Mexican farmers stage mass protest against U.S. imports

Saturday, February 1, 2003

MEXICO CITY -- Long lines of buses clogged main streets Friday in the heart of Mexico City as tens of thousands of farmers gathered to demand greater protection against U.S. imports and to seek more government aid.

"The central objective is to show the nation that there is great discontent in the countryside that cannot be hidden," said Víctor Suarez, one of the organizers of the march, that has as its focus the North American Free Trade Agreement.

At least 25 farm groups in three large coalitions were organizing the march later Friday, which also was backed by several environmental groups and major labor unions.

Local newspapers and radio stations warned people in the Mexican capital to avoid the march route.

Men with weathered faces, wearing boots and straw hats, began gathering along the Paseo de la Reforma boulevard well before noon and lines of buses parked along the street began hampering the flow of traffic.

"Today the entire farm movement is marching under a single banner: renegotiation of the farm chapter (of NAFTA), a new farm policy and a new deal for the countryside," said Suarez of the coalition known as The Countryside Can't Stand More.

Highway blockades

Protests such as highway blockades began increasing late last year as farmers complained about the Jan. 1 removal of remaining duties on many farm products and about dire poverty in the countryside.

President Vicente Fox, an enthusiastic supporter of free trade, promised an extensive national dialogue with farm groups.

But the coalitions were angered when Fox's aides this week announced hearings on farm issues that seemed to leave control firmly in the hands of Cabinet secretaries.

In what appeared to be a related development, the government said Friday is was barring imports of beans from the United States and Canada for an indefinite period, alleging that products from outside the NAFTA area have been shipped in unfairly.

Last week, the government imposed restrictions on U.S. chicken on health grounds.

Mexican exports of farm products to the United States rose to $6.2 billion in 2001 from $3.2 billion in 1993.

But imports of U.S. farm goods to Mexico also have skyrocketed. Farm groups allege that massive subsidies, cheap credit, better transportation and technology give U.S. farmers an unfair advantage.

They also complain that the main beneficiaries of the rising Mexican exports have been large, corporate farms rather than the small-plot farms on which millions of Mexicans still live.

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