Village and Global Health Are Now Inseparable

Roberto and his fellow campesinos are relieved that in their corner of Mexico the people's land rights have, at least for the present, been partially preserved. They know that their right to land is crucial to freedom from hunger which is key to health. Yet Roberto and the Piaxtla health team also realize that their gains are tenuous. Like many community workers, he has learned that the biggest threats to health are now on a global scale. The small farmers of Mexico's Sierra Madre may for the moment have partially recovered their land rights. But the inequities of the world economic order persist. NAFTA remains in place, legally binding Mexico to the corporate interests of the United States. Already many small farmers in Mexico are being forced off their land. With the tariffs lifted by NAFTA, the United States is now exporting tons of surplus maize into Mexico. Subsidized by the US government, the selling price of this maize is half that of Mexican maize (although the buying price for families has not dropped). Unable to compete, countless campesinos who are giving up farming and moving in desperation to the growing slums of the cities, are finding that, as a result of the competitive market forces of free trade, the prices of food staples rise faster than wages.

Many health workers, including Roberto, are already suffering from NAFTA. During 20 years and at considerable sacrifice, Roberto had gradually built up a small herd of eight cattle. The cattle were an investment, the proceeds from which with which he planned to send his oldest son to college and then medical school (in the hopes his son would become one of those rare doctors who return to serve the villagers). But now with NAFTA, the US beef industry is shipping hybrid cattle into Mexico at wholesale prices, thus undercutting the value of local cattle. Almost overnight the selling price of Roberto's cattle has dropped to half of what it was. Thus, NAFTA has slashed Roberto's life savings and his son's dream of medical school.

Yet things could be worse. Whatever his losses, Roberto knows he is relatively lucky. His family still has a plot of land to plant. His children for the time being do not go hungry. He knows that millions of families in Mexico and throughout the world are much worse off.

While many critics predicted grim outcomes from NAFTA, few foresaw the plummeting of the peso, starting in December, 1994, which has suddenly converted Mexico from the success story of trade liberalization into a global economic basket case. To keep the wolf from the door (and foreign investors from losing vast sums) Mexico has already borrowed billions of dollars from the US government, the World Bank, and the IMF, and has a line of credit for billions more. Even if the peso can be kept from slipping further--and so far there is no certainty of this--the burden of repaying the debt, along with the hardships of the devaluation itself, have fallen largely on the backs of the poor, whose real wages continue to plunge.

To keep servicing its increasing debt, Mexico has had to escalate the austerity measures already demanded by the World Bank's structural adjustment programs (see Chapter 11). Already, the Mexican people have suffered further reductions in public services, further declines in real wages, increased taxation, and more user fees for health, education and other social services. By mid-1995 the price of oil had risen 35% and a federal sales tax on most goods had been raised from 10% to 15%.

Mexico provides a stark example of the global trend we examined in Part 3 of this book. With NAFTA and other free market strategies designed to favor the privileged, the plight of the poor is worsening in both poor countries and rich. In 1991 Mexico had only 2 billionaires. Today it has 28. Reportedly, one of these billionaires, Carlos Slim, controls as much wealth as 17 million of his poor compatriots.

Internationally there has been much high-level discussion about Universal Human Rights: the Rights of Children, the Rights of Women, the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, etc. But the New World Order--spearheaded by the international financial institutions (the World Bank and the IMF)--has denied humanity the most fundamental rights of all: the right to have enough to eat and, ultimately, the right to live.

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