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Mexican Farm Workers Demand More Aid to Rural Areas - 2001-08-08

Thousands of farm workers marched through the streets of Mexico City on Wednesday, pressing their demands for more government aid to the rural sector. Organizers of the demonstrations are challenging the free-market policies of President Vicente Fox.

Carrying banners and placards, the campesinos, Spanish for peasants brought their complaints to the streets of the Mexican capital. Among their demands, more help for farmers hard hit by drought and the drop in commodity prices worldwide. They also want protectionist measures that fly in the face of President Fox's free-trade policies.

Many of the protesters carried signs that said "Zapata Lives!", a reference to Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, whose 1910 revolt in the southern state of Morelos was based on the idea of land ownership by the campesinos. Wednesday was the 122nd anniversary of Zapata's birth.

But supporters of the Fox government say the old system of small, inefficient farming plots and communal farms is the major problem for Mexico's rural sector. They argue that Mexico needs more modern farming operations in order to compete internationally.

The leaders of the several campesino organizations that organized the march, however, say Mexico's rural sector has suffered from neglect.

They note that Mexico's trade partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement, The United States and Canada, both maintain subsidies to protect their farmers. They say subsidies are needed in Mexico for some crops in order to promote self-sufficiency in food production. This was a slogan of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, during its 71-year rule.

Mr. Fox, who became the first opposition presidential candidate to defeat the PRI, in last year's election, says such an idea is impractical and out of date. He says there is no way Mexico can compete with the United States and Canada in providing subsidies. He says the country is better off importing corn and other grains and using its farm land for more profitable crops like the winter vegetables his family grows on its land in the central state of Guanajuato.

Adding to the current discontent in Mexico's rural areas is a decade-long drought in the north and the collapse of prices on the world market for such agricultural products as coffee and sugar.