The Zapatista Uprising
excerpted from the book
Profit Over People
by Noam Chomsky
Seven Stories Press, 1999
The New Year's Day uprising of Indian peasants in Chiapas
readily be understood in this general context. The uprising coincided
with the enactment of NAFTA, which the Zapatista army called a
"death sentence" for Indians, a gift to the rich that
will deepen the divide between narrowly concentrated wealth and
mass misery, and destroy what remains of the indigenous society.
The NAFTA connection is partly symbolic; the problems are
far deeper. "We are the product of 500 years of struggle,"
the Zapatistas' declaration of war stated. The struggle today
is "for work, land, housing, food, health care, education,
independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace." "The
real background," the vicar-general of the Chiapas diocese
added, "is complete marginalization and poverty and the frustration
of many years trying to improve the situation."
The Indian peasants are the most aggrieved victims of Mexican
government policies. But their distress is widely shared. "Anyone
who has the opportunity to be in contact with the millions of
Mexicans who live in extreme poverty knows that we are living
with a time bomb," Mexican columnist Pilar Valdes observed.
In the past decade of economic reform, the number of people
living in extreme poverty in rural areas increased by almost a
third. Half the total population lacks resources to meet basic
needs, a dramatic increase since 1980. Following International
Monetary Fund (IMF)-World Bank prescriptions, agricultural production
was shifted to export and animal feeds, benefiting agribusiness,
foreign consumers, and affluent sectors in Mexico while malnutrition
became a major health problem, agricultural employment declined,
productive lands were abandoned, and Mexico began to import massive
amounts of food. Real wages in manufacturing fell sharply. Labor's
share in gross domestic product, which had risen until the mid-
I 970s, has since declined by well over a third. These are standard
concomitants of neoliberal reforms. IMF studies show "a strong
and consistent pattern of reduction of labor share of income"
under the impact of its "stabilization programs" in
Latin America, economist Manuel Pastor observes.
The Mexican Secretary of Commerce hailed the fall in wages
as an inducement to foreign investors. So it is, along with repression
of labor, lax enforcement of environmental restrictions, and the
general orientation of social policy to the desires of the privileged
minority. Such policies are naturally welcomed by the manufacturing
and financial institutions that are extending their control over
the global economy, with the assistance of mislabeled "free
NAFTA is expected to drive large numbers of farm workers off
the land, contributing to rural misery and surplus labor. Manufacturing
employment, which declined under the reforms, is expected to fall
more sharply. A study by Mexico's leading business journal, El
Financiero, predicted that Mexico would lose almost a quarter
of its manufacturing industry and 14 percent of its jobs in the
first two years. "Economists predict that several million
Mexicans will probably lose their jobs in the first five years
after the accord takes effect," Tim Golden reported in the
New York Times. These processes should depress wages still further
while increasing profits and polarization, with predictable effects
in the United States and Canada.
A large part of the appeal of NAFTA, as its more forthright
advocates regularly stressed, is that it "locks in"
the neoliberal reforms that have reversed years of progress in
labor rights and economic development, bringing mass impoverishment
and suffering along with enrichment for the few and for foreign
investors. To Mexico's economy generally, this "economic
virtue" has brought "little reward," the London
Financial Times observes, reviewing "eight years of textbook
market economic policies" that produced little growth, most
of it attributable to unparalleled financial assistance from the
World Bank and the United States. High interest rates have partially
reversed the huge capital flight that was a major factor in Mexico's
debt crisis, though debt service is a growing burden, its largest
component now being the internal debt owed to the Mexican rich.
Not surprisingly, there was substantial opposition to the
plan to "lock in" this model of development. Historian
Seth Fein, writing from Mexico City, described large demonstrations
against NAFTA, "well articulated, if too-little-noticed in
the United States, cries of frustration against government policies-involving
repeal of constitutional labor, agrarian, and education rights
stipulated in the nation's popularly revered 1917 constitution-that
appear to many Mexicans as the real meaning of NAFTA and U.S.
foreign policy here." Los Angeles Times correspondent Juanita
Darling reported the great anxiety of Mexican workers about the
erosion of their "hard-won labor rights," likely to
"be sacrificed as companies, trying to compete with foreign
companies, look for ways to cut costs."
A "Communication of Mexican Bishops on NAFTA" condemned
the agreement along with the economic policies of which it is
a part because of their deleterious social effects. The bishops
reiterated the concern of the 1992 conference of Latin American
bishops that "the market economy does not become something
absolute to which everything is sacrificed, accentuating the inequality
and the marginalization of a large portion of the population"-the
likely impact of NAFTA and similar investor rights agreements.
The reaction of the Mexican business world was mixed the most
powerful elements favored the agreement, while mid-sized and small
businesses, and their organizations, were dubious or hostile.
The leading Mexican journal Excelsior predicted that NAFTA would
benefit only "those 'Mexicans' who are today the masters
of almost the entire country ( 15 percent receive more than half
the GDP)," a "de-Mexicanized minority," and would
be another stage of "the history of the United States in
our country," "one of unchecked abuses and looting."
The agreement was also opposed by many workers (including the
largest nongovernmental union) and other groups, which warned
of the impact on wages, workers' rights, and the environment,
the loss of sovereignty, the increased protection for corporate
and investor rights, and the undermining of options for sustainable
growth. Homero Aridjis, president of Mexico's leading environmental
organization, deplored "the third conquest that Mexico has
suffered. The first was by arms, the second was spiritual, the
third is economic."
It did not take long for such fears to be realized. Shortly
after the NAFTA vote in Congress, workers were fired from Honeywell
and GE plants for attempting to organize independent unions. The
Ford Motor Company had fired its entire work force in 1987, eliminating
the union contract and rehiring workers at far lower salaries.
Forceful repression suppressed protests. Volkswagen followed suit
in 1992, firing its 14,000 workers and rehiring only those who
renounced independent union leaders, with government backing.
These are central components of the "economic miracle"
that is to be "locked in" by NAFTA.
A few days after the NAFTA vote, the U.S. Senate passed "the
finest anti-crime package in history" (Senator Orrin Hatch),
calling for 100,000 new police, high-security regional prisons,
boot camps for young offenders, extension of the death penalty
and harsher sentencing, and other onerous conditions. Law enforcement
experts interviewed by the press doubted that the legislation
would have much effect on crime because it did not deal with the
"causes of social disintegration that produce violent criminals."
Primary among these are the social and economic policies polarizing
American society, carried another step forward by NAFTA. The concepts
of "efficiency" and "health of the economy"
preferred by wealth and privilege offer nothing to the growing
sectors of the population that are useless for profit-making,
driven to poverty and despair. If they cannot be confined to urban
slums, they will have to be controlled in some other way.
Like the timing of the Zapatista rebellion, the legislative
coincidence was of more than mere symbolic significance.
The NAFTA debate focused largely on job flows, about which
little is understood. But a more confident expectation is that
wages will be held down rather broadly. "Many economists
think NAFTA could drag down pay," Steven Pearlstein reported
in the Washington Post, expecting that "lower Mexican wages
could have a gravitational effect on the wages of Americans."
That is expected even by NAFTA advocates, who recognize that less
skilled workers-about 70 percent of the work force-are likely
to suffer wage loss.
The day after the congressional vote approving NAFTA, the
New York Times ran its first review of the expected effects of
the treaty on the New York region. The review was upbeat, consistent
with the enthusiastic support throughout. It focused on the expected
gainers sectors "based in and around finance," "the
region's banking, telecommunications, and service firms,"
insurance companies, investment houses, corporate law firms, the
PR industry, management consultants, and the like. It predicted
that some manufacturers might gain, primarily in high tech industry,
publishing, and pharmaceuticals, which will benefit from the protectionist
measures designed to ensure that major corporations control the
technology of the future. In passing, the review mentioned that
there will also be losers, "predominantly women, blacks and
Hispanics," and "semi-skilled production workers"
generally that is, most of the population of a city where 40 percent
of children already live below the poverty line, suffering health
and educational disabilities that "lock them in" to
a bitter fate.
Noting that real wages have fallen to the level of the 1 960s
for production and non-supervisory workers, the Congressional
Office of Technology Assessment, in its analysis of the planned
(and implemented) version of NAFTA, predicted that it "could
further lock the United States into a low-wage, low-productivity
future," though revisions proposed by OTA, labor, and other
critics-never admitted to the debate-could benefit the populations
in all three countries.
The version of NAFTA that was enacted is likely to accelerate
a "welcome development of transcendent importance" (Wall
Street Journal) the reduction of U.S. Iabor costs to below any
major industrial country apart from England. In 1985, the U.S.
ranked at the high end among the seven major state capitalist
economies (G7), as one would expect of the richest country in
the world. In a more integrated economy, the impact is worldwide,
as competitors must accommodate. GM can move to Mexico, or now
to Poland, where it can find workers at a fraction of the cost
of Western labor and be protected by high tariffs and other restrictions.
Volkswagen can move to the Czech Republic to benefit from similar
protection, taking the profits and leaving the government with
the costs. Daimler-Benz can make similar arrangements in Alabama.
Capital can move freely; workers and communities suffer the consequences.
Meanwhile the huge growth of unregulated speculative capital imposes
powerful pressures against stimulative government policies.
There are many factors driving global society towards a low-wage,
low-growth, high-profit future, with increasing polarization and
social disintegration. Another consequence is the fading of meaningful
democratic processes as decision making is vested in private institutions
and the quasi-governmental structures that are coalescing around
them, what the Financial Times calls a "de facto world government"
that operates in secret and without accountability.
These developments have little to do with economic liberalism,
a concept of limited significance in a world in which a vast component
of "trade" consists of centrally-managed intra-firm
transactions (half of U.S. exports to Mexico pre-NAFTA, for example-
"exports" that never enter the Mexican market). Meanwhile
private power demands and receives protection from market forces,
as in the past.
"The Zapatistas really struck a chord with a large segment
of the Mexican populace," Mexican political scientist Eduardo
Gallardo commented shortly after the rebellion, predicting that
the effects would be wide-ranging, including steps toward breaking
down the long-standing electoral dictatorship. Polls in Mexico
backed that conclusion, reporting majority support for the reasons
given by the Zapatistas for their rebellion. A similar chord was
struck worldwide, including the rich industrial societies, where
many people recognized the concerns of the Zapatistas to be not
unlike their own, despite their very different circumstances.
Support was further stimulated by imaginative Zapatista initiatives
to reach out to wider sectors and to engage them in common or
parallel efforts to take control of their lives and fate. The
domestic and international solidarity was doubtless a major factor
in deterring the anticipated brutal military repression, and has
had a dramatic energizing effect on organizing and activism worldwide.
The protest of Indian peasants in Chiapas gives only a bare
glimpse of "time bombs" waiting to explode, not only