Author: Timothy A. Wise
On April 10, leading Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in front of 5,000 cheering farm movement leaders, endorsed their proposal for the radical regeneration of rural Mexico. With a lead of 20 points over his nearest rival in the July 1 election, the endorsement signals a dramatic challenge to trade and agricultural policies in Mexico and in the United States.
Speaking in Jerez, Zacatecas, López Obrador was clear that his goal as president would be to restore Mexico’s lost food sovereignty. “We will no longer buy overseas what we consume. We will produce in Mexico what we eat,” he told supporters.
López Obrador is running for the third time after two close losses in 2006 and 2012, leading the National Regeneration Movement ticket (MORENA, by its Spanish acronym), which he founded. Widely characterized as a center-left populist, López Obrador has seen his popularity soar with the anti-immigrant, xenophobic statements and actions of U.S. President Donald Trump. The U.S. demand to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), with the claim that Mexicans have been the agreement’s big winners, only strengthened domestic support for the MORENA leader, who is a longtime NAFTA critic.
The farm program López Obrador endorsed is no vague set of promises, nor is his commitment to it new. Mexican farmer organizations drafted the “Plan de Ayala Siglo XXI,” a 21st-century manifesto and program for rural Mexico based on Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata’s original Plan de Ayala from 1911. With more than 100 organizations signing on, the program was the basis for their campaign to put someone in Mexico’s White House who would take on the continent’s powerful agribusiness interests and make rural Mexico great again. López Obrador supported the Plan in his 2012 presidential run. This month, he endorsed the Farm Movement’s Plan de Ayala 2.0, a detailed set of principles and policies.
That program explicitly calls for “food sovereignty” and commits to promoting Mexico’s self-sufficiency in key food crops by 2024, not just maize but beans, wheat, and other products. The country’s dependence on food imports has soared since NAFTA, with 42 percent imported, mainly from the U.S. The Plan de Ayala explicitly does away with policies that write off poor producers as worthy only of welfare, treating all small and medium-scale farmers as deserving of productive public investment. The Plan addresses chronic market failures in the Mexican countryside, with credit programs, crop insurance, and protection from anti-competitive practices by agribusiness buyers and sellers. It targets support to producers farming fewer than 50 acres.
The Plan commits to a transition toward agro-ecology, bars transgenic crops, and creates a National System for the Protection and Improvement of Mesoamerican Agro-biodiversity, with a special program called Native Maize-Tortilla 2050 to promote the cultivation and consumption of native maize. This is just the sort of directed action that can revalue indigenous cultures and practices while actively supporting the production of native maize.
Challenging Trump on NAFTA
Not surprisingly, the Plan de Ayala 2.0 explicitly requires a very different renegotiation of NAFTA than current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is carrying out. López Obrador sees NAFTA as the disaster it has been for Mexican farmers. Staple grains and meats have flooded the country with the removal of tariff protection, dumped on Mexico at prices well below U.S. costs of production. Mexico’s maize farmers saw a 400-percent increase in imports and a resulting 66-percent drop in the market prices for their maize. Producers of wheat, soybeans, rice, pork, and other foods faced similar economic pressures.
Some 5 million family members left their farms in search of work, some ending up as laborers harvesting strawberries and tomatoes for export to the U.S. Many just exported themselves in search of paying work, adding to the northward stream of migrants.
In the ongoing NAFTA negotiations, Peña Nieto was seen as giving away the store to U.S. agribusiness, especially the biotech firms. His administration agreed to a Mutual Recognition Agreement that would force each of the three NAFTA countries to respect the safety assessments of the other countries. NAFTA would thereby give Monsanto what Mexico’s courts, following environmental laws, have not: the right to plant genetically modified maize in Mexico. Other agreed provisions, proposed by U.S. negotiators, would bar Mexico from putting labels on unhealthy foods, preventing the government from enacting a key measure to address Mexico’s growing obesity epidemic.
The Farm Movement’s proposal calls for a wholesale renegotiation of the agricultural chapter of NAFTA, removing maize and other key crops from the free-trade regime. Protective tariffs would be negotiated, and the government would re-establish price supports, government purchases, grain reserves, and marketing support.
None of these measures would be easy to get approved, and they would be even harder to carry out. López Obrador has said he does not want to tear up NAFTA, but he might need to if he wants to make such sweeping pro-farmer reforms. That is fine with farm groups, whose slogan for the NAFTA negotiations is “Mejor Sin TLC”—better without NAFTA.
The 21st Century Plan de Ayala may be a wish list for rural regeneration, but in July, the movement hopes it will be granted its first wish: a president who hears farmers. And he might just be the genie who can make some of those other wishes come true. Even if he can’t, López Obrador would be President Trump’s worst NAFTA nightmare, a center-left populist who is not afraid to take his own protectionist measures and who has come into office with a mandate to stand up to U.S. bullying.
That mandate would include an explicit commitment to challenge President Trump’s aggressive stance on migration. The Plan de Ayala 2.0 calls for “defense and support for the labor and human rights of rural migrants in the United States and Canada.” In line with its commitment to revitalizing rural economies, it demands “a State strategy to guarantee the right to not migrate.”