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Mexico's Native American peoples and the global economy

Stan Gotlieb and Diana Ricci

I wrote his in early 1995. Thankfully, the decency and good will of the average Oaxacan had not vanished along with their purchasing power and hopes for the future.

Teen age gangs, on the rise, have moved from spraypainting walls to rumbling in the park; for the first time in memory there are armed police stationed there. Robberies of people strolling alone in middle class neighborhoods and physical harassment of people who are from outside cultures have increased. Neighborhoods and apartment complexes are holding meetings to discuss security. Actually, this is not L.A.; it's Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico in early 1995.

It is widely believed that incidents of local folk shoving, sneering at, and insulting foreigners, particularly from the U.S., are increasing. The anxiety level among the expatriate community is definitely going up. People are talking about moving on, some to more southern climes like Costa Rica, and some "back home".

It is a time of rapid, intense change. The center is not holding, and in Mexico, the predatory, the ruthless, the desperate and the ones with nothing left to lose, are all sniffing the winds of change. Who will benefit and who will have to give up, and how much?

The "Zapatistas", those whose union locals, social self-help organizations and political parties are responding to the call for a national front issued by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), expect the situation to get much worse, particularly for the already impoverished indigenous peoples. They believe that the rulers of Mexico are consciously engaged in a program of genocide against "las Indigenas". They believe that this is being done by confiscating the wealth of their lands (most of the Pemex oil reserves that guarantees that phony loan Clinton made to his banker friends are in the ground of Chiapas), and stealing the land itself (so does most of the coffee and banana production); denying them basic medical care, particularly preventative medicine and antibiotics; terrorizing them with military and paramilitary forces; shooting their leaders, and their kids' teachers as well; and forcing sharecroppers to use new crops and growing techniques which upset the ecology and deny them a large s hare of their ability to feed themselves.

In a major headline article in early April 1995, the respected daily La Jornada reported that significant numbers of campesinos in Chiapas will not be able to plant corn and beans this year. The seeds which the government promised to supply if they did not grow seed plots, will not be issued. The seed program was cut as an "austerity measure", to help satisfy the Clinton "loan" requirements and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Deliberate destruction of Native American culture and autonomy is not new: Mexico has suffered through more than 500 years of this abuse. What is new, is the attack on the Mexican middle class. Suicide rates are rising, as people see their economic security swept away by soaring bank loan rates (as much as a 100% annual interest rate on some bank credit cards) and newly imposed higher repayment rates. In Mexico City, it is estimated that 42% more people will throw themselves in front of subway trains this year than last year. The national rate of suicide is expected to double by the end of this year. "Depression" is growing, both in psychological and economic terms.

Also noted in La Jornada, and in the Mexico City News (in English), is the demise of 100,000 small businesses in the first quarter of 1995, due to the devaluation of the peso, the inflation in basic materials cost, the increase in the sales tax, and sky-high interest rates.

Add to all this the daily announcements of cities and states declaring bankruptcy and seeking restructuring of their bank debt -- at impossibly high interest rates for unthinkably long periods -- and you begin to see why some people have decided to take the subway to the next life.

Not surprisingly, crime - the way that have-nots externalize their condition, rather that killing themselves (internalizing) - is increasing in frequency and seriousness. All in all, a gloomy picture. And perhaps not a fair one.

For me, and for those close to me in the foreign community, Oaxaca remains a delightful, safe and inexpensive place to live. No-one has ever directly insulted me; nor have I been threatened, cheated, robbed or assaulted. So why do I dwell on the unpleasant, the threatening, the depressing? Perhaps because I keep remembering that "statistics" are not necessarily things that happen only to other people, and that if they do happen to me, they just might be devastating.

What I am left with, finally, is the notion that bad news -- like bad money -- tends to drive out good. The World Bank put out a report in Spring 1995, extensively quoted in The News, in which it announced that the world is becoming safer for bankers, and that the time is rapidly approaching when there will be only one, worldwide, global economy, managed from the top of the pyramid; and that the uncertain yields of individual national economies will be smoothed out, while diminishing the economic decision making power of the national authorities that used to control them. One world, indivisible, with profits guaranteed to all major investors, no matter who gets squeezed in the process. Now there's a depressing notion.

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Photography by Diana Ricci

Published or Updated on: March 1, 1995 by Stan Gotlieb and Diana Ricci © 1995
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