of small farmers who lost their lands and became landless labourers treated as slaves by the foreign owned companies which used the local militaries and private vigilantes, ancestors of future “rightwing death squads” to sustain their power.
The most famous operation schemed by the United Fruit Company was the US-backed military overthrow of the reformist President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954. Arbenz had taken back the land owned and left unused by the UFC and compensated it at the nominal value that the company had declared in its tax returns. Bernays used his familiar methods to convince the Dwight Eisenhower administration that Arbenz was a communist, who posed a threat to freedom for the Americas. This tactic, first applied in Iran against Mohammad Mosaddegh’s government became a staple of US foreign policy (viz. Iraq, Libya, Syria and Ukraine in recent years), but could not prevent or reverse Castro’s takeover of Cuba, inspired by Arbenz’s experience. Fidel Castro and his followers concluded that only an armed revolution could succeed in ejecting “Yankee” military-economic domination, where democratic reform attempts had failed.
While Zemurray became known for his philanthropy to Tulane University and to Zionist causes, Latin America sank into permanent turmoil and much of the banana economy failed when pests destroyed the single variety crop. The land had became infertile and many plantation workers were poisoned by the massive spraying of highly toxic pesticides used by the UFC, which eventually changed its name to Chiquita, in order to dissociate itself from its tarnished past and was bought out a few years after Zemurray’s death in 1961.
Although Mexico’s history somewhat differs from that of its southern neighbours since the revolution which brought to power the socialist PRI in 1929 (which in the 1980s however shifted to liberal centre-right policies), there are analogies and many of the ills that plague the nation have similar causes; several are directly related to NAFTA, which rang the death knell of the traditional agricultural sector by flooding the country with US and Canadian food imports.
Many of the ruined small farmers took to drug-related crime or moved to the urban slums to survive in the informal economy or work in the factories built by multinational companies. As a result, although the GDP rose impressively and foreign trade boomed, about half of Mexico’s population lives in poverty and many villages have been emptied out.
For reasons of national interest, both Trump and Lopez Obrador are opposed to NAFTA in its present form and may jointly decide to abolish it. AMLO is committed to reviving his country’s rural economy and making the nation self-sufficient in food once again. He could abandon the brutal and ineffective army-enforced drug war strategy adopted by his predecessors at Washington’s prompting. The coming years should be interesting in North America and we can only hope that they will bring about an end to the murder orgy, which has ominously sharpened Mexico’s image as the seat of a death-obsessed culture.