Sustaining the Borderlands in the Age of NAFTA: Development, Politics, and Participation on the US-Mexico Border

Sustaining the Borderlands in the Age of NAFTA: Development, Politics, and Participation on the US-Mexico Border

by Suzanne Simon

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Sustaining the Borderlands in the Age of NAFTA: Development, Politics, and Participation on the US-Mexico Border by Suzanne Simon


Sustaining the Borderlands in the Age of NAFTA provides the only book-length study of the impact on residents of the US-Mexico border of NAFTA's Environmental and Labor Side Accords, which required each state to enforce labor and environmental regulations. Through field research in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, anthropologist Suzanne Simon tests the premise that the side accords would encourage Mexican grassroots democratization. The effectiveness of the side accords was tied to transparency and accountability and practically bound to opportunities for Mexican border populations to participate in the side accord petitioning and civil society input mechanisms. Simon conducted sixteen months of fieldwork with both a group of environmental activists and a group of those fighting for labor justice in Mexico. Both of these groups became enmeshed in the types of cross-border advocacy networks and coalition building efforts that are typical of the NAFTA era.


Although the key to the side accords' anticipated success lay in their ostensibly generous encouragement of a participatory politics and sustainable development opportunities, Sustaining the Borderlands reveals that the Mexican border populations for which they were largely created are effectively excluded from participating due to the ongoing online, territorial, class, and cultural barriers that shape the borderlands. Rather than experiencing the side accords and their companion institutions as transparent and accessible, residents experienced them as opaque and indecipherable. Simon concludes that the side accords have failed to deliver on their promise of bringing democracy to Mexico because practical mechanisms that would ensure their effective implementation were never put in place.


NAFTA took effect at a time when Mexico was undergoing a democratic transition. The treaty was supposed to encourage this transition and improve environmental and labor conditions on the US-Mexico border. This book demonstrates that, twenty years later, the promises of NAFTA have not come to pass.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826519597
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 06/20/2014
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author


Suzanne Simon is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Florida.

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Sustaining the Borderlands in the Age of NAFTA

Development, Politics, and Participation on the US-Mexico Border


By Suzanne Simon

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2014 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-1961-0



CHAPTER 1

Democratizing Discourses


The NAFTA side accords came into being largely as a function of three global and interrelated discourses. Arguably, the most important of these was dual transition theory as applied to transition governments generally, and to Mexico in particular. "Dual transition" theory suggests that, as an economy shifts from being closed or protected to open and free trade based, a country's political system will also shift from authoritarianism or socialism to liberal democracy. Two additional discourses supported the creation of the accords and the conviction that they would encourage Mexico's democratic transition. One concerned the increasingly visible global conflicts between trade and non-trade interests, and another was the increasingly ubiquitous sustainable development discourse.

Although each of these discourses has its own unique history and trajectory, they wound round, overlapped, and reinforced each other in the NAFTA debates of the early 1990s. The accords were envisioned by their planners to ensure that wealth in Mexico generated by greater free trade would be channeled into regulatory institutions to correct pre-NAFTA labor and environmental abuses. According to the accords' crafters and proponents, the citizen petitioning and dispute resolution mechanisms of the accords would be used by Mexican (Canadian or North American) constituencies, thus ensuring accountability on the part of the state and regulatory institutions, while simultaneously inculcating values of democratic citizenship within grassroots populations utilizing these novel participatory triggers (Mumme 1999, 2; cf. Fox 2000; Simon 2007). According to this logic, the environmental and labor side agreements supported the political arm of Mexico's transition by providing Mexican populations with the formal political tools necessary to coerce their own state into conformity with its written statutes. The trade treaty, in turn, would merely formalize the neoliberal economic arm of Mexico's dual transition, which had been initiated decades before.

This chapter's first section describes Mexico's dual transition and transition theory as it has been applied to Mexico and Latin America more broadly. Nested within the discussion of dual transition is an exploration of contemporary discourses about the importance of transparency to transition processes. Second, the chapter describes the public debates of the immediate pre-NAFTA days and the arguments of both pro- and anti-NAFTA constituencies on both sides of the border. These debates eventually focused on the problem of the non-enforcement of national environmental and labor laws in Mexico. Since questions of Mexican law and enforcement figured so highly in the debates and subsequent creation of the side accords, this section also briefly reviews Mexican environmental and labor laws. The third section is devoted to a discussion of the environmental and labor side accords, as well as their attendant processes and institutions. Finally, the chapter concludes with a brief discussion of participatory, sustainable development. The participatory ideal is especially important to understanding the logic behind the side accords. It supported the dual transitions theory that a full democratic conversion could occur only with democratic consolidation at the grassroots. The side accords were purported to support this consolidation because they required public participation to work.


The "Dual Transition" in Latin America and Mexico

Mexico entered the NAFTA negotiations as a society "in transition" (Tulchin and Selee 2003). The term "in transition" has become a geopolitical catchall to describe the pattern of change in, for the most part, Eastern European and Latin American countries from communism or authoritarianism to free market capitalism and democracy. This sea change largely dominated the post-Cold War world, and was typically theorized by triumphalists as both natural and inevitable. As Centeno notes in the mid-1990s, "Capitalism and democracy appear triumphant. The collapse of the Berlin Wall supposedly signaled not only the triumph of liberalism, but even the end of history" (Centeno 1994, 125–126).

In discussions of Mexico and contemporary Latin America, the topics of democratization, re-democratization, democratic transition, and consolidation have received considerable attention (Hiskey 2005; Karl 1990; Nef 1995; Olvera 2010). While this transition is considered by some to be wholesale and complete—with formally and democratically elected presidents at the head of each Latin American state—for others the transition is less than complete and even troubling (Olvera 2010; Oxhorn and Starr 1999). In the case of Chile, for example, neoliberal economic policy was instituted under the authoritarian rule of Pinochet, disrupting substantially the narrative that free markets invariably usher in vibrant political cultures (cf. Nef 1995). Struggles for true, lasting, and participatory democracy are necessarily ongoing and evident in the various indigenous and new social movements that increasingly shape the Latin American political cultures (Escobar and Alvarez 1992; Slater 1995). The emergence of a strong and vibrant civil society is evidenced partly by the proliferation of NGOs or global civil society (Fox and Hernández 1992; Friedman, Hochstetler, and Clark 2001; Robinson 2003, 222–226) in Latin America and elsewhere. Nevertheless, while some democratization trends look to indigenous Latin American traditions (Postero and Zamosc 2004; Warren and Jackson 2002), others look northward, particularly in an era in which transnational advocacy has become the rule, rather than the exception. "Politically, Latin America shares a recent authoritarian past with many countries, even as its more recent democratic transitions are joining it with the community of primarily Northern democratic governments" (Friedman, Hochstetler, and Clark 2001, 9). Mexico's grassroots democratization began at least two decades before the NAFTA debates (cf. Fox and Hernández 1992). For this reason, Zárate-Ruiz has described the polemics of the NAFTA debates as, in many ways, a morality play (2001).

Latin America's economic transition is rooted partly in the neoliberal orthodoxy articulated in the early 1980s with the Washington Consensus (Horowitz 2005, 270; Smith 2002, 472–473; Wrobel 1998, 551). The Washington Consensus encouraged closed and protected economies to shift toward the obverse; namely, toward free trade and "the promotion of production for export, the retrenchment of the state's role in the economy, and the opening of the economy to foreign trade and investment" (Karl 2003, 134; cf. Green 1995). From roughly the end of the Great Depression through the mid-1970s, many Latin American countries favored Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI), which required limited foreign trade, Keynesian economic development strategies (Escobar 1995, 67–73; Harvey 1989, 135–140), and public social services heavily subsidized by national governments. By the end of the ISI period, many of these economies had become inefficient and corrupt, increasingly dependent on foreign aid, and weighed down by bloated state bureaucracies (Duncan 1995).

Latin America's shift toward more open economies coincided with economic globalization more broadly. Beginning in the 1970s, the world witnessed the restructuring of the dominant core capitalist economies according to the principles of flexible accumulation and production (Harvey 1989, 121–197). This restructuring has ineluctably shaped the contemporary era of transnational capitalism. Robinson (2003) distinguishes the new global economy of flexible production and accumulation from the previous world economy by noting that in the global economy, "the globalization of the production process breaks down and functionally integrates these national circuits [of the world economy] into global circuits of accumulation. The distinction between a world economy and a global economy is the globalization of the production process itself" (Robinson 2003, 13). The new global economy has fundamentally and organically reorganized global commodity chains at the level of production, rather than just trade.

Similar to other Latin American countries, Mexico maintained a protectionist economy from the 1940s until the late 1970s and early 1980s, based on both ISI and extensive state-labor corporatist alliances (Cook 1995; Middlebrook 1995, 1989). Politically, the country was governed by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) from the 1930s until the 2000 election of the Partido de Accion Nacional (PAN) candidate Vincente Fox. In the early period of PRI rule, President Lazaro Cardenas implemented revolutionary populist goals, particularly through land reform and the creation of ejidos, or collective landholdings. The consolidation of PRI rule coincided with a period of relative economic stability; ISI was in place, the economy was growing, and rural resources were being channeled to urban manufacturing to bolster the "Mexican Miracle" (Barkin 1994). Beginning in the 1970s, however, the PRI system began to experience problems on the political front, in addition to the economic front. There were increasing allegations of political corruption, the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre of student demonstrators, and the repression by the Confederación de Trabajadores Mexicanos (CTM) of independent unions. While corporatist alliances between the state and labor had ensured both the support and repression of civil society, as both ISI and PRI rule stumbled, the latter became better known as the "perfect dictatorship." Grassroots efforts toward democratization were underway, strengthening civil society and putting pressure on an increasingly repressive state (La Botz 1995; Lawson 2000; Lorena Cook 1995; Teichman 1997). The PRI's growing legitimacy crisis became full-blown when the government responded inadequately to the 1985 Mexico City earthquake (La Botz 1995, 65–72).

The gradual political demise of the PRI was accompanied by increasing integration into the US economy through trade, export and, finally, maquila-oriented production on Mexico's northern frontier. Liberalization of the Mexican economy was pursued first under the de la Madrid administration of 1982–1988 (Middlebrook 1989, 200) and entrenched under Salinas de Gortari (1988–1994), the Harvard trained economist, "modernizing genius" (McArthur 2000, 77), and darling of neoliberal reformers. The maquilas of the northern region began to emerge in the mid-1960s and early 1970s and were an early stage in Mexico's eventual complete commitment to free trade: "Mexico's economy, once largely closed and state-directed, has become one of the most open economies in the developing world. Since 1990, Mexico has multiplied its total trade with the rest of the world six times, and trade now accounts for one-third of gross domestic product" (Tulchin and Selee 2003, 6).

Mexico's formal democratic transition is generally equated with the election of PAN candidate Fox as President in July of 2000. In place of the historic dedazo, Fox purported to be elected fairly, although even this remains in dispute (Olvera 2010, 85). The 2000 election solidified the notion that personalism in presidential politics was primarily a PRI practice (Morris 2003: 671–672, 1999). Fox subsequently made the pursuit of transparency and the elimination of corruption a centerpiece of his presidency, introducing "new rights of access to information and new institutions for the promotion of transparency" (Olvera 2010, 87), even as his own administration was racked by scandals. The 2000 election bolstered the national narrative (supported by earlier NAFTA debates) that the entire society was in transition from ISI to free trade, darkness to light, opacity to transparency, and authoritarianism to democracy (Simon 2007).

Transparency as discourse, ideal, and practice gained increasing global currency throughout the 1990s (Shore and Haller 2005; West and Sanders 2003). In Mexico, it was and has been inextricably linked with the narrative that equates corrupt PRI rule with a thing of the past within Mexico's "long march to democracy" (Conger 2001). The re-election of a PRI candidate to the presidency in 2012 was supported partly by claims that this was the "new PRI," not to be confused with the party's "dinosaurs" This narrative of dramatic rupture is paradigmatically captured in Jorge Castañedas prologue to Mexico's Political Society in Transition (Castañeda 2003). In an essay in which the word "maturity" figures prominently, Castañeda notes that now there is a "new relationship between Mexican society and its government, a relationship based on trust, accountability, and the rule of law" (Castañeda 2003, 1), and that the country is finally of a political parity with its northern neighbor. He suggests that the mature development of Mexico's political system has been the missing piece in the puzzle of its historically troubled relations with the United States. As he states, "Maturity also means that if disagreements do occur—as they can and most probably will in a relationship as complex as this one—the long term objectives of the bilateral agenda will not be jeopardized. Maturity requires that transparency become the name of the game" (ibid., 3). In this and similar formulations, the terms transparency, accountability, maturity, and democracy are used interchangeably, while ritually contrasted with everything associated with Mexico's past: protectionism, authoritarianism, corruption, opacity and, presumably, immaturity.

Transparency, like sustainable development, figured highly in the creation of the NAFTA side accords. As a political concept, transparency functions in a manner similar to democracy: namely, as both means and end, technique and goal of government. The term has come to function as a buzzword that is interchangeable with "good governance" (Sanders and West 2003, 1). As a rule, transparency in government and society includes free and fair elections, a functioning and non-oppressed civil society, freedom of information, and a free press. Transparency "supports democracy by facilitating access to information that enables citizens to participate in public life, hold public authority accountable to public opinion, counter 'a capture' of public institutions by special interest groups, enhance citizens' confidence in public authority, and improve the performance of public officials" (Stein 2001, 493).

In spite of the term's ubiquity, it has received surprisingly little anthropological or critical scrutiny (exceptions include Shore and Haller 2005; West and Sanders 2003). Transparency discourse, when applied to transition governments, plays on now familiar dyads between corruption and transparency, authoritarianism or socialism and democracy, and protectionism versus free markets, all of which, in turn, are embedded within linear and Eurocentric progressivist narratives (Shore and Haller 2005). This developmental approach to corruption carries "moral and evolutionary overtones" that add "'corruption' to the list of those negative characteristics that are typically applied to the 'Other,' such as underdevelopment, poverty, ignorance, repression of women, fundamentalism, fanaticism and irrationality" (ibid., 3).

The discourse of transparency (as well as its twin, accountability) had particular salience for the border context in the NAFTA debates, the citizens' petitioning processes of the environmental side agreement, the conflict resolution mechanisms of the labor side agreement, and the border development institutions. In formal terms, the petitioning processes were designed to be open, democratic, transparent, and accessible. The NAFTA side accords employed transparency discourse as part of their justification, but this idealized discussion failed to account for the digital, educational, class, population, territorial, world systems, and visual divides that are a function of the economic arrangements that transparency discourse supports. How can transparency support democracy with access to information and the possibility of holding public authorities accountable if the target border populations cannot access the documents and procedures necessary to make this happen?


Trade, Conflict, and the "Mexican" Problem of Non-Enforcement

While Mexico and other Latin American nations were undergoing dual transitions, trade-related conflicts increasingly occupied the global stage. In the 1980s, protectionism was increasingly viewed as a regrettable historical artifact, with the path forward now unanimously grounded in the logic of free trade's invisible hand, comparative advantage, and economic integration. The trade-environment debate (Esty 2001; Harris 2000; Thomas and Weber 1999), sparked regionally by the 1991 US embargo on Mexican tuna imports, drew particular attention to these clashing agendas, as well as to proposed mechanisms for preserving the best of each for a seeming win-win. There were increasing conversations about the possibility of harmonization and civil society inclusion as trade negotiators, policy-makers and academic observers cast nets beyond mere markets reforms (Deere and Esty 2002; Estevadeoral et al. 2004; Esty 2001; Macdonald 1998) and debated the criticality of soft law mechanisms as critical to global governance (Abbott 2001; Rodríguez-Garavito 2006).


(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 Democratizing Discourses 15

2 Space and Place in the Borderlands 40

3 Investigating Waste 60

4 Environmental Justice as Place-Making 93

5 Environmental Organizing and Citizenship on the Border 125

6 Transnational Networks and Grassroots Splintering 150

Conclusion 185

Notes 193

Bibliography 203

Index 217

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