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This post continues the conversation in response to my post “Offshore Oil Drilling, Energy Independence, and America’s Security” from April 7th, 2010.

Now let’s set the record straight. While it may be true that Canada and Mexico are the top exporters of oil to the US (when it is broken down by nation), these nations are insignificant when it comes to regions and the greater oil market. Canada and Mexico together are insignificant to the oil market because they do not affect the price of the oil market. This market is what affects our own economy and threatens the security of our nation, creating unwanted entanglements that flow deeper than most realize.

The reality is that the oil market is like any other market in an economy – it fluctuates. But this market is controlled by an exclusive group of nations mainly in the Middle East – the ones who have the most oil – known as OPEC. Neither Canada nor Mexico are card-carrying members, by the way.

Now here is the important thing: in 1945 FDR makes an agreement with Saudi Arabia to secure energy reserves for future interests. From that point on, America has had a vested interest in the Middle East.

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There were two different stories published at two very different online locations over the past two days. The stories themselves however, had a lot in common.

The first, published on the 17th, recounted the tale of the San Patricios, also known as the St. Patrick’s Battalion. The San Patricios were 175 odd first generation Irish immigrants to the United States, who were recruited or conscripted into the U.S. army at the time of the Mexican-American war and later defected to Mexico’s side to fight against invading U.S. troops. According to Alexander Billet of the Socialist Worker,

Nativist racism aside… (t)here were plenty of reasons to defect to Mexico. The discrimination and poor treatment that ran through American society most certainly extended to the army. Irish Catholics no doubt saw the potential for more equitable treatment in Mexico, itself a Catholic nation. Mexico granted citizenship to those who fought; the U.S. did not.

Though the San Patricios were composed primarily of Irishmen, their ranks included German Catholics and immigrants from all over Europe. Notably, a few escaped Black slaves also participated in the battalion.

But there was likely another, more basic motivation: solidarity. The same country that had dashed the dreams of the Irish immigrants was also seeking to plant its boot on the necks of the Mexican people. The formation of the San Patricios represented an amazing example of oppressed immigrants shaking off the shackles of their oppressors.

Read Billet’s piece: it’s worth your while. Worth all our while, to look back into the history of the United States and find proof of when individuals perceived an instance where the strong imposed on the weak and in response chose to stand with the weak, combining forces in the face of insurmountable odds.

Now, depending on how you vote, this story could be interpreted five different ways. However the one fact no one can ignore is: dissent and supporting the underdog/down-trodden are integral parts of an individual or a community’s democratic identity.

But does our dissent and support today go beyond “like”ing a posted article or video link on Facebook?

Which brings me to the second tale of protest. The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article by George Gilder on net-neutrality. Without taking sides, let’s just say Mr. Gilder is less than enthusiastic about the concept.  On the face of it, a powerful publication has endorsed a strong stance against an issue that’s relevant to the online community world-wide.

How do ordinary people oppose carefully-worded editorials being read daily by every other working man or woman on the way to work? I’m not sure there’s one single answer.

But I’ll tell you what Sam Gustin did: he decided to fight fire with fire, and published a detailed response to Gilder’s piece, taking his argument apart point by point.

Granted Gustin is no impoverished army defector, nor, as far as we know, is the WSJ planning to invade Mexico. But this is dissent. This is one way in which you and I can engage with a powerful naysayer, by going beyond being just a passive reader and turning instead into an active respondent. Do more than just hit the like, RT, digg or share button. Attend meetings and open houses. Sign up for classes outside your major. Volunteer at a local non-profit. Interact with people outside your friends circle and find out what their story is.

And if it’s a compelling story, tell it.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

The killings have become so routine that most Mexicans don’t bat an eyelid when they are reported. TV stations broadcast the stories at the tail-end of their news programs, and newspapers bury any reference deep inside their pages. It was 2006 when Mexico’s newly-elected President Felipe Calderón sent 6,500 troops to the southwestern state of Michoacán, declaring war on drugs and embarking on an interminable battle that so far has killed over 11,000 people.

There are three principal factors that have made Mexico a battleground in the global War on Drugs. Mexico has long been used as a transit point for drugs that are smuggled from South America to North America. The demise of many Colombian cartels in the 1990s led to an increased dependency on Mexican cartels. Whereas the Colombian cartels previously paid their Mexican mules in cash, crackdowns and desperate circumstances meant that many Mexicans began to be paid in drugs. Through time, the dynamic of the relationship changed and Mexican mules began to be less dependent on their Colombian counterparts, becoming traffickers in their own right. The second factor was a change of government in Mexico, with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) losing power after more than 70 years of leading the country. The PRI had implicit agreements with all the major cartels, which meant that the drugs could flow in exchange for peace and bribes. Third, the U.S. government began to crack down on methamphetamine at the end of the 80s, curbing the production of the drug in homemade laboratories. As a result, many of these labs packed up and relocated south of the border and began producing and trafficking methamphetamine with much less scrutiny, making Mexico a major methamphetamine supplier.

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Students at the University of Florida are working to help farmworkers battle for fair wages and basic human rights.

By Kristen Abdullah and Richard Blake
November 16, 2009

Migrant worker Jorge Rodriguez plays the “quijada,” in Immokalee, Fla. Farmworkers celebrated the recent decision by Taco Bell to accede to the demands of local tomato pickers, who led a four-year boycott against the restaurant chain, and pay a penny more for each pound of Florida tomatoes. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

As we made the four-hour journey south to tomato-town Immokalee, Fla., we ran through the itinerary for the long weekend to come and familiarized ourselves with the 40-plus pages of reading material that we were supposed to have completed three weeks before. The thick packet of literature included stories like “Immokalee family sentenced for slavery,” “Apartheid in America,” and “A more-complete definition of ‘sustainable.’” By the time we arrived in the desolate town, just after midnight, we felt confident in our school-child ability to recite the labor history of this town and felt briefed on the ultimate reason for our visit.

After becoming fed up with the impoverished condition that enslaved them, migrant workers started a grassroots organization called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in 1993. Consisting mostly of people from Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti, these workers had already experienced both verbal and physical abuses since their arrival in the United States. Most of them could remember a time when, back in their own countries, they survived as subsistence farmers—selling crops and living off corn, squash, beans, and, most important, their own autonomy. They weren’t rich, but they were dignified.

But after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was established among the United States, Canada, and Mexico, these small-time farmers could not compete with subsidized crops from the States. Before, Mexico was a major wheat exporter. Now, Mexico only exports cheap labor.

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6 a.m.  Akins, Damian, Dhiradj and I left the guest house, making our way through the morning traffic to get to the Channel 6 TV station.

Though only in their mid-20s, Damian is a Barbadian senator, and Dhiradj, a member of the Surinamese Youth Parliament.  They were being about the their participation in the formation of the Assembly of Caribbean Youth as well as their expectations for the first ever OAS Youth Forum that began today in Port of Spain.  While they both are already active members of their respective countries’ governments, Damian clearly stated that, in general, government bodies have yet to move beyond tokenism when it comes to the incorporation of young people.

His words couldn’t have run clearer.  Just three hours later, during a review of the draft Youth Statement to the Head’s of State and Government, a frustrated young Trinidadian man stood, calmly took the mic and asked the session’s facilitators what we were all thinking–are you taking us seriously?

We were being asked for input on a document that we had never seen before, but now found projected before us on the screen, awaiting our edits before being presented to the heads of state and government later this week.  While regional consultations took place in Mexico, Paraguay, and Panama over several months last year, involving 1,088 young people from Latin America and the Caribbean to come up with a set of top policy recommendations in the areas of human prosperity, energy security and environmental sustainability, a completely different set of youth was now being asked to confirm or deny the document… in 30 minutes.

The thought was laughable, but the fact was, we were staring that situation in the face, and it wasn’t funny, it was straight up insulting.  Why hadn’t they provided us with the document ahead of time?  After commending OAS officials for recognizing the untapped value of youth and for giving us the unprecedented opportunity to participate in the Summit of the Americas process, the whole thing seemed like more of a staged photo opp than a genuine taking into account of youth perspectives.

And staged it was.  While the recommendations themselves are good–education that reflects the current global marketplace, improved skills-based programs for youth in under-served areas, increased mobilization of financial support for youth entrepreneurship, government incentives to encourage alternative energy development, an integrated environmental sustainability curriculum in schools, legislation on mandatory recycling and waste management programs, and the creation of certification programs to more easily identify environmentally sustainable products–the wording and rationale had been extremely watered down.

Turns out, members of the delegation committee had already sumbmitted several drafts to OAS representatives.  Each time being told that the language they had chosen was too strong or too demanding.  After so many tweaks and fluffs, you can’t help but start to doubt the statement’s authenticity.

And at the end of the day, many young people I spoke to felt as if they’d spent more time being talked at than actually asked for their opinions.

What I learned from today is how incredibly important it is for us as politically-minded young people not to settle for this level of engagement, but to push back consistently and articulately about the level of dialogue and change we expect to see implemented by the systems that represent us.

Speaking of which, the People’s Summit starts tomorrow! and it’s time for me to get some sleep.

In the early 1990s, George Bush was trying to master a plan to create a free, three-way trade agreement with Canada, Mexico, and the United States. The plans were initially secret but in 1992 when President Bush, Prime Minister Mulroney, and Carlos Salinas signed this two-thousand page agreement, the public was let in on the decision. Later, in 1993, new president Bill Clinton fought energetically for the acceptance of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and it became official policy in 1994.

“Policy issues are some of the most complex and far-reaching problems confronted by societies. Policy issues range from city problems to international and world issues, include conflicting sets of interest and objectives, need to be resolved in the face of uncertainty, and may affect millions of people” (Ley-Borras).

The terms of NAFTA include gradually reducing tariffs between the three nation-states, reducing non-tariffs for trade/investments by non-discriminatory practices, and leniency by the governments for businesses. It was also arranged for a secret panel to handle conflicts that may arise due to the Agreement. While many approved of NAFTA, opposition was fierce as well. In all three countries, there were those who feared the deal would raise unemployment in the United States and Canada, labor organizations would be undermined, environmental standards would be ignored, and congestion in transportation would occur. (McKillen)

While NAFTA benefits trading purposes it also has many difficulties associated with it due to actors at the industry level in each included country. If we are going to discuss the renegotiation of NAFTA then it must be realized that NAFTA has been hurtful to labor unions and the workers. The trucking, automobile, and agricultural companies are strongly opposed to the agreement There are also intranational actors that are involved, such as; Importer/exporter organizations, corporations, industry, service firm associations, agricultural producers, financial institutions, NAFTA officials, Congress, state/provincial governors, labor unions, environmental groups, small firms, farmers, and political parties. Because each of these groups like and dislike many things, NAFTA faces the difficulty of trying to please everyone. (Ley-Borras)

Congestion concerning transportation vehicles from the Mexican border into the United States is a serious concern. The borders have been opened to trucking and various solutions have been proposed. Solutions consist of restricting trucks from the highways or insisting they stay in the right lanes, slower speed limits on the interstates, and various taxes. These propositions often lead to further congestion and the tax money received is often used wastefully, an example being a bridge in Alaska that is rarely used. (Bailey)

Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1955, said, “Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods”. Congress is currently feuding with the president over these transportation issues. In the original 1994 negotiations, Mexican trucks were conditionally allowed to haul their goods anywhere in the country, but environmental and labor groups have protested ever since. Congress has continued denying the trucking companies access well into the current year. (Lynch)

Senator Byron Dorgan is quoted saying, “We don’t have equivalent standards and most especially enforcement of these standards…To allow long-haul Mexican trucks under these circumstances would cause safety questions on American roads.” John Hill, who is the head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), says that his agency will carefully inspect every Mexican carrier to see how it compares to U.S. safety standards. Dorgan replies, “…a colossal failure… [Hill’s agency] had not developed sufficient plans for checking every demonstration project truck”.

Hillary Clinton, a democratic presidential candidate, went against husband, former President Bill Clinton, by rejecting NAFTA. She insists that the benefits have gone to the wealthy and have cost occupational opportunities for people in America by outsourcing businesses to Mexico to pay a lower wage. The capitalist intent, contrasted to the socialist intent, is shown clearly through the principle of paying Mexican workers lower wages to maximize profits while people in the home country go without jobs. Hillary Clinton wants Americans to question whether or not the ideal of globalization has been fully embraced and taken advantage of. She feels this is not the case because of the problems encountered concerning NAFTA.

It also must be questioned whether or not these re-located businesses in Mexico are exploiting their workers. They are being paid low wages compared to the United States and there is a reason that labor unions are upset with NAFTA. Have the effects of low wages, child workers, and no labor unions been studied? Robyn Sears, a child development specialist, states that children are the very most important asset to a country, and every possible mean to protect them should be implemented. Environmental standards in Mexico, such as waste management, may vary from practices in our country. Is detriment to the environment acceptable? These questions must be analyzed and studied to find a real solution.

Mexico’s economy used to be completely dependent on oil and oil pricings. But because of NAFTA (1992), the United States’ industrial production began to control the economy instead. When U.S. economic growth slowed in 2001, Mexico was directly affected by this until 2003. Almost three-quarters of Mexican exports come to the United States, and the impact on Mexico is phenomenal. Is it moral and just that America can completely control other countries economies? The other side of this point is that Mexican consumers are now spending more than ever and lending more than ever from banking institutions. And the Mexican finance departments are expecting up to a four percent increase in economic value in 2008. (USA Today)

Because of the problems with NAFTA, there must be a call to action. The North American Free Trade Agreement must be renegotiated. Leaders must re-define the issue and participatory actors, develop a list of alternatives, and agree on a permanent position. (Ley-Borras)

I recently came back from a visit and tour of the Mayan heartland of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula which is known for its pristine beaches, unique ecosystems, archaeological wonders, and of course, vacation hot spots such as Cancun and Cozumel. The resort city of Cancun is where I will first focus my attention, for I have never been more startled at such a physical manifestation of globalization, and N.A.F.T.A, and their affect on a city when combined in one package, set amidst a tropical paradise.

Initially a fishing village, modern day Cancun was founded in the late 70’s and began to expand throughout the 80’s to cater to what the corrupt government of former Mexican president Luis Echeverría Álvarez called the “New Havana”, citing the former status of that city as the playground for the wealthy and renowned of the U.S.A. The Mexican government, responding to a strong tourism demand from the United States, as well as taking advantage of the turquoise waters and distinct Mayan culture of the area, began pumping tens of millions of dollars into the region throughout the late 80’s and 90’s. The result, a city of 700,000 people with 7 million tourists annually, as well as massive ecological damage, cultural clashes between indigenous Mayans and incoming Mexican laborers, and what I call touristic imperialism in the form of U.S. and European owned hotels and real estate.

Despite creating a high demand for laborers and hotel employees, most people that benefited from Cancun were from mainland Mexico, and not the impoverished Mayan heartland where Cancun is located, a region where many of the people do not even speak Spanish. In addition, the many laborers that built the resort city lost their jobs, yet never left to their home towns, contributing to a rising poverty rate as well as providing assistance to organized crime and drug cartels. Drug Cartels are certainly no stranger to as many Mexicans insist that of the small percentage of Mexican owned hotels in the city, almost all are owned by powerful drug barons. This theory also includes the city’s government.

What is particularly troubling about the whole situation is the trend Mexico is taking as a whole, under the constricting reign of N.A.F.T.A and current conservative President Felipe Calderon. Calderon, like his predecessors, has continued to allow the Americanization, or better yet, Cancunization of the entire country, under the semi false but also semi correct façade of Globalization. Like Cancun, Starbucks, Pizza Huts, and Wal-Mart’s are popping up in many places, from more expected places such as the suburbs of wealthy Monterrey, or the less expected places: a Wal-Mart super center across from the largest Pyramid in the world outside Mexico City, Tenochtitlan, or a Subway restaurant across from the renowned Mayan archaeological site of Tulum in the Yucatan.

Now I am not going to condemn Globalization outright, for there are some positive and progressive aspects of this phenomenon, but I will condemn it coupled with free-trade agreements that strip away the sovereignty of another nation. Now social tensions are simmering across Mexico, both against the ruling elites that benefit from the influence of the “gringos”, as well as the current conservative government who barely have a mandate to govern after winning by less than 1 million votes.

In many ways, Cancun is a microcosm of Mexico’s current and near future problems: powerful drug cartels operating in and around American owned businesses, ecological destruction from mass tourism, a despised city government, poverty, spring breakers, and a deteriorating security situation as indigenous southern Mexico pushes for autonomy…all set amidst an “occupied” Mayan paradise.

I found a very interesting article in today’s Christian Science Monitor.  It details illegal immigration.  But it’s not about Mexicans entering the United States, which you see all over CNN and Wolf Blitzer.  Rather, the story depicts the tale long before the U.S. border is in sight.  According to the National Migration Institute, “the number of Central Americans caught attempting to get into Mexico rose to 240,200 in 2005 from 138,000 in 2002…but [the number] is
expected to rise sharply to 205,000 this year”.
In an effort to prevent this trend, backed by the U.S., Mexico is set to increase its security measures along its southern border between Chiapas and Guatemala.  What is disappointing about this announcement is that the focus is clearly shifting from improving its legal and actual treatment of illegal migrants from Central America to creating a more U.S. style fortress.  This is not the way of progress; in fact, this is reversing the Mexican Government’s attempt to improve the quality of holding facilities and detention centers  and lessening the harshness of immigration laws that call for two years minimum of prison time to a lesser infraction.

Most of all, the Mexican Government should focus on not the symptoms of illegal immigration into the country, but rather the root causes of the phenomenon: illicit drug trade, gangs, official corruption, and general lawlessness that has plagued Chiapas state for sometime.  The energy placed into evaluating the security of the southern border could easily be applied to better addressing these insecurities.  Perhaps the United States should also be rethinking their immigration policy as well.  But, like in Mexico, people will find a way in – probably not in a safe way.  It is a government’s job to ensure that human rights and human lives are upheld.  I think that important point is very rarely articulated in mainstream media today.

There’s an interesting piece in this week’s Economist (see link) on a poverty-alleviation policy in Latin America called conditional cash transfers (known as “CCT’s”).

Last weekend many of us AID-ers gathered in New York City for the Young Global Leaders Summit on Realizing the Millennium Development Goals. We learned how increasing levels of foreign aid, ensuring smarter foreign aid and canceling debt are some of the key policies that we in developed nations can undertake to ensure development in the third world. Some attendees, including this one, also wondered what complementary policies within developing countries could best promote development.

Cash transfers certainly offer an interesting and new (or at least new to me) approach. Typically, they provide a financial incentive for poor mothers to promote certain activities on behalf of their children. For example, their conditionality would involve children’s attendance at school or vaccination against disease or mandatory visits to health clinics. Two of the most famous CCT programs are in Mexico, the home of first Progresa and now Oportunidades, and in Brazil, the home of Bolsa Família. These programs now exist in more than half a dozen Latin American countries under World Bank auspices (see link). And within those countries, CCT initiatives are popular and far-reaching. In Mexico, 5 million families receive cash transfers from the government, which is nearly a quarter of the total population.

So far, progress has been made, at least in Mexico. The Economist writes, “In Mexico, the poverty rate fell between 2000 and 2002 during a recession in which real income per head declined by some 3%. Studies suggest that children in the beneficiary families are less likely to be stunted by poor nourishment and less likely to drop out of school.” There’s much that seems optimistic about these programs, which get at some of the root causes of poverty by trying to raise human capital for the next generation.

Then again, the jury appears to still be out as to whether or not these programs will be successful in the fight against poverty. The Economist points out that successful CCT’s depend on a functioning government. Furthermore, cash transfers alone will not answer the call to make poverty history—both because not all families will take the incentive they provide and also because many of the pressing social and economic problems of poverty, inequality and hunger will not be alleviated even by higher attendance at schools and better health standards.

Still, this could be a good step forward. I’m looking forward to hearing more analyses of these policies in Mexico and Brazil and their potential transferability elsewhere.

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