Plan Puebla-Panama and the Nightmare of Imperialist "Progress"

Revolutionary Worker #1184, January 26, 2003, posted at

"We want to begin construction of great corridors of highways and railroads, of pipelines and electric lines, of ports and airports, that quickly and efficiently connect all the development zones from Panama to end the backwardness of the region in order to incorporate it fully in the corridors of world commerce."

Mexican president, Vicente Fox, at ceremony inaugurating Plan Puebla-Panama,
March 2001

"What does progress mean to you? Is it really plundering and destroying the life of the whole region?...a so-called progress that engenders poverty for the majority and denies them an identity? We are opposed to progress for a few in which the same ones who have plundered our country for many years continue to fatten themselves on our land; this is progress that blocks development and whose price is suffering, humiliation and destruction of nature, which is irreversible."

Statement presented to the Mexican government by the People's Front to Defend the Land (Frente de Pueblos para Defender la Tierra), San Salvador Atenco, July 24, 2002

In June of 2001, the presidents of Mexico and the countries of Central America met in El Salvador to inaugurate "Plan Puebla-Panama" (PPP). PPP is marketed as a plan to "bring progress to forgotten peoples." But in truth it is a plan to remold and upgrade the economy of an entire region in line with Yankee imperialist objectives. It will bring a nightmare of imperialist "progress" that will roll like a gigantic earth-moving machine over nine southeastern states of Mexico (Puebla, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Veracruz, Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatán) and the seven countries of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Belize, Panama).

PPP envisions "deruralizing" the south of Mexico and parts of Central America, uprooting indigenous peoples from their land, further militarizing the countryside, and herding the displaced peasants into "population nodes" near "maquiladora corridors" close to "transportation corridors."

PPP is a strategy to completely restructure the region in line with U.S. imperialist needs over a 25-year period. It calls for a huge influx of imperialist investment in three main areas: production (principally in maquiladoras and agrobusiness), gigantic infrastructure projects, and security to protect investments and crush resistance.

Financed by the U.S.-controlled Interamerican Development Bank and the World Bank along with some investment by Europe, PPP is a part of an even bigger plan of the U.S. imperialists called the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Negotiations for the FTAA are expected to be completed by 2005. The aim of the FTAA is to sweatshop the hemisphere--to facilitate the capitalist exploitation of Latin America and provide the U.S. rulers with the economic base and structure to further project themselves around the world.

Over 63 million people live in the area covered by PPP. This region, stretching from Puebla to Panama, is homeland to many indigenous groups and cultures, where 100 indigenous dialects are spoken. The ancient Mayan empire was in this region, and 4 million people still speak a Mayan language.

Of the 11 million indigenous people in Mexico, 80% live in the southeastern states. This area contains some of the most valuable land on the planet: rainforests and jungles, rolling rivers, sparkling white sand coastlines, huge petroleum and gas reserves. But the region lacks roads and basic services like electricity and running water. Indigenous people, bent under the weight of firewood or sacks of coffee, carry their loads down narrow mountain paths to market. The people scratch out a living--working as part-time day laborers, selling cash crops that often don't even earn enough to cover the costs of production, trying to compete with a flood of low-priced U.S. agricultural products.

No indigenous group in Mexico can survive on their ancestral lands without sending people to work in Mexico City or to "el norte." In several countries of Central America, the paychecks sent back home by immigrants working in the U.S. are the number one source of income. There is widespread internal migration in search of work, and famine conditions exist in some parts.

The architects of Plan Puebla-Panama promote the intense poverty of the people and the rich natural resources of the region as an "opportunity" for capitalist investors. They hope to create an "American Jaguar" to rival the "Asian Tigers" (countries like Taiwan and Singapore)--and in the process put the region more firmly under U.S. imperialist control.

Maquiladora March to the South

"Marcha al sur" ("March to the South") is the Mexican government's name for the plan to invest in a system of highways to attract maquiladora factories to southern Mexico. Fox has claimed that indigenous people whose lands are now surrounded by army troops can "exchange military occupation for jobs" and will no longer need to emigrate to el norte to survive.

The "Basic Proposal Documents" for the PPP1 state that one of the "strengths" of the region is its "abundant labor power, with costs competitive by world standards." Maquiladoras--foreign-owned factories that produce export goods--have been the most productive and fastest growing sector of the Mexican economy. But with the U.S. economy in recession, these factories have been shutting down at a rapid pace. A half million people have lost their jobs just in the past year.

PPP documents point to the increasing competition among "developing" countries to attract imperialist investment with the lure of even lower labor costs. Mexico has been losing out to other Third World countries because even though maquiladora wages are 1/12 of what is paid in the U.S. for similar work, capitalist investors still consider these wages too high. The World Bank warns that Mexico must remove "obstacles to investment" such as labor regulations protecting workers. PPP proposes the creation of zones where the wages would be lowered to levels comparable to countries like China. In the southern Mexican state of Yucatán, the wages are already about 40 cents an hour.

Infrastructure for Exploitation

When business journals discuss the impediments to "free trade" in southern Mexico and Central America, they always point to the central importance of improving the infrastructure. The PPP includes major infrastructure development, and the Inter-American Development Bank has approved a $4 billion credit line for such projects.

In June 2002, Mexican and Central American governments signed an agreement to create an "international network of Mesoamerican Highways" totalling 4,500 miles.

The Trans-Isthmus Transportation Corridor is the first project of PPP and is referred to as the "detonator of development." The Isthmus of Tehuantepec, located in the Mexican states of Oaxaca and Veracruz, has been coveted for centuries for its strategic location. It is the narrowest land mass in the hemisphere, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other side.

Plans are in progress to create a "dry canal" through the isthmus to replace the overcrowded Panama Canal. Huge freight ships will dock at the deep-berth ports on either side of the isthmus, and the containers will then be transported overland by railroad or trucks. The planners expect the dry canal to dramatically cut the time of travel from the U.S. East Coast to the West Coast and Asia.

Construction of an eight-lane superhighway has already begun in the Chimalapa wetlands in Oaxaca, on the border with Chiapas. Together with the Lacandona jungle, this area is known as "the Lungs of Mexico"--the last of the tropical rainforests in Mexico, 80% of which has already been lost forever.

The Chimalapa rainforest contains a unique mix of animal and plant species found nowhere else in the world. And it is homeland to five indigenous groups. The Zoque Indians have lived in this jungle for 2000 years and have applied a complex plan to preserve the jungle ecosystem. The Zoque language is the source of the name "Chimalapas" which means "cup of gold" ("jícaras de oro")--in 1687 the Zoques carried cups of gold to buy back this land from the Spanish conquerors who stole it. Today, Mexican government troops are stationed at the construction sites, and the Chimalapas jungle is being torn by bulldozers that flatten the hills, rip the dense vegetation, and fell the virgin-growth pines and cedars. Last year the people attacked a prison and liberated peasants who had been jailed for defending their land against logging interests.2

Exploiting Energy Resources

The state of Chiapas contains the largest natural gas reserves in the Western hemisphere. At the 2001 Quebec Summit, U.S., Canadian, and Mexican officials signed an accord to "make energy markets more efficient." George Bush revealed U.S. intentions when he declared that "the gas in Mexico is hemispheric." He also said that petroleum production in Mexico should be expanded so that the U.S. would not have to depend on foreign oil--as if Mexico had already been incorporated into U.S. borders.

PPP also includes plans for 72 dams throughout the region to harness the water reserves and supply the U.S. with hydroelectric power. The dam projects will displace 50,000 people and flood 800 important archeological sites. Several of the dam projects have been held back for years by the struggle of the people.

The power grid throughout Central America is being connected, and Mexico has secured funding to connect its power grid to Guatemala this year. Guatemala's electrical system is owned by the U.S. energy company Enron, and Nicaragua sold its electrical system to Enron last year.

Harvests of Hunger and Sweatshop Forests

Central America is an exporter of food to the world. But millions of people suffer from malnutrition in the region covered by PPP. And last year, a combination of weather changes, deforestation, and the effects of the world market led to conditions of starvation among many people.

The PPP will only exacerbate the food problems for the people of this area. PPP will create huge high-tech agricultural plantations where the peasants labor as peons on their own land. There are no plans to use the abundant fertile land to feed the people. Vicente Fox has stated that in order to make the countryside of Mexico profitable, about 20 million campesinos should leave the countryside and find employment elsewhere.

The Mexican government's forestry plan was prepared by a consulting firm from Finland which recommended that vast expanses of land be converted into eucalyptus tree plantations.3 Eucalyptus is a fast-growing tree that sucks all the water out of the land and emits toxins that quickly render the land unable to grow anything else. The eucalyptus is pulped for use in paper factories or for boxes used by the maquiladoras. With the creation of huge eucalyptus plantations, the forest itself becomes a sweatshop.4

Indigenous Culture for Sale

Included in the PPP are plans to develop tourism. One example is Xcaret, a "Mayan theme park" located in the state of Quintana Roo. It is considered a "model" in marketing Mayan indigenous culture to foreign tourists. The site of the park was once one of the most important Mayan archeological sites. The park owners pride themselves on "faithful duplication of Mayan culture." Models of the ruins have been built and set alongside of what remains of the original. Wildlife preserves, such as a program to protect marine turtles, have been privatized and sold to investors for development as tourist attractions. Dives with dolphins go for $130. Tourists can roam the forests to catch a glimpse of indigenous people working as "chicleros," tapping trees to extract gum base. The park includes a training program to teach Mayan people to work in the kitchens, maintain the park grounds, and service the needs of the foreign tourists.5

Rainforests Owned by Chemical Companies

PPP also includes the creation of a protected area of rainforest that stretches from Mexico through Central America. This is a World Bank-sponsored project called "Biological Corridor of Meso-America." This project seeks to create "biosphere reserves" out of huge stretches of rainforest and jungle, supposedly to protect biodiversity.6

The World Bank argues that developing the resources of the rainforests--like plants and animals that have medicinal uses--as commodities to be bought and sold will help ensure the protection of the rainforests! In reality, this plan will make the rainforests private property of huge multinational corporations--especially the chemical companies that have diversified into "life industries" in the past decade. In the name of "protecting biodiversity," the PPP will put rainforest resources increasingly under the custodianship of those who brought us napalm (Dow Chemical), Agent Orange (Dupont), and the Terminator Seed (Monsanto)--while making the rainforests off limits to the indigenous people who have lived there for centuries.

Increased Militarization

The region covered by PPP is seething with discontent. As PPP goes into effect, it will undoubtedly throw more people into struggle and resistance against the government and the dislocations and super-exploitation brought on by "development." Last August 15,000 indigenous people, joined by the Catholic bishop Arizmendi, marched against PPP in Chiapas. On Indigenous People's Day, protests against PPP, Plan Colombia, and the FTAA stretched throughout the continent. In Chiapas 12 major highways were blocked, and all highways in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua were closed down by protests by indigenous Tarahumara people.

The "Basic Proposal Documents" for PPP allude to the need for increased militarization to assure investors that they will operate in a safe environment. To contain and regulate the flow of people displaced by the new "development," PPP envisions several "migratory filters" that will be useful for counterinsurgency purposes.

"Plan Sur" operates along the border between Belize and Guatemala and will be used to control the migratory flow from Central and South America--that is, to keep people from crossing into Mexico. Another wall is planned along the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to intercept Mexicans traveling within their own country.

Elite units of army and police have already been trained by Guatemalan paramilitary units (kaibiles or "messengers of death"). These units will be deployed in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.7 U.S. troops are already stationed on the border between Mexico and Guatemala. Many people have pointed out that where Plan Puebla-Panama ends, Plan Colombia begins. Plan Colombia is a major counterinsurgency plan of the U.S.--an attempt to deal with challenges the U.S. faces in the Andean region of South America.

"Let There Be 1,000 Atencos"

In July of 2002, the world witnessed the rebellion of peasants in Atenco, Mexico. Armed with machetes and homemade explosives, the campesinos declared their willingness to fight to the death to stop the Mexican government from expropriating their land. The government planned to erase the pueblos of the municipality of San Salvador Atenco under the runways of a new international airport. But the airport project went down in defeat in the face of the people's heroic resistance.

The "Globalizing Airport" in Atenco was to have been a showpiece of Mexican "modernization." The Mexican rulers saw it as a crucial part of the leap in commerce and investment that PPP will bring about. The airport was meant to be the transportation hub for Mexico City, feeding into three major freeways that in turn would connect with the infrastructure projects of PPP. As jet planes took off from the Atenco airport and climbed into the clouds, the passengers would never have seen the displaced peasants toiling in the maquiladoras.

The people of Atenco tell a story about a crucial moment in their struggle last July. It was the early morning hours, and they were surrounded by 3,000 troops. As they prepared their molotov cocktails and dug trenches--"ready for whatever came down"--a phone call came in from the south of Mexico: there were 2,000 supporters from the southern state of Guerrero on their way to Atenco. Yet another phone call said that a batallion of supporters from Oaxaca were just a few hours away. These thousands of determined people were prevented from reaching Atenco by government troops and blockades. But they sent the message to the people of Atenco: "Stay strong, compañeros. While you fight on the frontlines, we'll be fighting them here." And indeed there were battles and blockages of highways all over Mexico in support of the struggle in Atenco.

The victory of the campesinos in Atenco has planted the seeds of dreams in the minds of people across Mexico-- and beyond its borders. And this victory carries concrete lessons for others confronting the PPP: "If Atenco could win against the government, why can't we?"

On one banner to Atenco, sent by displaced campesinos laboring in the sweatshops of the U.S., was the message: "Gracias Atenco. Compañeros we support you. Let there be 1,000 Atencos."

Plan Puebla-Panama is part of the U.S. rulers' imperial vision to reconfigure the world under their iron-grip domination. But plans for great oppression can bring forth great resistance and struggle. In Atenco one of the first projects of Plan Puebla-Panama went down in defeat. Shockwaves of a people's victory can spread far and reverberate deeply. While the empire makes its plans, the people will make theirs.



1 "Plan Puebla-Panama: Capítulo Mexico. Documento Base," Presidencia de la Republica, Marzo, 2001

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2 "Sobre la Reserva Ecológica Campesina en los Chimalapas. Movimiento Campesino y Ecología Comunitaria," Emanuel Gómez, April 2002,

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3 "Mexico: Opposition to forestry plan prepared by Finnish Consultancy Firm," World Rainforest Movement,

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4 "Eucalyptus, Neoliberalism and NAFTA in Southeastern Mexico,"

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5 "El modelo Xcaret viaja a Chiapas: un reporte vacacional," La Jornada , 4/15/01

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6 "El corredor biologico del BM, en la zona petrolera de la nación: Mesoamerica, en el ojo de la globalización," Juan Antonio Zuñiga and Roberto Gonzalez Amador,

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7 La Jornada , 6/19/01 and 6/21/01.

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