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    Mexico: Corn Feeds Discontent
    By Babette Stern

    Thursday 18 January 2007

The thirty percent increase over three years in the price of the tortilla, the country's basic food, and the increase in American imports have provoked demonstrations.

    "If the poor have no tortillas, let them eat cake!" cries out Mexico's first lady, dressed as Marie-Antoinette, standing next to her husband, President Felipe Calderón, wearing a powdered wig and lace frill. The queen's famous statement, revised by the humorist Helguera in a cartoon that appeared in the daily newspaper La Jornada, illustrates what could become the new head of state's first crisis, less than fifty days after he assumed his post.

    The source of rumbling popular discontent is the increase in the price of the corn tortilla, Mexicans' basic food, which has skyrocketed since the beginning of the year. It had already increased close to 14 percent in 2006, and by 30 percent in three years. For several days, the number of demonstrations in the capital and in the principal cities of the country has been increasing. Wednesday, beating on pots and crying, "We want tortillas, not bread! Without corn, there is no country," the demonstrators marched on the Ministry of the Economy to demand the resignation of the new economy minister, deemed to be unable to resolve the problem.

    "We've Abandoned Farming"

    The opposition - "the legitimate president" and Calderón's losing rival, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, at their head - is organizing the movement of civil resistance for the defense of small farmers and of the poorest levels of the population. They question the free trade treaty signed with the United States and Canada in 1994, as well as the monopoly situation some companies enjoy. "The increase in the price of corn has nothing to do with speculation, but comes from the fact that we are dependent on the United States for the corn we buy there," Obrador explains. "Mexico is not self-sufficient because we've abandoned agriculture in the neo-liberal framework the government has applied. A single company, Maseca, controls 85 percent of cornmeal flour." The American giant Cargill is also in his sights.

    During the first weeks of his term, Calderón organized strike operations against narco-traffickers in several of the country's states. He didn't foresee the consequences for social peace of the global hike in corn prices. His government has only just announced the increase in import quotas without tariffs for 650,000 tons of corn from the United States and Europe to dampen prices and avoid a scarcity of tortillas in the domestic market. His detractors say the quota increase is not commensurate with the problem and, worse still, only strengthens Mexico's dependency on foreign food.

    Since the free trade treaty was signed, subsidized American products have been entering the Mexican market in massive amounts, making local products uncompetitive - one of the causes of the massive exodus of Mexico's peasants. According to Max Correa, secretary general for the Peasant's Exchange, "these additional imports are going to generate more migration. For every five tons of corn purchased abroad, another peasant becomes an emigration candidate."

    And the situation could worsen. In 2008, one treaty measure provides for the end of import quotas on three basic food products for Mexicans: corn, beans and sugar cane. In Parliament, MPs from the Party for Democratic Revolution and from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI - in power for sixty-six years) have united to denounce this "palliative" and to demand "comprehensive action to assist in the production of basic foodstuffs."

    Corn Is Being Used More to Manufacture Biodiesel

    The takeoff in international prices is due notably to the increasing use of corn to produce ethanol, which serves to manufacture biodiesel, a substitute product for gasoline during a period of expensive gas. Last year, the United States withdrew 40 million tons of corn from the market to devote to this new fuel. In Mexico, the tortilla crisis also revives the debate on food sovereignty. For the Milenio's editorialist, Juan Gabriel Valencia: "The tortilla is nutritionally essential in the diet of the poorest." The church itself is divided over the consequences of the increase. Mexico's archbishop, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, deemed that the increase in the price of the tortilla "is no tragedy" for the country and should not degenerate into a "social war," but the Bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas (Chiapas), Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, asserted Monday that there was, in fact, a risk of a new social and political movement "as dramatic as that of 1994" - which saw the Zapatista uprising.