MEXICO (and South Central LA)

Noam Chomsky

I found the mainstream media coverage of Mexico during the NAFTA debate somewhat uneven. The New York Times has allowed in a number of articles that official corruption was-and is-widespread in Mexico. In fact, in one editorial, they virtually conceded that Salinas stole the 1988 presidential election. Why did that information come out?

I think it's impossible to repress. Furthermore, there were scattered reports in the Times of popular protest against NAFTA. Tim Golden, their reporter in Mexico, had a story a couple of weeks before the vote, probably in early November [l993], in which he said that lots of Mexican workers were concerned that their wages would decline after NAFTA. Then came the punch line.

He said that that undercuts the position of people like Ross Perot and others who think that NAFTA is going to harm American workers for the benefit of Mexican workers. In other words, the fact that they're all going to get screwed was presented as a critique of the people who were opposing NAFTA here!

There was very little discussion here of the large-scale popular protest in Mexico, which included, for example, the largest non-governmental trade union. (The main trade union is about as independent as the Soviet trade unions were, but there are some independent ones, and they were opposed to the agreement.)

The environmental movements and most of the other popular movements were opposed. The Mexican Bishops' Conference strongly endorsed the position the Latin American bishops took when they met at Santa Domingo [in the Dominican Republic] in December 1992.

That meeting in Santa Domingo was the first major conference of Latin American bishops since the ones at Puebla [Mexico] and Medellin [Colombia] back in the 1960s and 1970s. The Vatican tried to control it this time to make sure that they wouldn't come out with these perverse ideas about liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor. But despite a very firm Vatican hand, the bishops came out quite strongly against neoliberalism and structural adjustment and these free-market-for-the-poor policies. That wasn't reported here, to my knowledge.

There's been significant union-busting in Mexico.

Ford and VW are two big examples. A few years ago, Ford simply fired its entire Mexican work force and would only rehire, at much lower wages, those who agreed not to join a union. Ford was backed in this by the always ruling PRI [the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has controlled Mexico since the 1920s].

VW's case was pretty much the same. They fired workers who supported an independent union and only rehired, at lower wages, those who agreed not to support it.

A few weeks after the NAFTA vote in the US, workers at a GE and Honeywell plant in Mexico were fired for union activities. I don't know what the final outcome will be, but that's exactly the purpose of things like NAFTA.

In early January [1994], you were asked by an editor at the Washington Post to submit an article on the New Year's Day uprising in Chiapas [a state at the southern tip of Mexico, next to Guatemala]. Was this the first time the Post had asked you to write something?

It was the first time ever. I was kind of surprised, since I'm never asked to write for a national newspaper. So I wrote the article-it was for the Sunday Outlook section-but it didn't appear.

Was there an explanation?

No. It went to press, as far as I know. The editor who commissioned it called me, apparently after the deadline, to say that it looked OK to him but that it had simply been canceled at some higher level. I don't know any more about it than that.

But I can guess. The article was about Chiapas, but it was also about NAFTA, and I think the Washington Post has been even more extreme than the Times in refusing to allow any discussion of that topic.

What happened in Chiapas doesn't come as very much of a surprise. At first, the government thought they'd just destroy the rebellion with tremendous violence, but then they backed off and decided to do it by more subtle violence, when nobody was looking. Part of the reason they backed off is surely their fear that there was just too much sympathy all over Mexico; if they were too up front about suppression, they'd cause themselves a lot of problems, all the way up to the US border.

The Mayan Indians in Chiapas are in many ways the most oppressed people in Mexico. Nevertheless, their problems are shared by a large majority of the Mexican population. This decade of neoliberal reforms has led to very little economic progress in Mexico but has sharply polarized the society. Labor's share in income has declined radically. The number of billionaires has shot up.

In that unpublished Post article, you wrote that the protest of the Indian peasants in Chiapas gives "only a bare glimpse of time bombs waiting to explode, not only in Mexico." What did you have in mind?

Take South Central Los Angeles, for example. In many respects, they are different societies, of course, but there are points of similarity to the Chiapas rebellion. South Central LA is a place where people once had jobs and lives, and those have been destroyed-in large part by the socio-economic processes we've been talking about.

For example, furniture factories went to Mexico, where they can pollute more cheaply. Military industry has somewhat declined. People used to have jobs in the steel industry, and they don't any more. So they rebelled.

The Chiapas rebellion was quite different. It was much more organized, and much more constructive. That's the difference between an utterly demoralized society like South Central Los Angeles and one that still retains some sort of integrity and community life.

When you look at consumption levels, doubtless the peasants in Chiapas are poorer than people in South Central LA. There are fewer television sets per capita. But by other, more significant criteria-like social cohesion-Chiapas is considerably more advanced. In the US, we've succeeded not only in polarizing communities but also in destroying their structures. That's why you have such rampant violence.

an interview of Noam Chomsky by David Barsamian
from the book Secrets, Lies and Democracy, published in 1994
Odonian Press
Box 32375
Tucson, AZ 85751
tel 602-296-4056 or 800-REALSTORY
fax 602-296-0936

other Noam Chomsky books published by Odonian Press

What Uncle Sam Really Wants
The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many

Secrets, Lies, and Democracy