January 2007  
Against the Tortillazo, Impose Workers Control!

Mexico's Tortilla Crisis, Product of Capitalism

Mexican president Felipe Calderón (right) joined by “tortilla king” Roberto González Barrera, owner of the Maseca flour monopoly and Banorte bank, in announcing “price ceiling” which was really a 40 percent price hike. (Photo: Notimex)

The following is a translation of a leaflet by the Grupo Internacionalista distributed at a January 31 protest in Mexico City.

2007 began with a spectacular increase in the price of tortillas, a staple of the Mexican diet, as basic as bread in the United States. After going from 6 to 7 pesos per kilo (roughly 25 to 30 cents a pound) during November and December of last year, by the second week of January the price of tortillas had shot up to 12 pesos (50 cents a pound) in many markets in Mexico City and as much as 18 pesos (75 cents a pound) in some cities around the country. Forgetting his previous declared opposition to price controls, in order to escape the prospect of massive protests the new government of Felipe Calderón announced a price ceiling of 8.5 pesos. In reality, this was not a blow against speculation but a 40-percent rise in the price of tortillas, on top of a 28 percent hike in the price of subsidized milk. The new price for tortillas was labeled “voluntary,” and it only affected a small part of the market. Not by accident, Calderón was accompanied by various tortilla manufacturing magnates as he announced the measure.

Now the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador and the Broad Progressive Front (FAP – consisting of the PRD, the Party of Labor and Democratic Convergence) in “strategic alliance” with “independent” labor groups have announced a “mega-march” to protest against the price increases for basic commodities. But what is this popular front calling for? The bourgeois “opposition” which is calling this demonstration announced that it would undertake legal proceedings “against whoever is responsible” for hoarding and speculation – as if they didn’t know who the people are! They are also proposing to set up a trust fund to subsidize tortillas, such as existed in the period when the Conasupo (National Company for Popular Supplies) handed out “tortibonos” (cards entitling families to a certain quantity of tortillas per day, according to the number of family members). But beware. According to the neo-liberal schema, these reduced prices would not be for everyone but only for the neediest. In fact, López Obrador is nothing but a “neo-liberal with a human face,” and his aim is to control the protests and keep them circumscribed within the capitalist framework.

An increase in the price of tortillas is a brutal attack on the livelihood of the working population. For many families with limited resources, tortillas constitute a large part of their diet. And the reality is that the starvation policies of the new regime only accentuate what at bottom is nothing but an inescapable trait of capitalism. For that reason, in order to combat the tortillazo (the tortilla attack) it is necessary to mobilize the workers against the capitalist system itself. In order to make genuine price control a reality, it is urgently necessary to form worker-neighborhood supply committees with the power to shut down, on their own, businesses which do not respect the specified price, to ensure an adequate supply of flour and to seize the stocks from the hoarders. And since those who are really behind the tortilla war are the big monopolies, it is necessary to impose workers control over the whole chain of production and distribution of grain, flour and dough. To combat the speculative networks, it’s necessary to impose workers inspection of the accounting books of the agro-industrial giants.

We also fight for a sliding scale of wages in order to counter the effects of inflation (wages should be raised according to the rate of inflation), and for a sliding scale of working hours, in order to put an end to unemployment and to distribute the available work among all workers. Such measures will not be undertaken by any capitalist government, whether of the PAN or the PRD and its allies. Various components of the FAP, such as the capitalist farmers of El Barzón for example, are linked (although in a subordinate fashion) to the agro-industrial chains. We do not call for action by the PAN regime, which wants to impose a value-added (sales) tax even on medicines and food. In order to combat the government policy of price hikes, it is necessary to break with the López Obrador popular front and mobilize the working masses under the leadership of a revolutionary workers party that fights for a workers and peasants government to undertake international socialist revolution.

This crisis has been generated not only in Mexico. Among the various factors behind the increasing cost of tortillas, the rise in price of corn on the international market has been cited, due in part to the increasing use of the grain to produce ethanol. In addition, there is the increase in price of natural gas and gasoline, and other raw materials. While all these factors have had an effect, the speed of the price increase for tortillas is the result of a shortage of white corn flour, due to hoarding by the large companies that monopolize the sector: Minsa, owned by Raymundo Gómez Flores (former head of the Banca Cremi banking chain), Grupo Maseca (Gruma) of Roberto González Barrera (owner of the  Banorte bank) and the international agro-industrial giant Cargill. This oligopoly is the direct result of the privatization of the industry carried out in the last two PRI administrations, of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-94) and Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), and more generally, of the policies implemented as part of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA),

According to journalist Luis Hernández Navarro, from 1994 to date, the price of tortillas has gone up by 738 percent (La Jornada, 16 January). Over the same period, the minimum wage has only tripled. What this means is that today, the minimum wage buys less than half of what it did 13 years ago. With its economic policies, the new government is really taking tortillas from the tables of millions of working people and urban and rural poor. But the alternative is not to go back to the old PRI system, as the PRD suggests. Hernández Navarro offers an idyllic description of that “model”:

“In the name of modernization, the new model dismantled a framework in which the state regulated the market by establishing price guarantees and regulating imports….

“The former model stimulated production by guaranteeing farmers a fixed price for their products, providing credit and technical assistance. In order to protect internal prices, the government controlled how much grain entered the country through export permits. Conasupo bought up about 15-20 percent of the harvest and through its affiliates distributed it to remote communities that lacked sufficient supplies.”

The reality is that Conasupo was notorious for corruption. When it was headed by Raúl Salinas, it served as his source for his illicit funds, using practices such as importing and selling contaminated milk. The producers were subject to blackmail by PRI managers who controlled the silos and the purchase of the grain harvest. On the other hand, neither the poverty of small peasants nor forced migration began 15 years ago.

Popular front mobilized tens of thousands in Mexico City’s main plaza on January 31 to protest rise in price of tortillas and call for a “new social pact” chaining workers to the bourgeois populist PRD.

One only has to read the book of José Luis Calva, Crisis agrícola y alimnetaria en México, 1982-1988 (Fontamara, 1988), to see how the consumption of beef, pork, fish, beans and bananas dropped by over 25 percent from 1981 to 1986, while grain imports shot up. What is true is that with NAFTA, the Mexican agricultural crisis turned into a disaster that has depopulated a large part of the countryside of its men and youth. It would be normal for a capitalist country, and all the more so for an agricultural country like Mexico, to maintain reserves of basic grains in order to overcome periodic droughts and market fluctuations such as are currently taking place. But Mexico cannot do this today because corn production has been ruined by massive imports. Calderón’s “solution” is to intensify this ruin by importing 650,000 tons of duty-free rice. In doing so, he is speeding up the timetable laid out by NAFTA, which calls for eliminating import duties on grain starting in January 2008.

Proletarian revolutionaries, both in Mexico and the United States and Canada, opposed NAFTA as a colonialist treaty harmful to the working people of all three countries. We also opposed the privatization of state enterprises such as Conasupo and its corn processing affiliate, MINSA. But it is not a matter of yearning for a “golden age” when Mexico’s capitalist economy consisted mainly of state-owned companies. Mexican agriculture has always been subject to the laws of the capitalist market. Even before flour production was privatized in 1993, Mexico’s capitalist governments were imposing industrialized flour to replace the production of tortilla flour in small shops. Moreover, by keeping the cost of tortillas low and the price of corn high, it was subsidizing Mexican industrialists by lowering the cost of reproduction of “its” workforce. In other words, they were using “food sovereignty” to keep workers drowning in poverty due to low wages.

The current crisis recalls the situation in May-June 1996, when masses of desperate residents of working-class suburbs of Monterrey and Durango assaulted freight trains because they were starving. The bourgeois populist-nationalist PRD of Andrés Manuel López Obrador at most would beg the flour cartel to soften its monopolistic practices. But in order to smash these monopolies and expropriate them in the interests of the working people, imposing workers control, it’s necessary to undertake a struggle for a workers and peasants government. Only through permanent revolution that extends north of the border, from Oaxaca to Oaxacalifornia and the industrial heartland of imperialism, which mobilizes the mass of poor peasants and Indians under the leadership of a class-conscious proletariat and its vanguard party, will it be possible to emerge from this hell of poverty and turn starvation into a bad memory of the past. n

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