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Political weather report

14 February 2011

Although I have posts on the Mex Files going back as early as 2002, I seriously starting this site in 2004. I learned a hard lesson in the first two years… basically, that one cannot predict the political future in this country, or even say with certainty who the candidates or issues will be, until a few months before an election. In 2005, I expected Andres Manuel López Obrador to face off against Santiago Creel, and López Obrador to win.

Well, MAYBE I was right in that second prediction (but not in the way I expected) but in February 2005 I wouldn’t have taken Felipe Calderón — the then obscure ex-president of the  Banobras (the federal development bank) and ex-Energy Secretary — seriously as a candidate, or even a pre-candidate for PAN.  And, although trouble was brewing in Oaxaca, I wouldn’t have expected the PRI governor’s heavy-handed response to pave the way for a quasi-“state of emergency” under the rubric of fighting gangsters to be the result of Calderón’s questionable victory in July 2006.

At any rate, having decided this year to pull back on writing about day to day events, I’m recommending Aguachile and Ganchoblog to those who follow the pre-candidates, the candidates and the party maneuvering that may or may not impact the July 2012 Presidential elections.  I don’t expect those kinds of issues to engage me much before March of 2012, but it does seem important to pay attention to the kinds of events that may not create some immediate political posturing or create “sound bites” for one politico or another, but may change the political landscape in unexpected ways.

Unexpected, and under-reported,  for an English-language source for what will likely have a huge political impact in Mexico, I’ve had to link to a story filed  for some unknown reason from Las Cruces, New Mexico, and published in the Salem (Oregon) News.

February’s freezing fury has left a path of crumpled crops, pummeled harvests and dashed dreams in the countryside of northern Mexico. Hardest hit was the northwestern state of Sinaloa, known as the “Bread Basket of Mexico,” where about 750,000 acres of corn crops were reported destroyed after unusually cold temperatures blanketed the north of the country in January and early February.

Sinaloa is among Mexico’s major producers of white corn, the variety of maize used to make staple tortillas. Heriberto Felix Guerra, secretary of the federal Secretariat for Social Development (SEDESOL), called the weather-related losses “the worst disaster” in the history of Sinaloa.

Altogether, more than 1.5 million acres of corn, vegetable, citrus and other crops were either damaged or destroyed in Sinaloa, with a preliminary economic loss of approximately one billion dollars.

The source of about 30 percent of Mexico’s grains and vegetables, Sinaloa also exports food products to the United States. Other northern states also experienced the widespread destruction of winter crops. In Sonora, more than 130,000 acres were reported lost, including 45 percent of the acreage planted in winter wheat. In Tamaulipas, nearly 800,000 acres in corn and sorghum were impacted, while crop losses in Chihuahua were calculated in the $100 million ballpark.

How that has affected Sinaloa’s other major agricultural exports, I can’t say, but the economic losses to the marijuana and poppy growers are probably just as devastating.  As  Tim Johnson reported on the economics of these crops for McClatchy last September, the importance of  poppy and marijuana crops cannot be easily dismissed:

Cannabis cultivation in Mexico soared 35 percent last year and is now higher than at any time in nearly two decades, the State Department says.

It’s also been a boon for Mexico’s powerful organized-crime groups.

Marijuana is perishable, bulky and less profitable than their other exports — heroin, cocaine and crystal meth…

… The mountain slopes and valleys in the part of southern Chihuahua state that’s hugged by Sinaloa and Durango states are sometimes called Mexico’s Golden Triangle — after the opium-producing Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia — because of their productivity. Illicit crops include not only marijuana but also poppy, the flowering plant that provides the white gummy latex that’s later processed into opium and heroin.

It’s a dangerous area. Even the poorest farmers tote weapons. A third of the region’s population is thought to earn its living from the illicit drug industry.

Peasant farms need little to grow small fields of marijuana: bags of seeds, some fertilizer, lengths of hose for primitive irrigation systems and a few months for the crop to mature into 10-foot tall plants.

According to State Department estimates, the areas of harvestable marijuana fields in Mexico grew from 10,130 acres in 2001 to 29,652 acres in 2009…

Farmers see little stigma — or risk — in growing cannabis.

“It’s always been said that poppy is controlled by organized crime, and marijuana is for the people. Growing it is like growing corn,” said the general, who spoke to a journalist on the condition — set by Mexico’s Defense Ministry — that he not be named.

Marijuana pays better than corn — but not much. A couple of pounds of marijuana sells locally for barely $15 or $20….

…The biggest competition for Mexican cartels comes from domestic marijuana growers in the United States. A document produced by local, state and federal law enforcement officials in California’s Central Valley, a major hub for marijuana cultivation, says that California’s 2009 marijuana harvest alone surpassed the annual estimated harvest of nearly 32,000 tons in Mexico. It put overall U.S. marijuana production at 76,380 tons.

“Mexicans sometimes tell me that they think we are self-sufficient in marijuana,” Johnson said.

In reality, though, Mexican pot may remain popular because it’s far cheaper than domestically grown cannabis in the United States is. The low price of the less-potent Mexican marijuana buoys demand, inducing cartels to stick with it as a revenue-producer.

I understand that agricultural productivity is not a sexy political issue, but the crop losses are already immediate political impact, and the “ripple effects” could be serious enough to upset any political calculations made this far in advance of mid 2012.

Felipe Calderón, meeting with Sinaloas ex-PRIsta turned PANista, PRD-coalition Governor, Manuel López Valdez, to promise immediate relief from the Secretariat of Agriculture and the Treasury to beleaguered farmers. While Calderón was speaking of insurance, and credit for the farmers, 20 tons of seed was highjacked — presumably by an organized crime group — on a Sinaloan highway.  Highjacking agricultural products is a traditional type of crime  in rural Sinaloa, and I don’t think it means the marijuana producers are switching to corn (though, like farmers anywhere, market prices are more likely to determine what they plant — one reason I’ve suggested it would be more cost effective to control narcotics by paying farmers the narcotics market price for growing something else, or just not growing anything).  But it does point out that the present Administration, and much of the opposition, could be investing too much political capital in narcotics control  when the voters (especially in rural states) are likely to have other priorities come the elections.

At the end of January, and the beginning of February, there was a lot of talk about how food prices were behind the “disturbances” in North Africa. Time magazine was fretting over the role bread prices were playing in the situation in Egypt:

In the last few days, soaring food prices have been cited as one of the proverbial straws that led Egyptians to take to the streets in frustration over Murbarak’s 30-year rule. It wouldn’t be the first time that food has been a catalyst for social upheaval in the northern African nation. In 1977, what came to be known as the Egyptian Bread Riots broke out after the state ended its subsidies of basic food staples. Hundreds of thousands of poor Egyptians took to the streets; scores were killed and hundreds were injured. Thirty years later in 2007 and 2008, as food prices soared and food riots swept cities across the globe, panic over a disruption in the supply chain of flour and bread in Egypt again unfolded into deadly protests.

This year, food prices are also reaching worrying highs. Global wheat prices are at an all-time high, and other grains and meat prices were up over 20% by the end of 2010. Though some 40% of Egypt’s 80 million residents live in poverty, high food prices don’t have the same impact in Egypt that they might have in other vulnerable countries. The nation has a huge subsidy program that, when its working right, helps protect its poorest citizens from inflated food prices. Two years ago, when food prices were soaring and riots broke out, there technically was no food shortage, but the high prices of commodities – and bad management of the private and government supply chain – led to disruptions in the supply of subsidized grain, so many couldn’t afford to eat.

While Rebecca Wilders of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs is rather superficial in her analysis of the likelihood of an Egyptian-style uprising happening in the Americas, she is correct in noting that the demographics and social/political situations in the Americas are very different, and an uprising is difficult to imagine.  The FAO (the World Food Organization) was also sounding the alarm of potential unrest around the world due to crop shortages.  UNREST, not uprisings, in Mexico is very likely. However, as we learned in the last election, unrest — in the sense of distrust of the status quo — is seen in the United States as “potential” uprisings, and given recent rumblings by U.S. officials about “insurgency” in Mexico, the United States could put both covert and overt pressure on Mexico to preserve “stability”… i.e., avoid change.

Also very likely that the promises of insurance and credits will be enough to keep farmers afloat.  As I’ve been told, marijuana is more temperature resistant than corn, and has a much shorter growing season.   Given that the United States already has adequate marijuana, more Mexican production would probably drive down the farm price here, putting even more rural workers off the land, or forced into “alternative” rural industries like meth production.  Which, in turn, would have implications for the increasingly unpopular “war on drugs” that could change the political landscape.

Calderón has been front and center on climate change, but whether his early recognition of the issue.  Whether he or another politico will be able to use this disaster as a way of building on climate change as in issue , or whether Calderón’s attempts to make climate change an issue earlier in his tenure will rub off on any potential successor, remains to be seen.

Complicating things — and perhaps something that has also been overlooked by focusing on the “drug war” has been that the present administration is borrowing heavily from the World Bank. This was justified as a way of stabilizing the peso… something that’s going to be harder to do if there is a need for massive corn imports, or bailing out the farmers, or if food prices go up (which they likely will) leading to inflation (something more a concern to middle-class voters than to the poor, for whom basic food security is likely to be important).  And, of course, the World Bank’s “recommendations” more than likely will be for more corn imports from the United States, leading back to less security for the farmers, leading to…

Any, or all of these, are going to have a political impact.  What we should not do is focus at this point on how potential candidates are packaging themselves, but on how those politican’s clients are likely to respond to events that are unfolding over the next 18 months.




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