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Mexican Farmers Protest Elimination of Tariffs

In Mexico, there is increasing unrest among farmers in poor rural areas, in anticipation of the lifting of agricultural tariffs January 1, under the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA. The issue is being exploited by opposition political parties, which are organizing protests.

On Thursday, federal officials ended a 24-hour standoff with angry farmers who had blocked a major highway south of Mexico City. Armed police arrived on the scene, but the blockade ended without violence. At the same time, another group of angry farmers dumped tons of beans in front of the Mexican senate building, causing consternation and traffic jams in the area.

The farmers are upset about the January 1 elimination of tariffs on all agricultural imports, with the exception of milk, corn, beans and sugar. Their cause has been championed by opposition parties, in particular, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years uninterrupted, until the election of President Vicente Fox two years ago.

Mexican Agriculture Minister Javier Usabiaga says the PRI and other political groups are manipulating the poor farmers for their own purposes.

He has called on political groups not to use the farmers for political gain that disrupts social harmony. He says the leaders of these protest groups have blocked roads and streets, without first attempting a dialogue with the government.

Among the protest leaders at the road blockade Thursday was a PRI congressional deputy and the party leader in the state of Morelos. They say the government has failed to provide sufficient help to farmers in the state, just south of Mexico City, whose crops were ruined by bad weather. The Fox government says it has provided help, and, earlier in the week, also boosted subsidies for basic grains by $10 billion.

But farmers groups say these measures are not enough, given the $190 billion subsidies the Bush administration has provided to U.S. agricultural producers over the next 10 years. Opposition lawmakers are calling on President Fox to seek a delay in the implementation of the tariff eliminations. A mechanism for doing so is provided under NAFTA, as long as Mexico can demonstrate that the tariff elimination would severely damage the nation's agricultural sector.

But free trade supporters here in Mexico say a delay is not necessary. They note that, on a per-ton basis, Mexican government subsidies to support grain prices are higher than those of the United States. The real problem, they say, is that most Mexican farms are small, inefficient operations that cannot even support the families who live on them. Around 70 percent of Mexican farmers have only about five hectares of land. Mexico's 8.5 million farmers produce about one-seventh as much as their three million U.S. counterparts.