25 February 2013

The Twitterverse's take on Thomas Friedman

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman parachuted into Monterrey and pronounced Mexico the country of the future – an economic rival to India and China. Twitter lit up almost immediately; below is a sample of the reactions – positive and negative.

08 February 2013

Blast from the past: In Chiapas, Zapatistas reappear; why is unclear

By David Agren
Catholic News Service

 SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (CNS) -- The National Zapatista Liberation Army once captured the public imagination with a New Year's Day uprising in the this southern Mexican state to coincide with the 1994 implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

 Then-university student Gubidcha Matus recalled the enthusiasm as young people loaded up caravans with food and provisions and headed for Zapatista communities. 

 But that was 19 years ago, and past sympathizers like Matus say Mexico has moved on from the 1990s as a new generation has grown up with free trade, an imperfect democracy and few memories of one-party rule -- even if injustice and inequality persists, especially in indigenous communities.

 "Many in my generation participated" in protests and caravans, said Matus, director of communications at the Catholic-founded Fray Bartolome Human Rights Center in Chiapas. "Many (young people) of today only were born at the time this happened."
 The Zapatistas reappeared Dec. 21 -- the day the Mayan calendar turned over and a date erroneously interpreted as the end of the world -- when an estimated 40,000 masked members silently marched in five municipalities.
 The reappearance punctured a long period of quiet for the Zapatistas, although Matus said jokingly that many outsiders interpret silence from their pipe-smoking leader, Subcommandante Marcos, as the Zapatista movement disappearing or going into decline.

 Matus and other observers say the mobilization caught many off-guard but provoked no panic. They attribute the marches to symbolism, special dates on the calendar and routine political events, along with making a statement -- not any sort of indigenous uprising.

 "Did you hear?" asked a Dec. 21 statement signed by Subcommandante Marcos. "It's the sound of your world crashing down. It's of our resurgence."

 The statement also made light of new governments on the federal and state levels, ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party and its smaller ally, the Green Party.

 The Zapatistas have a sour history with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico for 71 straight years, until 2000, and retook power Dec. 1. 

 The group accuses previous party governments of not respecting a 1996 agreement to provide indigenous peoples with more rights, autonomy and self-governance. The agreement was negotiated with the help of then-Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia of San Cristobal de Las Casas, a champion of indigenous peoples but an opponent of armed actions. 

 The Zapatistas also have found fault with the failure to prevent paramilitaries from massacring 45 displaced people from a Catholic pacifist group known as Las Abejas (The Bees) during a December 1997 prayer meeting.

 "There's been no progress" in Chiapas, said Bishop Raul Vera Lopez of Saltillo, who was a coadjutor bishop in the area at the time. 

 Why the Zapatistas marched on a misty December morning remains open to interpretation. 

 Local anthropologist Gaspar Morquecho says Subcommandante Marcos launched a nationwide tour in 2006, which captured little attention or support and resulted in the Zapatistas retreating to their municipalities, where they focused on their schools, clinics and productive activities such as artisan works and producing coffee. He suspects Marcos might want to make another attempt at fomenting a nationwide movement.

 The federal government has responded indirectly to the re-emergence.

 On Jan. 21, President Enrique Pena Nieto visited an indigenous community in Chiapas -- in the heart of Zapatista territory -- to announce a "crusade" against hunger, which is expected to be the social policy focus of his six-year administration.

 He directed his message to the population at large, but the scene of the mid-January announcement suggested someone specific: the Zapatistas.

 "What the federal government did was take a politically opportunistic measure by coming to a (Zapatista) community to launch a crusade against hunger," said Jesuit Father Pedro Arriaga, spokesman for the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas.

 He found it ironic, too. The government, Father Arriaga said, has launch previous anti-hunger programs and the Zapatistas "have always resisted all the government's projects."

 Marcos said the problems the president aims to resolve are not pressing in the Zapatistas' autonomous communities.

 "Our children go to schools that teach them their own history ... as well as sciences ... necessary for them to grow without ceasing to be indigenous," said a Dec. 30 statement from Marcos, who is not indigenous and has been identified by the Mexican government as Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente.

 "The indigenous members of PRI attend our hospitals, clinics and laboratories because in those of the government, there is no medicine, medical devices or doctors," he said.

 Father Arriaga said the Zapatistas were getting by OK and had some successes.

 "They're not living in abundance, but they're not going hungry," said Father Arriaga, pastor of the St. John the Baptist Parish in the indigenous community of San Juan Chamula.

 "The most important thing that I take away is that they've eradicated alcoholism," he added. "It's one of the ills in indigenous communities, but the Zapatistas ... they don't drink or sell alcohol in their communities. This really helps their own cause."

 How far that cause spreads remains to be seen. Morchequo sees a "conservative" Mexican population, which has been preoccupied with other matters such as security, and a more complex political landscape for the Zapatistas to confront.

 Still, he noted of the most recent mobilization, "No one thought they could move 40,000 people."

06 January 2013

Migrant workers now focus on Canada

This story ran in the Toronto Star's Weekend World section July 28, 2012, but not online. Be sure to also read the recent Washington Post story on Mexican guest workers heading to Canada. 

UPDATE Be sure to also read The Globe and Mail's excellent story from Puebla state. 


Pablo Zamora picks lettuce in Quebec each summer through a guest worker program for Mexican farm labourers. He considers the program safer the illegally jumping the U.S.-Mexico border.

Seasonal program gives safe, more lucrative alternative to U.S.

Special to The Star

SAN SIMON EL ALTO, MEXICO – Pablo Zamora farmed corn and peas and lived in a shack with a dirt floor in this rancho high in the alpine air and pine forests southwest of Mexico City.

Then he discovered the lettuce fields of Quebec a decade ago and made enough money each summer to support a family back in Mexico and build a three-room residence of brick and cement.

"This isn't the most elegant place," Zamora said, while sipping pulque – a fermented maguey drink resembling a milkshake – in a kitchen adorned with family photos and pots and pans hanging on the walls. "But we're living so much better."

Zamora kissed his family goodbye last week, heading north for another summer of agricultural work near Sherrington, Quebec, where he expected to pick seven varieties of lettuce for $9.70 an hour plus benefits.

He'll join more than 15,000 fellow Mexicans toiling on Canadian farms through a seasonal agricultural program, which has operated for 38 years, been lauded as an example of orderly migration and credited with improving both wellbeing and livings standards in some of Mexico's most impoverished pockets.

Zamora expects to be back in San Simon for the October feting of St. Jude Thadeus, the patron saint of lost causes, thanks to his departing with a work visa and a return plane ticket – two documents other migrants lack when jumping the border in search of work in the United States.

"If you have documents, you're not going to have many problems," Zamora says.

Migration without documents has been a lost cause in recent years for those in San Simon and beyond as the U.S.-Mexico border has become increasingly fortified, anti-immigrant laws have been passed in places like Arizona and Alabama and jobs – especially in the construction sector that previously employed so many Mexicans – remain scant.

An April report from the Pew Hispanic Center found migration between from Mexico to the U.S. has collapsed with slightly more Mexicans returning or being deported than venturing north.

Zamora knows the difficulties and dangers of going undocumented first hand: his brother-in-law died three years ago in police custody after getting a traffic ticket in Georgia.

Such stories are distressing common in Malinalco, the municipality containing San Simon, located 100 kilometres from the national capital in outlying Mexico state.

Ellen Calmus, director of a Malinalco migrant support centre known as The Corner Project, spends much of her time helping families with kin in the United States, who have gone incommunicado – often the consequences of not having legal papers.

She prefers the seasonal Canadian program for a simple reason: "We're not bringing back bodies."

Allegations of exploitation of seasonal workers have been made in Canada – often by unions. Calmus knows the criticisms, but comments, "(The migration) alternatives are all terrible right now."

Sociologist Gustavo Verduzco of the Colegio de México also speaks well of the Canadian Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program.

His research shows program participants after six years are more likely to live in better houses, have higher incomes and are more likely keep their children in school than those staying behind in Mexico.

Safety is emerging as another success of the program.

"(Migrants) might earn more if they went to the United States," Verduzco says. "But they prefer Canada because it's legal and it's safer."

Residents from San Simon seem to know the risks – and say young men are thinking twice about departing without documents

"It's 10 times harder to go than before," said Armando Flores, a cab driver who spent 13 years working construction in Delaware.

Zamora's nineteen year old son, Alexis, expresses little enthusiasm about going north without the proper papers, saying the trip is expensive – human smugglers now charge more – and the path through the Sonora desert can be fatal.

He would prefer to follow his dad to Quebec, but spots in the Canadian seasonal worker program are limited and demand exceeds supply.

Sergio Roman recalled having a 2,000-worker backlog in 2005, when he began working in international affairs for the Mexico state government, and only being able to nominate 45 new participants for the program.

The state government, he says, subsequently began pursuing deals directly with Canadian companies to bring in job-seekers from Mexico state for activities ranging from working in slaughterhouses to processing cranberries.

Workers earn more, bring back skills to Mexico and most importantly, "Avoid loss of life and the abuses of human trafficking," Roman says.

"It's been very popular," he adds, although the 2008 economic crisis put a dent in the demand from Canada.

Zamora notices the growing popularity of Canada, too. "All the young people now say, 'Get to Canada."