PACHUCA - Few of the tiny cornfields surrounding Pachuca, the capital of the Mexican state of Hidalgo, are larger than five square acres. Most lack irrigation systems and are worked by hand -- often by the farmer’s many children -- resulting in a harvest of mini-sized maize that pulls in under US$1000 per year. The farming families here find themselves no better off, harvest after harvest. The years go by and the competition stiffens.
So the farmers make bricks, work construction jobs, and collect money from migrant relatives who move to the U.S. to keep afloat. They say they don't know much about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but remain certain it hasn't done them any good. Yet they blame the Mexican government, not America, for their suffering.
A dozen farmers who’ve spent their lives working their small plots of soil, given to their forbearers after the revolutionary Mexican government redistributed the land in the late 1930s, now spend their Sundays chatting in front of their local farming cooperative in the city center. This decaying concrete building was built over a decade ago to help small farmers claim the assistance their government had promised and then largely failed to deliver.
The men, all wearing jeans and sombreros, assume that NAFTA primarily benefits the United States and its big commercial farms, advanced technology, well-educated workforce, and heavy state subsidies. Oxfam claims these subsidies, which help lower corn prices below production costs, are decimating Mexican corn farmers. But these men do not insist the U.S. stop supporting its farmers. They just want the same assistance from their own government.
It would be easy for locals, especially politicians, to blame the corn farmers' continued woes here on the United States and NAFTA, but so far that hasn't happened in Hidalgo, (though it has elsewhere in Mexico). Farmers here say the primary causes of their suffering are big Mexican companies and corrupt local politicians. The Mexican elite, they say, is conspiring against ordinary people for personal gain.
They accuse large, well-known tortilla and bread firms of buying corn cheap in Mexico and hoarding it to inflate the price, though they offer no proof of this. They also accuse national union leaders and local politicians of diverting funds meant to help farmers for personal pleasures, and taking kickbacks from international firms in exchange for bargain business deals in Mexico.
Where does the farmers' suspicion toward business and political elites come from? They say it's fueled by years of inept local government, caused by decades of single party rule. They can't prove vast conspiracies. But they each have a story of a corrupt official -- like having to bribe a local authority to get into the bracero program to work in the U.S. The men here don’t read newspapers and rarely watch TV news. They don’t know about America’s presidential elections, and aren’t sure if George Bush or Bill Clinton is currently president. They certainly aren’t aware of the fierce NAFTA debate raging now among the democratic presidential candidates up north.
When I mention U.S. opposition to NAFTA, they tip their hats up to see me clearly and insist, "But there is so much money up there! It's nothing like here." They say this from experience, having worked agriculture up north too.