It’s hard to believe it’s been two decades since NAFTA went into effect – 20 years since I walked among abandoned factories in El Paso, Texas, and cement and tarpaper shacks in Anapra, a shantytown on the edge of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
In November 1993, as editor of The Union Advocate, I took part in a trip to learn more about the conditions on the U.S.-Mexico border. Congress was getting ready to vote on NAFTA and many Americans, Canadians and Mexicans still held out hope that this new, groundbreaking trade deal could be stopped.
It wasn’t. Using every trick in the book, from promises and threats to handouts of pork barrel projects, President Bill Clinton completed the goal of his predecessor, George H.W. Bush. Twenty years later, numerous reports detail the legacy of jobs lost and communities decimated by a 900-page document written by and for the transnational corporations.
Current Advocate Editor Michael Moore has asked me to look back on this anniversary and to reflect on my visit to Ciudad Juarez and its sister city across the border, El Paso. Pulling up the stories from The Advocate’s digital archive, I am reminded of how shocking – and personal – the whole experience had been.
In the early 1990s, international trade was still the domain of bureaucrats and corporate elites who proclaimed that they – and they alone – had the expertise to steer the United States and other countries through the turbulent waters of the rapidly rising global economy. They devised the strategy, still in use today, to treat trade agreements the same as international treaties, prohibiting Congress from amending or changing them.
The authorities, with their rosy economic projections, dismissed the experiences of real people as “anecdotal evidence,” that should be irrelevant to the debate. People like myself, who were increasingly becoming aware of the dangers posed by NAFTA, had another view. We were learning from the experiences of workers in other countries who had already seen their communities collapse under the policies of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other institutions allied with the NAFTA agenda.
We knew to truly learn what NAFTA would mean, we needed to go where people were already living under its conditions. That place was the U.S.-Mexico border, where, long before NAFTA was passed, “maquiladora” zones allowed transnational companies to operate under free trade rules.
We met with workers in El Paso who were organizing to try to save the few remaining manufacturing jobs in their city. We toured Honeywell’s sparkling new facility in Ciudad Juarez, where wages were as low as 50 cents an hour. We met the residents of Anapra, a devastatingly poor “squatter” community of tarpaper shacks occupied by thousands of Mexicans seeking work.
And, in the trip’s most heartbreaking moment, we talked with the families who lived in a Ciudad Juarez neighborhood polluted by a U.S. company, Presto Lock. Workers at the plant had no protective gear and the company routinely dumped chemical waste in the street.
By the time of our visit, numerous illnesses and cases of stillbirths and miscarriages had occurred in the neighborhood. Marcelina Sanchez told our group how she went full term with a baby that was born with no brain.
“So far, they [Presto Lock] have ignored all the declarations of the employees,” said local resident Maria Vargas. Noting that the community has been pressuring the government to close the plant, she added, “We’re afraid they will leave without cleaning up this area at all.”
Over and over, as we talked with the people of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, our group was given a nightmarish vision of a future that could extend throughout the Americas.
We saw companies that could pollute and maim with impunity. We saw neighborhoods where basic services like electricity and running water were beyond the reach of residents. We saw the effects of free trade not confined to “developing” countries like Mexico, but leaching across borders to lower standards in “developed” countries like the United States.
“Free trade will bring more misery, more exploitation, more poverty, more abuse to our community,” said Maria Carmen Dominguez, an organizer in El Paso.
Fast forward 20 years and her prediction rings true.
Many transnational firms, like Honeywell, took advantage of NAFTA’s rules. In 2009, for example, the company closed two plants in Illinois, laying off 200 workers, and moved manufacturing of electronic controls, switches and indicators to Ciudad Juarez. Honeywell now operates three plants there and 13 other facilities across Mexico.
Other companies relocated or started facilities in Mexico, only to pull up stakes and migrate to China, Malaysia and other countries where labor costs were even lower.
The wealth created for some under NAFTA did not trickle down to the border communities.
According to the World Bank’s own figures, over half of the Mexican population, and over 60 percent of the rural population, still falls below the poverty line.
At the time NAFTA was passed, local officials talked of reducing and gradually tearing down Anapra and other shantytowns. Instead, they have grown in number. Some of the biggest squatter communities have popped up outside El Paso – on the U.S. side of the border.
In 2010, per-capita income in El Paso was $28,698, or 30 percent lower than the national average of $41,560.
Conditions in Ciudad Juarez are even worse, as the city has been besieged by violent drug cartels. In recent years, the bodies of hundreds of murdered women and girls – many of them workers in the maquila plants – have been discovered. Hundreds more are missing.
And Presto Lock? The fears of Maria Vargas were realized. The company pulled up stakes and eventually went out of business altogether. It never cleaned up the toxic waste left behind in Ciudad Juarez. No one was ever charged with the crimes committed against the families of Marcelina Sanchez and others. No one was ever held accountable.
– In 2000, Barb Kucera left The Advocate to become editor of Workday Minnesota, a website of labor news operated by the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service.