A group of Mexican legislative deputies announced on June 2 that they would call on the federal Governance Secretariat to guarantee the security of family members of Nestora Salgado, an imprisoned community activist from the largely indigenous town of Olinalá in the southwestern state of Guerrero. The announcement came one day after an attack on a bus that Salgado’s daughter Saira Salgado was riding from Olinalá to Mexico City for a scheduled meeting with legislators. Armed men stopped the bus shortly after it left Olinalá and without explanation executed a woman passenger. Saira Salgado said the victim was dressed the way she herself is usually dressed. After the murder, the men left without harming or robbing the other passengers. Deputy Roberto López, of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), charged that the attack was not an isolated incident.
Nestora Salgado is a naturalized US citizen from Olinalá who migrated to the US and settled in Washington state. In recent years she began visiting her hometown and became involved in community affairs there; eventually she was elected head of the community police force. Community police forces are legally recognized in Guerrero, and Salgado originally had good relations with the state government. But in August 2013 she ordered the arrest of a local official, Armando Patrón Jiménez, in connection with cattle rustling and the deaths of two ranchers. Five days later Salgado herself was arrested on charges of kidnapping and was removed to a federal women’s prison at Tepic in the western state of Nayarit. She has been held there ever since without access to a lawyer; her daughter’s meeting with legislators was intended to discuss their plan to have her transferred to a more accessible prison in Mexico City.
Mexican and US activists have organized a campaign for Salgado’s release, along with a petition drive. The US government had done nothing to help with Salgado’s case despite her status as a US citizen, Deputy Loretta Ortiz Ahlf, of the small leftist Labor Party (PT), said on June 2. (La Jornada (Mexico) 6/3/14; Desinformémonos (Mexico) 6/8/14)
Subcommader Marcos has spoken “his last words in public,” reads a statement from the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). According to the statement, the figure of Marcos is “no longer necessary,” reported Pulsar news agency.
Marcos announced he will no longer be the spokesperson for the EZLN and will change names to subcommander Galeano, in tribute to the indigenous leader killed on May 2 during an attack on the small farmer and farm worker organization Central Independiente de Obreros Agrícolas y Campesinos Histórica (Cioac).
The new Zapatista spokesperson is subcommander Moses, explained Marcos. He noted that “the baton of command is not passed on due to illness or death or by internal displacement, purging or cleansing, it is due to internal changes that took place and take place in the EZLN.”
Recalling the birth of the character “subcommander Marcos”, he said it was “a complex maneuver of distraction, a trick of terrible and wonderful magic, a malicious move of the native heart.”
“The character was created and now its creators, the Zapatistas, destroy it,” said Marcos.
“It is our belief that to rebel and fight that neither leaders, political bosses, messiahs or saviors are necessary. To fight it just takes a little sense of shame, a bit of dignity and a lot of organization,” concludes the Zapatista statement.
Mexico City, Mexico – Oil in Mexico is much more than a symbol of national pride. For the past 75 years it has been an enormous source of income for developing Mexico’s infrastructure and improving social welfare. When, on this day in 1938, President Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated U.S.- and U.K.-owned oil companies, he allowed Mexico to achieve relative independence and modest prosperity. The nationalization of oil saved Mexico from becoming a paralyzed, essentially colonized country like Guatemala, which has a major mining industry that is almost entirely foreign-owned.
Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), the state-owned company with exclusive access to Mexico’s oil, is one of the most lucrative companies in the world. In 2012 it declared profits of over 900 billion pesos (or $70 billion), earnings comparable to those of American oil and gas giants like ExxonMobil and Chevron. More importantly, PEMEX has historically distributed its profits among the Mexican population more equitably than any other industry in the country. Sixty percent of Mexico’s spending on social welfare comes from oil income. Among the things this income currently pays for are education, health care and programs to fight extreme poverty. Every Mexican citizen owns PEMEX, and the profits the company generates have made palpable differences in all of our lives.
Lucrative as it is, PEMEX could make and distribute much greater revenues if it were not so corrupt, inefficient and archaic. We have long known of grave problems with the oil industry and union, such as losses in refining and production. (Output has fallen 25 percent since 2004.) If PEMEX isn’t brought up to date in the next few years, there is a serious danger that the company will collapse. But instead of reforming the institution, the current government has exploited PEMEX’s deficiencies under the guise of reform to fiercely promote a very different agenda: the privatization of oil in Mexico.
Far from modernizing PEMEX, eliminating corruption or directing more income to Mexico’s citizens, the so-called energy reform passed by Congress and signed into law by President Enrique Peña Nieto in December will radically shift the distribution of oil profits from the public to a few private investors. The bill modified Mexico’s constitution to allow private oil companies to compete with PEMEX in every aspect of oil production. Underground oil reserves will still belong to Mexico, but since all profits derived from production will go to corporations, these reforms effectively constitute a privatization. Yet the president never admitted to this underlying agenda in the lead-up to the bill’s passage; his administration has altogether avoided using the word “privatization,” in favor of vague references to “modernization” and “the need for private investment.” This lack of honesty has generated tremendous confusion among the Mexican population, greatly debilitating potential opposition to the bill.
As Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) prepare a new set of bills that will implement the changes to oil laws, a multimillion-dollar publicity campaign of disinformation initiated last year by his administration still saturates the mass media, diverting the debate on “energy reform” by reducing it to obvious questions: Is reform necessary? Is PEMEX efficient? Do we need progress and modernization? As a result, we have skipped over the most pressing and fundamental questions: What should the nature of this reform be? How will profits be distributed? What measures are in place to fight the corruption that causes us to lose so much of our oil income? In order to modernize, do we have to abandon the idea that Mexican oil belongs to the people of Mexico?
The recent history of PEMEX is a story of deliberate sabotage. PEMEX managers have enabled politicians to keep a portion of the company’s profits for decades, laying the groundwork for privatization by making corruption seem like the natural result of a nationalized industry. But the underlying problem has always been and still is political corruption, not a lack of private investment. Consider Romero Deschamps, the leader of PEMEX’s union since 1989, who is accused of stealing an estimated 3 billion pesos’ worth of the union’s assets and of having illegally created secret “private” companies that undertake contract work for PEMEX. In spite of the abundant proof of his guilt, Deschamps is currently a senator for the ruling PRI. Peña Nieto claims that stamping out such criminality is one of the primary objectives of the current “reform,” but his policy for overhauling the industry doesn’t contain a single strategy aimed at fighting corruption.
The majority of the proposed structural changes to PEMEX aren’t even necessary for the task of modernizing Mexico’s oil industry. PEMEX already has access to cutting-edge technologies since private oil companies can operate in Mexico and have been doing so (for example, PEMEX is currently contracting the services of Halliburton and OHL). Whether or not PEMEX should contract private companies is irrelevant; what matters are the terms on which it partners with the private sector. The fact that the Peña Nieto administration is permitting profit-sharing contracts—which have historically been imposed on poor countries, with disastrous results—rather than limiting partnerships to licensing permits that would pave the way for increased efficiency without signing away the democratic ownership of resources, is another clear indicator of the underlying agendas behind the “energy reform.” As former PEMEX director general Adrián Lajous has argued, profit-sharing contracts render private companies unaccountable, leaving the state, its resources and its people vulnerable.
Peña Nieto presents his “reform” as the magic solution to PEMEX’s problems, as if the neoliberal dream of privatization without regulation were synonymous with social justice, economic well-being and democracy. But the facts paint a very different picture. Since neoliberal policies surged in the 1980s and former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari signed NAFTA into law in 1994, a weakened state, incapable of protecting the environment and the rights of its poorest people, has created the perfect conditions for political and corporate corruption. We live every day with the consequences of Carlos Slim’s acquisition of Telmex, the telecommunications company that Salinas privatized in 1990. Because there is little regulation, prices are high and service is poor, and Slim is now one of the richest men in the world. Another dark legacy of Salinas is his privatization of the banking sector and creation of Fobaproa, an agency intended to prevent banks from going bankrupt. After Mexico’s 1994 economic crisis, the institution of Fobaproa meant that the public paid off banks’ massive debts. High-ranking politicians and businessmen have pocketed extraordinary profits, while everyday people have borne greater economic burdens, with each move to privatize. The result is a spectacular growth in inequality. More than 53 million people in Mexico today—nearly half the country—live in poverty, and 11.5 million Mexicans live in extreme poverty. Meanwhile, the eleven richest men in the country have accumulated roughly 11 percent of the GDP.
We cannot undertake true energy reform in Mexico without first undertaking political reforms that would decisively and effectively tackle corruption. Sadly, because it does nothing to change political structures and curb corruption, the current legislative process is taking us further away from democratic values and constitutes a huge step in the wrong direction. Approved by politicians who never consulted voters, the bill passed in December opens the field for companies that are known the world over for their abusive practices and for co-opting politicians (ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, OHL) to operate in Mexico without regulation or restriction. In the words of the historian Lorenzo Meyer Cossío, we are opening the door to “mercenaries.” The Mexican government expects its citizens to place ownership of our hydrocarbons in private hands, without our agreement and in exchange for minimal revenue. But modernization does not require that we give up our resources. Improvement shouldn’t entail changing the basic principle that natural resources belong to us all.
The “energy reform” currently under way is a huge step toward greater inequality, environmental devastation and the loss of economic and political independence for Mexico. It is one example of the neoliberal fantasy of unregulated capitalism that has landed us in our present situation, in which the 85 richest people in the world hold the same amount of wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest. We are living through the greatest inequality in the history of humanity and unprecedented ecological destruction. To combat this urgent situation, we need to strengthen fragile regulatory structures by creating independent, democratically owned institutions. By instead dismantling the few supportive social structures left, Peña Nieto’s government is pushing Mexico to a dangerous place. Against a backdrop of extreme poverty and social injustice, the PRI’s “reforms” will, sooner or later, lead to revolt.
Translated by Georgia Phillips-Amos.
This piece was made possible, in part, by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
Professor Cyrus Bina relates the facts that (outside of Zionism) the colonial era ended decades ago and that the oil industry and markets have been globalized. The various theories that have been put forward from both the left and the right regarding war rationales that rely on demonisation of OPEC are essentially nothing more than outdated fear mongering. Cyrus Bina has been vindicated by more recent events which have shown that oil prices have been determined by Western financial markets rather than exporters.
The history of Middle Eastern oil, including its subsequent development into a modern industry, can be divided into three distinct stages: (1) the era of international cartels, 1901-1950; (2) the era of transition, 1950-1972; and (3) the era of globalization since the mid-1970s. A slightly different historical periodization can be provided for the U.S. domestic oil industry: (1) the era of classical cartelization and early oil trusts of 1870-1910; (2) the era of regulated neo-cartelization of 1911-1972; and (3) the era of globalization since the mid-1970s. A close examination of the entire 1870-1970 period would reveal that administrative pricing under the International Oil Cartel (known as Seven Sisters) were predominantly the rule in the oil business. The cartel, however, began to lose its grip during the 1950s and 1960s. Proliferating market forces, in con-junction with the development of capitalist social relations in the colonial and semi-colonial oil regions, had overcome the colonial concessions and worldwide administrative control of oil under the international oil cartel. The oil crisis of 1973-1974 was but the symptom of this transformation toward globalization. Moreover, the so-called “OPEC offensive”—which was misperceived by both the right and the left as the cause for re-control of oil market/prices —was but the catalyst of this de-cartelization and globalization of oil.
The war-for-oil scenario, as a popular myth, ignores the deeper understanding of the complex web of contradictions and regulating dynamics of today’s economy and polity. Yet, the very anachronism of this scenario is understandable in the view of the anachronistic U.S. behavior that is so dreadfully attempting to reverse the loss of American hegemony against the time and, more importantly, history. Therefore, parallel with the anachronistic reality of U.S. colonial conduct in Iraq, the anachronism of the “oil grab” becomes “reality” in the minds of those who chant “No Blood for Oil.” Yet, holding a parallel between the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the control of oil is a far fetched proposition, if not an outright illusion. For, since the mid 1970s, the material bases and dynamics of post-cartelization and globalization of oil render the physical access, prearranged inter-company allocation, and indeed administrative control and pricing of oil redundant. This rather counter intuitive reality also renders any connection between the war and oil—other than given disbursement to finance matters such as the establishment of a puppet government—superfluous.
Nevertheless, in an interview, James Schlesinger remarked: “The United States [Bush, 41st] has gone to war now, and the American people presume this will lead to a secure oil supply. As a society we have made a choice to secure access to oil by military means. The alternative is to become independent to a large degree of that secure access.” It is indeed surprising that a market worshipping Chicago School economist fails to see the formation of (spot) oil prices within interconnected and unified markets since the post-cartelization of oil in the 1970s. Schlesinger, on the one hand, stresses the phrase “secure access” and, on the other hand, underscores the alternative of “independence,” as if one can insulate the U.S. oil industry from the rest of transnational oil. This thesis provides a convenient cover for two separate strategic projects: justifying the war without exposing its real cause, and creating panic by playing the familiar scarcity card to extend the exploration of oil in the pristine U.S. regions of wildlife such as ANWAR. In this context this was also what the Bush administration and Cheney’s “Task Force on Energy” probably had in mind when they were referring to “secure oil.”
In a nutshell, the above thesis ignores (1) the mutuality of oil producers and oil consumer, the need of both sides in selling and purchasing in the competitive global oil market, (2) the interdependence of oil regions in the present interdependent world, (3) the formation of global prices based on the cost of highest cost (U.S.) producer, not the cost of individual oil regions, and (4) the formation of differential oil rents, given the existing differential (regional) costs, through competition. Here, the dramatized “oil dependency” is but an empty phrase in the view of the trans nationalization of oil since the 1970s.
On the opposite side, hardly anyone on the left fully recognized the implication of uncritical acceptance of the above tautological thesis. Thus, the left-wing liberals and the radical left adopted this theory and dressed it up in leftist garb before applying it to either the question of war or the problem of environment. Michael Klare is one of the remarkable defenders of this thesis on the left. He declares: “Two key concerns underlie the Administration’s [Bush, 43rd] thinking: First,the United States is becoming dangerously dependent on imported petroleum to meet its daily energy requirements, and second, Iraq possesses the world’s largest reserves of untapped petroleum after Saudi Arabia.” Klare, however, takes this thesis one step further to an improvised level of neo-Malthusian scarcity:
“Global demand for many key materials is growing at an unsustainable rate. As the human population grows, societies require more of everything (food, water, energy, timber, minerals, fibers, and so on) to satisfy the basic material requirements of their individual members…. Because the production and utilization of these products entails [sic.] the consumption of vast amount of energy, minerals, and other materials, the global requirement for many basic commodities has consistently exceeded the rate of population growth.”
This worn-out neo-Malthusian message has again been reiterated in Blood and Oil. Yet, Klare, who is perplexed by the gravity of U.S. involvement in Iraq is “compelled … to conclude that petroleum is unique among the world’s resources that it has more potential than any of the others to provoke major crises and conflicts in the years ahead.” Again for Klare (and for many on the left) the specificity of the cause-and-effect seems to have no bearing on this historically unique epochal conflict and his fascination with oil is so intensive that he fails to realize a need for a specific and independent analytical proof.
I contend that, at best, the war-for-oil scenario is a text with out a context. On a logical level, the oil scenario is a remarkable example of a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, misplacing the real cause of U.S. military intervention. Moreover, by neglecting the depth of the last two decades of global transformation, the protagonists on the left and the right both have adopted a very voluntaristic-functionalist view of the U.S. global role. The left tends to capitalize on a voluntaristic interpretation of the concept of hegemony and the functionalist pivot of U.S. military might. For Klare, though, the global conflict “is entirely the product of geology.” The right, on the other hand, tends to rely on the notion of a “unipolar” world and wishful arguments of the “bound to lead” variety, without adequate attention to the emerging new polarities associated with the loss of American hegemony and the forces of globalization.
Others on the left, who are obsessively fond of the war-for-oil scenario, argue that this war may not have been for oil in the interest of U.S. capitalism as a whole, but rather in the interest of “U.S. oil corporations.” Hence, they propose that the cost of war amounts to a huge subsidy by the entire society given to the oil industry. This is a fictitious argument derived from the blind assumption of “direct access” and physical control of oil, and absolute denial of the reality of global transformation of the oil industry in the early 1970s. It is also crude and arbitrary, given the reduction of the material interests of the entire (U.S.) capitalist class to the alleged interests of its tiny fraction. And, appealing to casual observation, such as watching news from the Iraqi oil fields and the arrival of oil service contractors for “rebuilding” Iraq, is not sufficient to turn away from serious analysis. The truth is that this adventurous undertaking is in the interest of neither.
Finally, attaching significance to the switching of the currency, from dollar to euro, by OPEC oil producers is unjustified. As Paul Krugman pointed out in a short note, any possible shift from the dollar to the euro on the part of OPEC will result in a “small change,” for the U.S. economy, much smaller than the switching made already by the “Russian Mafia.” However, many on the left are not losing any opportunity to grasp this straw.
In a historic move, Mexican congress members have voted to open the state-controlled energy sector to foreign investment for the first time in 75 years. On Thursday, President Enrique Peña Nieto applauded the legislation, which is poised to become the nation’s most significant economic reform since the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement.
“The energy reform marks a fundamental transformation that will allow us to increase our energy sovereignty and self-sufficiency in Mexico,” Peña Nieto wrote on Twitter Thursday morning. “It will also drive productivity, economic growth and job creation in Mexico.”
The legislation will alter several articles of Mexico’s Constitution, allowing private multinationals to develop the country’s oil and natural gas resources for the first time since 1938, when former President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized the energy industry with the creation of Pemex, or Petróleos Mexicanos.
Though Mexico still owns its natural resources, foreign companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp will be able to search, drill and open gasoline stations under contract with the Mexican state.
The end of the Pemex energy monopoly is expected to bring Mexico an additional $20 billion in foreign investment per year as multinationals race to tap vast deepwater oil reserves in the Gulf of Mexico. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the region is the largest unexplored oil patch outside the Arctic Circle.
Yet in a country where local oil production has long been a source of national pride and is often equated with sovereignty, the reform has been heavily contested by opposition leaders from the Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD), who have said the measure should go before a national referendum.
“We warn all private, national and, above all, transnational businesses and companies that want to come and invest in Mexico and petroleum, in order to expropriate Mexican petroleum, to think again,” said Jesus Zambrano, president of the PRD. “The most probable outcome is that within a year and a half, a recall referendum will reject this change.”
On Thursday, PRD members blocked the entrances to the lower house’s main voting hall to prevent discussion of the bill. Antonio Garcia, a PRD lawmaker, even stripped down to his underwear during to symbolize a nation stripped of its wealth.
Regardless, members from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the conservative National Action Party (PAN), met in an adjacent conference room where they passed the legislation with 353-134 vote. Peña Nieto is expected to sign the bill in February after it has been ratified by state legislatures.
Currently, Mexico is the 10th largest oil producer in the world and proponents of the reform say it could propel the nation into the top five by taking advantage of new extraction and deepwater exploration technologies that Pemex cannot afford.
After peaking in 2004, Mexico’s oil production has declined by 25 percent to 2.5 million barrels a day. During the same period, Pemex has more than doubled operational spending to $20 billion per year, gaining the company a reputation for inefficiency and corruption.
Still, Pemex revenues provide a third of Mexican government’s annual budget and the company’s 160,000 employees face an uncertain future as lawmakers finalize the reform details, which include the removal of all five representatives of Pemex’s worker’s union from the company board.
To put the PRI agenda in perspective, The Financial Times said “energy is the climax of a sweeping agenda of reforms, including telecoms, labor, tax and education, which Enrique Peña Nieto has championed in his first year as president.”
El Pais: México cambia su historia energética a contrarreloj – http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2013/12/12/actualidad/1386888542_011957.html
Bloomberg: Mexico Passes Oil Bill Seen Luring $20 Billion a Year – http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-12-12/mexico-lower-house-passes-oil-overhaul-to-break-state-monopoly.html
New York Times: Mexico’s Pride, Oil, May Be Opened to Outsiders – http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/13/world/americas/mexico-oil.html?hpw&rref=business
Financial Times: Mexico courts foreign investment with energy reform – http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/e2242e2c-632e-11e3-886f-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2nIk7FhZe
Wall Street Journal: Mexico Congress Passes Historic Energy Bill – http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303932504579254013051981266
Reuters: Mexican Congress passes radical shake-up of oil industry – http://ca.reuters.com/article/businessNews/idCABRE9BB16820131212
Twenty years since its passage, NAFTA has displaced workers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, depressed wages, weakened unions, and set the terms of the neoliberal global economy.
Foreign Policy In Focus is partnering with Mexico’s La Jornada del campo magazine, where an earlier version of this commentary appeared, to publish a series of pieces examining the impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) 20 years since its implementation. This is the first in the series.
The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, was the door through which American workers were shoved into the neoliberal global labor market.
By establishing the principle that U.S. corporations could relocate production elsewhere and sell their products back into the United States, NAFTA undercut the bargaining power of American workers, which had driven the expansion of the middle class since the end of World War II. The result has been 20 years of stagnant wages and the upward redistribution of income, wealth, and political power.
A Template for Neoliberal Globalization
NAFTA impacted U.S. workers in four principal ways.
First, it caused the loss of some 700,000 jobs as companies moved their production to Mexico, where labor was cheaper. Most of these losses came in California, Texas, Michigan, and other states where manufacturing is concentrated (and where many immigrants from Mexico go). To be sure, there were some job gains along the border in the service and retail sectors resulting from increased trucking activity. But these gains are small in relation to the losses, and have generally come in lower paying occupations. The vast majority of workers who lost jobs from NAFTA, therefore, suffered a permanent loss of income.
Second, NAFTA strengthened the ability of U.S. employers to force workers to accept lower wages and benefits. As soon as NAFTA became law, corporate managers began telling their workers that their companies intended to move to Mexico unless the workers lowered the cost of their labor. In the midst of collective bargaining negotiations with unions, some companies even started loading machinery into trucks that they said were bound for Mexico. The same threats were used to fight union organizing efforts. The message was: “If you vote to form a union, we will move south of the border.” With NAFTA, corporations also could more easily blackmail local governments into giving them tax breaks and other subsidies, which of course ultimately meant higher taxes on employees and other taxpayers.
Third, NAFTA drove several million Mexican workers and their families out of the agriculture and small business sectors, which could not compete with the flood of products—often subsidized—from U.S. producers. This dislocation was a major cause of the dramatic increase of undocumented workers in the United States, putting further downward pressure on North American wages, particularly in already lower-paying labor markets.
Fourth, and ultimately most importantly, NAFTA created a template for the rules of the emerging global economy, in which the benefits would flow to capital and the costs to labor. Among other things, NAFTA granted corporations extraordinary protections against national labor laws that might threaten profits, set up special courts—chosen from rosters of pro-business experts—to judge corporate suits against governments, and at the same time effectively denied legal status to workers and unions to defend themselves in these new cross-border jurisdictions.
The U.S. governing class—in alliance with the financial elites of its trading partners—applied the NAFTA principles to the World Trade Organization, to the policies of the World Bank and IMF, and to the deal under which employers of China’s huge supply of low-wage workers were allowed access to U.S. markets in exchange for allowing American multinational corporations to invest there. The NAFTA doctrine of socialism for capital and free markets for labor also drove U.S. policy in the Mexican peso crisis of 1994-95, the Asian financial crash of 1997, and the global financial meltdown of 2008. In each case, the U.S. government organized the rescue of banks and corporate investors while letting the workers fend for themselves.
A Watershed in U.S. Politics
In U.S. politics, the passage of NAFTA under President Bill Clinton signaled that the elites of the Democratic Party—the “progressive” major party—had accepted the reactionary economic ideology of Ronald Reagan.
A “North American Accord” was first proposed by the Republican Reagan in 1979, a year before he was elected president. A decade later, his Republican successor, George H.W. Bush, negotiated the final agreement with Mexico and Canada.
At the time, the Democrats who controlled Congress would not approve the agreement. And when Democrat Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, it was widely assumed that the political pendulum would swing back from the right, and that therefore NAFTA would never pass. But Clinton surrounded himself with economic advisers from Wall Street and in his first year pushed the approval of NAFTA through the Congress.
Despite the rhetoric, the central goal of NAFTA was not “expanding trade.” After all, the United States, Mexico, and Canada had been trading goods and services with each other for three centuries. NAFTA’s central purpose was to free American corporations from U.S. laws protecting workers and the environment. Moreover, it paved the way for the rest of the neoliberal agenda in the United States: the privatization of public services, the deregulation of finance, and the destruction of the independent trade union movement.
The inevitable result was to undercut the living standards of workers all across North America: Wages and benefits have fallen behind worker productivity in all three countries. Moreover, despite declining wages in the United States, the gap between the typical American and typical Mexican worker in manufacturing remains the same. Even after adjusting for differences in living costs, Mexican workers continue to make about 30 percent of the wages that workers make in the United States. Thus, NAFTA is both symbol and substance of the global “race to the bottom.”
Creating a New Template
Here in North America there are two alternative political strategies for change.
One is repeal: NAFTA gives each nation the right to opt out of the agreement. The problem is that by now the three countries’ economies and populations have become so integrated that dis-integration could cause widespread dislocation, unemployment, and a substantial drop in living standards.
The other option is to build a cross-border political movement to rewrite NAFTA in a way that gives ordinary citizens rights and labor protections at least equal to the current privileges of corporate investors. For example, all three NAFTA nations should adopt similar high standards for the protection of free trade unions, collective bargaining, and health and safety—and their citizens should have the right to sue other countries for violations.
This would obviously not be easy. But a foundation has already been laid by the growing collaboration among immigrant, trade unionist, human rights, and other activist organizations in all three counties.
If such a movement could succeed in drawing up a new continent-wide social contract, North American economic integration—instead of being a blueprint for worker exploitation—might just become a model for bringing social justice to the global economy.
Jeff Faux is the founder, and now Distinguished Fellow, of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington DC. His latest book is The Servant Economy.
As of Dec. 8 the Mexican Senate was set to begin debates on President Enrique Peña Nieto’s plan for opening up the state-owned oil and electric companies, Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) and the Federal Energy Commission (CFE), to greater participation by foreign and Mexican private companies. Supporters say the “energy reform” will bring needed capital investment and technical expertise to the energy sector, while opponents consider it a disguised plan for privatization, especially of oil production, which President Lázaro Cárdenas del Río (1934-1940) nationalized in 1938.
The legislative proposal–worked out by the governing centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the center-right National Action Party (PAN), which together hold a majority in the Congress—includes changes to Articles 27 and 28 of the Constitution. Article 27 asserts state control over oil, gas and coal and bans the granting of concessions; the proposal would add a qualification that private companies could share in profits, could be paid in cash or barrels of oil and could count their share of oil reserves as assets. Article 28 would no longer define the refining of oil and the generation of electricity as strategic activities. According to opponents, the changes to Article 27 would create de facto concessions and the changes to Article 28 would allow private companies to compete with Pemex and the CFE. Opposition in the Senate is being led by Sen. Alejandro Encinas of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and Sen. Manuel Bartlett of the small leftist Labor Party (PT). (La Jornada (Mexico) 12/8/13)
Since the beginning of December protesters have organized daily picket lines outside the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies to express their opposition to the “reform.” The National Regeneration Movement (Morena), a new center-left party which broke away from the PRD in 2012, is sponsoring the street protests, with support from PRD and PT activists and grassroots groups. The movement suffered a setback in the early morning of Dec. 3 when Morena founder Andrés Manuel López Obrador (“AMLO”) was hospitalized with a heart attack and underwent surgery. A two-time presidential candidate and the head of government of the Federal District (DF, Mexico City) from 2000 to 2005, López Obrador was released from the hospital on Dec. 7; his doctors said the patient’s progress was satisfactory but told him to rest at home for four weeks. His son, Andrés Manuel López Beltrán, and Morena president Martí Batres are now leading the protests. (LJ 12/8/13, 12/8/13)
The Congress has nearly completed approval of another set of sweeping constitutional changes. On Dec. 3 the Senate passed a measure that would allow reelection of federal legislators for up to 12 years; currently they cannot stand for reelection after one term–six years for senators and three years for legislative deputies. Presidents would still be limited to one six-year term. The changes would also allow independent candidates to run; now candidates need to be nominated by registered political parties. The measure passed the Chamber of Deputies on Dec. 5 with support from the PRI, the PAN and part of the PRD, but the legislation was returned to the Senate to iron out differences between the versions from the two chambers. The PAN has insisted on the electoral changes as a condition for its support of Peña Nieto’s energy program. (Miami Herald 12/4/13 from AP; LJ 12/6/13)
The revelations leaked by Edward Snowden that the NSA committed acts of espionage against top Mexican officials and the president himself have so far provoked only mild indignation from the Mexican political class. Secretary of Foreign Affairs José Antonio Meade appeared to be reassured by President Obama’s ‘word’ that he would launch an investigation into the workings of the U.S. government. Notwithstanding the incongruity that any government investigating its own internal wrongdoing would have any interest in publicizing conclusive evidence of its own criminal activity, President Peña Nieto has been reluctant to push the Obama administration further on the issue, presumably for fear of undermining Mexico’s position as a staunch U.S. economic and political ally.
Ex-president Vicente Fox, meanwhile, enthusiastically endorsed U.S. spying on Mexican politicians, claiming he knew the U.S. spied on him while he was president. Indeed, Fox took comfort in the fact that the world’s superpower monitored his every move and his phone calls, evoking the ominous adage reminiscent of all authoritarian political institutions: one has nothing to be concerned about so long as one has nothing to hide and done nothing wrong. “Everyone will do better if they think they’re being spied on,” he noted, at once reinforcing the dubious entitlement of the U.S. government to act as the world’s police force while simultaneously apologizing for the illegal activities of the NSA. Mr. Fox seems unable to comprehend the basic moral and legal truism that merely because many are involved in committing criminal activities, the moral and legal implications do not simply vanish into thin air. A reasonable observer might instead conclude that the greater the number of international government institutions that are involved in criminal activity, the more serious the problem, not the reverse. “It’s nothing new that there’s espionage in every government in the world, including Mexico’s,” Fox observed. Flummoxed as to why Snowden’s revelations have provoked outrage among the Mexican populace and investigative journalists (if not in government itself), he declared, “I don’t understand the scandal.”
One document obtained by the National Security Archive at George Washington University details Janet Napolitano’s (then Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) official meeting with President Peña Nieto in July 2013. According to Napolitano’s briefing, avoiding discussion of NSA spying on the upper echelons appears to be a Mexican, not solely U.S., initiative. The Mexicans, the document claims, wanted to ‘put to bed’ the issue of NSA intrusions. Indeed, nowhere in the summary of their meeting does the issue arise. Instead, discussions focus on maintaining and increasing border security in order to protect commercial interests and on reducing the number of undocumented migrants entering the United States.
The listless and at times surreal reaction to NSA surveillance by Mexico’s political class demonstrates their level of craven subordination to their U.S. counterparts. One can only begin to imagine the response of the U.S. political class and media pundits were they to discover that Mexican intelligence had repeatedly intercepted the electronic communications and tapped the phones of the Commander in Chief himself.
The Mexican reaction to NSA snooping on the inner circle of government stands in stark contrast to that of Brazil’s. Snowden’s leaks provoked fury within the government of President Dilma Rousseff. She blasted the NSA tapping of her phone and interception of government communications in a fiery speech clearly aimed at President Obama at the UN General Assembly. She lambasted the NSA for spying on millions of Brazilian citizens, tapping the phones of Brazilian embassies, and spying on the country’s partly state-owned petroleum giant, Petrobras. Interestingly, she remarked that the bulk of NSA spying in Brazil was not designed to thwart potential terrorists or to undermine the activities of transnational criminal organizations, but instead, to further U.S. business interests through both international economic and commercial spying. As a result, Rousseff cancelled her planned diplomatic visit to Washington, called for an international conference on data security, began setting up a protected governmental electronic communications system, and proposed changing underwater cables so that international Brazilian internet traffic would no longer pass through U.S. territory.
Brazil’s position, of course, is a reflection of the changing nature of U.S.-Latin American relations more generally. Brazil, the emerging regional power and now less of a fixture of Uncle Sam’s backyard, can afford to take an increasingly independent stance from Washington. Several countries in the region are integrating with each other politically and economically and establishing firm trade links with China, India, and South Africa—an unprecedented dynamic which has had the effect of undermining U.S. hegemony in the region.
Mexico, however, dependent on the U.S. market for 80% of its exports, is much less able to stand up to the superpower. Indeed, Mexico’s traditional position as a subordinate and reliable ally of its northern neighbor is becoming all the more crucial in maintaining the waning U.S. empire, increasingly defensive and militaristic as it reasserts its influence over the region. With a myriad of uncertainties lying ahead for U.S. power in a region that has witnessed the birth of new left-wing social movements that have had considerable success at the ballot box, it is becoming imperative for the United States to uphold and preserve its political, economic, and military alliances as per Mexico and Colombia. In Mexico, U.S. funding for the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ has provided a convenient pretext for heavy militarization throughout the country and a clamping down on political dissent and organized popular movements. Spying and surveillance programs are key to achieving the U.S. objective of continuing and reinforcing a status quo that now sees well over half the population in Mexico living in poverty and unparalleled levels of economic inequality.
As in Brazil, U.S. spying in Mexico seems less to do with the ‘War on Terror’ and the ‘War on Drugs’—two key rhetorical tenets of U.S. interventionism—and more to do with the realpolitik of ensuring that a pliant and subservient political class, personified by Fox, Calderón, and Peña Nieto, guard the current transnational dynamics—a socio-economic system that rewards the powerful moneyed neoliberal elites on both sides of the border and keeps the poor and marginalized in their place.
There is a further aspect to the Mexican response to NSA spying which warrants scrutiny. Throughout the Cold War, the CIA and its Mexican counterpart, the DFS, shared all manner of material and intelligence on dissidents (Marxists, communists, students, guerrillas, trade unionists, peasant activists, feminists, etc.) who were often incarcerated or liquidated because, as the authoritarian and paternalistic President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz claimed, they were a threat to ‘national security.’
The current partnership between the U.S. and Mexican governments allows for a level of surveillance of which Mexico’s Cold Warriors could only dream. In collaboration with telecommunications giants, the U.S. and Mexican governments provide the wherewithal and funding for large-scale spying on the Mexican citizenry. Indeed, Mexico’s Federal Ministerial Police (PFM) has recently designed a system of total surveillance and increased storage of electronic communications. In a climate in which there exist widening socio-economic disparities, a grave security crisis, and a growing disillusionment with the status quo, both the U.S. and Mexican governments have a shared interest in forestalling the development of a widespread popular political revolt and a potential ‘Mexican Spring.’ Were there any mystery as to why the Mexican response to Snowden’s revelations was so moderate, one would only need to recall Vicente Fox’s unintentionally shrewd observation that all governments have an interest in spying on one another and on their own citizens. The lackluster reaction from Los Pinos to the NSA revelations is reflective of the extent to which Mexican elite politicians acquiesce in the intrusions, largely because they themselves use domestic spying to further their own sectional interests in a country in which, little more than a decade after the ‘transition to democracy,’ the majority of the population are excluded from meaningful political participation.
Peter Watt teaches Latin American Studies at the University of Sheffield. He is co-author of the book, Drug War Mexico. Politics, Violence and Neoliberalism in the New Narcoeconomy (Zed Books 2012).
The torture death of US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique (“Kiki”) Camarena near Guadalajara in the western Mexican state of Jalisco in February 1985 was linked to drug running by the US-backed “contra” rebels seeking to overthrow the leftist government of Nicaragua, according to two former DEA agents and a former pilot for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Camarena was kidnapped by criminals working for Rafael Caro Quintero, a founder of the so-called Guadalajara Cartel, and was executed at one of Caro Quintero’s ranches. According to the US, the cartel targeted Camarena because he had uncovered Caro Quintero’s marijuana growing and processing operation. Under pressure from the US, the Mexican government eventually captured Caro Quintero and sentenced him to 60 years in prison for Camarena’s murder.
The new allegations appeared on an Oct. 10 broadcast by the rightwing US-based Fox television network and in an Oct. 12 article published by the left-leaning Mexican weekly Proceso. Both reports were based on interviews with Phil Jordan, an ex-director of the DEA’s El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC); former DEA agent Héctor Berrellez, who said he directed the investigation of Camarena’s death; and Tosh Plumlee, who worked as a pilot for SETCO, a CIA-linked airline that flew military supplies to the contras. It isn’t clear why Fox chose to air the allegations now, but attention on the Camarena murder increased after a Mexican judge released Caro Quintero from prison on a technicality on Aug. 9 of this year.
According to the Fox and Proceso reports, CIA operatives had infiltrated Mexico’s now-defunct Federal Security Directorate (DFS), many of whose agents provided protection for Caro Quintero’s criminal activities in the 1980s, including the Camarena kidnapping and murder. CIA infiltrators were present when the DEA agent was killed, the reports allege. “I was told by Mexican authorities… that CIA operatives were in there,” Jordan said to Fox News. “Actually conducting the interrogation. Actually taping Kiki.” Ex-DEA agent Berrellez gave Proceso the name of at least one CIA operative he claimed was involved. “Two witnesses identified Félix Ismael Rodríguez,” he said.
The Cuban-born Rodríguez was a long-time US agent who was active in the Bay of Pigs invasion, in the Vietnam war and in the October 1967 execution of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara in Bolivia. In the middle 1980s Rodríguez was in El Salvador working with another Cuban-born agent, Luis Posada Carriles, supplying contra operations [see Update #1185]. According to the Proceso report, Rodríguez introduced the Honduran drug trafficker Juan Matta Ballesteros to the Guadalajara cartel. Matta allegedly used his Colombian connections to supply cocaine to the cartel, with the complicity of the CIA, which received part of the money and used it to supply arms and other military equipment to the contras. The reason for Camarena’s murder, according to Proceso, was that Camarena had “discovered that his own government was collaborating with Mexican narco trafficking in its illicit business.”
The CIA denies the accusations. “[I]t’s ridiculous to suggest that the CIA had anything to do with the murder of a US federal agent or the escape of his killer,” a CIA spokesperson told Fox News on Oct. 10.
A number of sources reported in the 1980s and early 1990s that the contras were funded in part through drug sales with the help or complicity of the CIA. In 1998 CIA Inspector General Fred Hitz told Congress that the CIA “worked with a variety of … assets [and] pilots who ferried supplies to the contras, who were alleged to have engaged in drug trafficking activity.” The “CIA had an operational interest” in the contras and “did nothing to stop” the drug trafficking, Hitz said. Mainstream US media generally avoided the subject. In 1996 the Mercury News of San Jose, California, ran a series linking the contras to the sale of crack in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s, but the paper later repudiated the articles. The reporter, Gary Webb, lost his job at the Mercury News and was never employed by a major newspaper again. He died in December 2004, an apparent suicide [see Update #777]. (Fox News 10/10/13; Proceso 10/12/13; El País (Madrid) 10/15/13)
- NarcoNews: Assassinated DEA Agent Kiki Camarena Fell in a CIA Operation Gone Awry (blacklistednews.com)
The latest analysis of Snowden leaks from the German magazine Der Spiegel is a bombshell for Mexico.
“The NSA has been systematically eavesdropping on the Mexican government for years,” reads the opening line in the Oct. 20 issue.
The article goes on to detail three major programs that together constitute a massive espionage operation against Mexico. No one seems to have been immune from its intrusions, including two presidents.
The presidential computer network was infiltrated since 2010 when Felipe Calderon was still president. The ever-zealous National Security Agency (NSA) was apparently very proud of itself for hacking the private communications of the leader and cabinet members of an allied nation.
In a “top secret” report, its “Tailored Access Operations” division (TAO) crows:
“TAO successfully exploited a key mail server in the Mexican Presidencia domain within the Mexican Presidential network to gain first-ever access to President Felipe Calderon’s public email account”, calling it a “lucrative source” to gauge Mexican “political system and internal stability”. The leaked operation was code named “Flatliquid”.
Mexicans first found out that their nation, along with Brazil and other Latin American countries, was a major target back in September, when Brazil’s O Globo published an article by Glenn Greenwald, Roberto Kaz and Jose Casado on tapping Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s phone and other communications. The article noted that the NSA had Mexico in its sights too.
A specially designed NSA program spied on then-presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto to find out who he was planning to appoint to his cabinet and how he’d handle the volatile drug war—the cornerstone of US policy in Mexico.
That caused a stir and the Peña Nieto administration sent a diplomatic note and demanded a U.S. investigation.
Sunday’s revelations add details to the previous information and show a far vaster and more insidious operation than was first imagined. Text messages from Peña Nieto’s cell phone—85,489 to be exact, according to the Der Speigel-Snowden report– were harvested and organized into data bases, identifying nine close associates for surveillance and analysis.
A third program called “White Tamale” dates back to 2009, when the NSA managed to hack into the emails of high-level officials in the now-defunct Public Security Ministry.
“In the space of a single year, according to the internal documents, this operation produced 260 classified reports that allowed US politicians to conduct successful talks on political issues and to plan international investments.”
The documents note that the spy operation allowed the NSA to gain access to “diplomatic talking points”.
What does this mean? Wouldn’t using ill-begotten private communications in negotiations be something akin to blackmail?
In any case, it seems to have fulfilled its purpose because during the subsequent period U.S. intelligence, military, police and drug enforcement agencies achieved an unprecedented margin to operate in-country, effectively breaking down any remaining resistance to their activities on Mexican soil.
The Der Speigel article states that in spy operations in Mexico, “the drug trade” was given top priority level, while the country’s “political leadership”, “economic stability” and “international investment relations” received number-three priority rankings on a scale of five.
This latter category gives credence to charges from Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff that the NSA used its apparatus for industrial spying, seeking advantages. Her charges are borne out by documents that show that Brazilian oil company, PETROBRAS, was a target of U.S. espionage. The Mexico revelations were more general but also indicate economic espionage.
The NSA, as reflected in its own documents, seems to have no sense of boundaries—it qualifies its invasions as unqualified “successes”. Der Spiegel quotes another document that reads,
“These TAO accesses into several Mexican government agencies are just the beginning — we intend to go much further against this important target.”
It goes on to state that the divisions responsible for this surveillance are “poised for future successes.”
Mexico’s Muted Response
The response from NSA to questions was predictable,
“We are not going to comment publicly on every specific alleged intelligence activity, and as a matter of policy we have made clear that the United States gathers foreign intelligence of the type gathered by all nations.”
So far, no enterprising journalists have asked the Mexican government if it has 85 thousand text messages off of Obama’s phone.
Since September the Mexican government has known it was massively spied on by the United States. After the revelations regarding Peña Nieto’s communications and contacts with US diplomats, Mexico says President Obama agreed to carry out an investigation.
But what exactly does the Mexican government expect of this investigation? No one has questioned the authenticity of the documents. Everyone knows Snowden has them, otherwise why would the U.S. be trying to force his extradition and threatening countries offering asylum. And it seems that asking the U.S. government to investigate NSA be an exercise in futility, especially since the Der Speigel article states explicitly that the programs had presidential authorization.
Not surprisingly, Mexico’s response was widely considered weak.
So far, the response to this latest round of revelations hasn’t shown much more backbone. The foreign relations ministry called the practice “unacceptable, illegitimate and against the law”—and said it would be sending another diplomatic note.
“In a relationship between neighbors and partners, there is no room for the practices alleged to have taken place,” the ministry said.
When Der Speigel asked for a comment from Felipe Calderon, Harvard University, apparently the spokesperson for the beleaguered ex-president since it took him under its ivied wings as a Global Leaders Fellow at the Kennedy School, said it would give him the message.
A senior U.S. State Department official told CNN that the Mexican government reached out about the report, and that the two governments will be discussing it via diplomatic channels.
Peña Nieto has to react now. Brazil is taking specific steps to protect privacy from the long ear of the NSA. Rousseff has been outspoken in its indignation, taking it to the floor of the United Nations General Assembly and cancelling a state visit to Washington.
Mexico’s economic dependence on the United States under NAFTA puts the Peña administration in a tougher bind. Big business will put pressure on Peña to let it slide. The PRI is likely to be seriously annoyed, but it also knows an important part of its power base rests on its relationship with the U.S. government and economic elite, almost a tautology, as shown again in the fact that taxpayer-supported NSA spying was directed at industrial spying to give U.S. companies an edge in bidding, investing and competing.
Whatever the response, the revelations are a blow to a somewhat shaky relationship. Peña Nieto has made it clear it will not allow the same carte-blanche treatment U.S. agencies were given under former president Calderon, but he has also continued security integration and U.S. expansion under the guise of the war on drugs.
Calling into question the terms of the bi-national security relationship should not necessarily be viewed negatively. Demands for a more transparent and less military-oriented relationship between the U.S. and Mexico have been growing. The NSA documents reveal a global security doctrine that has spun dangerously out of control, with what Greenwald calls “the construction of a worldwide, ubiquitous electronic surveillance apparatus” that apparently has no qualms regarding the right to privacy or national sovereignty. Neither the Mexican nor the U.S. Congress has sufficient knowledge of what’s going on to provide reasonable oversight, and the Mexican government apparently has little knowledge of the realm of shadowy U.S. intelligence activity in its own country.
When you add in the private contractors hired under the $2 billion-dollar Merida aid package, it makes for a vast and murky world of post-Cold War conniving.
That can’t be good for diplomacy, or democracy.
Laura Carlsen is director of the Mexico City-based CIP Americas Program.
US electronic surveillance in Mexico reportedly targeted top officials, including both current and previous presidents. Intelligence produced by the NSA helped Americans get an upper hand in diplomatic talks and find good investment opportunities.
The US National Security Agency was apparently very happy with its successes in America’s southern neighbor, according to classified documents leaked by Edwards Snowden and analyzed by the German magazine, Der Spiegel. It reports on new details of the spying on the Mexican government, which dates back at least several years.
The fact that Mexican President Peña Nieto is of interest to the NSA was revealed earlier by Brazilian TV Globo, which also had access to the documents provided by Snowden. Spiegel says his predecessor Felipe Calderon was a target too, and the Americans hacked into his public email back in May 2010.
The access to Calderon electronic exchanges gave the US spies “diplomatic, economic and leadership communications which continue to provide insight into Mexico’s political system and internal stability,” the magazine cites an NSA top secret internal report as saying. The operation to hack into the presidential email account was dubbed “Flatliquid” by the American e-spooks.
The bitter irony of the situation is that Calderon during his term in office worked more closely with Washington than any other Mexican president before him. In 2007 he even authorized the creation of a secret facility for electronic surveillance, according to a July publication in the Mexican newspaper, Excelsior.
The surveillance on President Nieto started when he was campaigning for office in the early summer of 2012, the report goes on. The NSA targeted his phone and the phones of nine of his close associates to build a map of their regular contacts. From then it closely monitored those individuals’ phones as well, intercepting 85,489 text messages, including those sent by Nieto.
After the Globo TV report, which mentioned spying on Mexico only in passing, Nieto stated that US President Barack Obama had promised him that he would investigate the accusations and punish those responsible of any misconduct. The reaction was far milder than that from Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff, another target of NSA’s intensive interest, who has since canceled a planned trip to the US and delivered a withering speech at the UN General Assembly, which condemned American electronic surveillance.
Another NSA operation in Mexico dubbed “Whitetamale” allowed the agency to gain access to emails of high-ranking officials in country’s Public Security Secretariat, a law enforcement body that combats drug cartels and human trafficking rings. The hacking, which happened in August 2009, gave the US information about Mexican crime fighting, but also provided access to “diplomatic talking-points,” an internal NSA document says.
In a single year, this operation produced 260 classified reports that facilitated talks on political issues and helped the Americans plan international investments.
“These TAO [Tailored Access Operations – an NSA division that handles missions like hacking presidential emails] accesses into several Mexican government agencies are just the beginning – we intend to go much further against this important target,” the document reads. It praises the operation as a “tremendous success” and states that the divisions responsible for this surveillance are “poised for future successes.”
Economic espionage is a motive for NSA spying, which the agency vocally denied, but which appears in the previous leaks. The agency had spied on the Brazilian oil giant, Petrobras, according to earlier revelations. This combined with reports that the NSA hacked into the email of Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff, triggered a serious deterioration of relations between the two countries.
While the NSA declined comment to the German magazine, the Mexican Foreign Ministry replied with an email, which condemned any form of espionage on Mexican citizens. The NSA presumably could read that email at the same time as the journalists, Der Spiegel joked.
From Mexico to Qatar, obesity rates are soaring to unprecedented levels. The alarming trend is damaging economic performance, as well as the health of millions of consumers worldwide.
Take our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, mix in a generous portion of American fast-food and dubious agricultural practices, add a dash of corporate duplicity and you have a recipe for high obesity rates across the planet.
The newly released United Nations report on global nutrition does not make for very appetizing reading: Amid an already floundering global economy, the reality of a fattening planet is dragging down world productivity rates while increasing health insurance costs to the tune of $3.5 trillion dollars per year – or 5 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP).
31.8 percent of US adults are now considered clinically obese. This is a remarkable figure, especially considering that it is approximately double the US obesity rate registered in 1995, according to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
An individual is considered obese when their body mass index (BMI), a measurement obtained by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by the square of the person’s height in meters, exceeds 30 kg/m2, according to the World Health Organization.
Meanwhile, much of the international community is quickly catching up with the global consumption superpower. Mexico, for example, just surpassed US obesity rates with a whopping 32.8 percent of Mexican adults now considered to be clinically obese.
The unprecedented weight gains in Mexico, however, as well as many other countries, appear to be no accident.
Following the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico became the dumping ground for a slew of cheap fast food and carbonated drinks, according to a Foreign Policy report.
Thanks to NAFTA, there was a more than 1,200 percent increase in high-fructose corn syrup exports from the US to Mexico between 1996 and 2012, according to the US Agriculture Department. In an effort to place a cap on the high-calorie drinks, Mexican officials introduced a tax on beverages containing high-fructose corn syrup. American corn refiners, however, cried foul and the tax was voted down by the World Trade Organization.
Mexicans now consume 43 gallons of soda per capita annually, giving the country the world’s highest rate of soda consumption, according to estimates by Mexico’s national statistics agency.
Yet another disturbing casualty on the obesity trail is tiny Qatar, an oil-rich Arab nation of 250,000 people that is also rich in fast food diets.
“Like most people in the Arab Gulf, (Qataris) were traditionally desert-dwelling and therefore much more physically active,” according to a 2012 report by Policymic.com. “Now, cars have replaced camels and fast food and home deliveries take the place of home cooking. Even housework and child rearing is left to maids and nannies.”
Today, some 45 percent of Qatari adults are obese and up to 40 percent of school children are obese as well.
Last month, nutrition experts from around the world shared their views at an obesity and nutrition conference in Sydney. For many of the attendees, the primary culprit in the global obesity scourge is out-of-control corporate power, where the free market decides everything.
The rise of global fast food outlets has been a key change in our environment leading to fattier foods and fatter people, Bruce Neal, professor at the George Institute for Global Health in Sydney, told the Indo-Asian News Service.
“As fast as we get rid of all our traditional vectors of disease – infections, little microbes, bugs – we are replacing them with the new vectors of disease, which are massive transnational, national, multinational corporations selling vast amounts of salt, fat and sugar,” Neal said.
John Norris, writing in Foreign Policy, explained some of the global dynamics that contributed to the so-called “globesity” epidemic, including the soft drink industry’s move to use cheaper high-fructose corn syrup instead of sugar in many of their products.
“Suddenly, it was cheaper to put high-fructose corn syrup in everything from spaghetti sauce to soda. Coke and Pepsi swapped out sugar for high-fructose corn syrup in 1984, and most other US soda and snack companies followed suit,” Norris wrote. “US per capita consumption of high-fructose corn syrup spiked from less than half a pound a year in 1970 to a peak of almost 38 pounds a year in 1999.”
While some might be tempted to downplay the negative effects of such a harmless sounding additive, researchers from Canada’s University of Guelph, as pointed out by Norris, discovered that a high-fructose corn syrup diet in rats produced “addictive behavior similar to that from cocaine use.”
As obesity explodes, US fast food companies look abroad.
Americans, thanks in part to First Lady Michele Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ program, have recently woken up to the unsustainability of their soda guzzling, fast food ways. Other politicians and activists have also weighed in on the debate, making the environment for the fast food industry not as comfortable as in the past.
In March, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg attracted the ire of the soft drink industry when he placed a ban on the sale of sodas in sizes larger than 16 ounces. Violators will be fined $200.
In his 2004 a documentary film, “Super Size Me,” Morgan Spurlock stunned audiences by tracking the physical effects on his body – none of them positive – after consuming nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days. As a result of the experiment, Spurlock gained 24½ lbs. (11.1 kg), a 13 percent body mass increase, and a cholesterol level of 230, among other negative side-effects.
Perhaps the biggest wake-up call for the fast food industry came in 2002 when two teenagers accused McDonald’s of deceptively marketing its menu from 1985 to 2002, causing them, they alleged, to become obese. The judge dismissed the case in 2010, but the message to the industry was crystal clear.
As a result of these and other public awareness campaigns, the American fast food industry – although slower than some may like – has been gradually rewriting their menus and marketing campaigns, many of which are aimed at kids.
At the same time, the junk food industry – sensing the sea change of attitudes in the United States as the physical effects of junk food manifests itself – are investing increasingly in foreign markets where public awareness of the subject is not so developed.
Similar to the crackdown on the tobacco industry in the late 1990s, US fast food companies are busy setting up shop abroad for easy, unregulated markets to hawk their wares.
Already the size of their presence is breathtaking: “Coca-Cola and PepsiCo together control almost 40 percent of the world’s $532 billion soft drink market, according to the Economist. Soda sales, meanwhile, have more than doubled in the last 10 years, with much of that growth driven by developing markets. McDonald’s investors were disappointed that the company only turned $1.4 billion in profit during the second quarter of 2013, having become used to years of double-digit gains every three months,” according to the Foreign Policy report.
So while the United States is steadily finding ways to regulate its fast food, soft drink industry, and thus nip the obesity epidemic in the bud, it is, at the same time, legislating on behalf of unhealthy exports abroad.
Now the question is, will the rest of the world bite the hand that feeds?