PPP Spotlight #1:
PPP Focus Moves South as Mexican Backing Loses Momentum
Wendy Call | February 20, 2003

Editor’s introduction: While the notion of spurring development in the Mesoamerican region may seem, upon initial consideration, attractive, there are numerous questions about the proposed infrastructure development project, the Plan-Puebla Panama (PPP), that remain unanswered. Of particular importance: determining who will benefit from the plan vs. who will be negatively impacted. In order to probe more deeply into the details of the PPP, identify the potential merits and shortcomings of the plan, and provide civil society actors with information they can use to conduct PPP-related work, the Americas Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC) has teamed up with journalist Wendy Call to produce the monthly PPP Spotlight.
Imagine this: Congressional representatives scramble out of their seats, ignoring their leader’s exhortations to remain calm. They sprint out the back door of the building, trying to jump the fence that surrounds their meeting place. Out front, protesting farmers putter around on tractors, smear manure on the sidewalk, pelt the walls with rotting vegetables. A few pigs trot by, wearing the nametags of the President and three cabinet members. Cowboys on horses shatter the glass façade of the building. One of the farmers tells the media: "This is just a little taste."
This all happened in Mexico City on December 10, 2002, Human Rights Day. It was one of the first demonstrations by a newly united movement of rural Mexican producers who are increasingly dissatisfied over with Mexico’s insertion into the global economy. The scene offers a small window onto the growing desperation in the Mexican countryside, and a little taste of the gathering storm that is Mexico’s farmer’s movement. On January 1, 2003 a number of key protections for Mexican farmers were phased out under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In response, hundreds of thousands of farmers have united under the banner: "El Campo No Aguanta Mas"–"The countryside can’t take any more!" The situation is dire: already in 2001, Mexico had a two-billion-dollar agricultural trade deficit with the United States.
Two years ago, newly elected Mexican President Vicente Fox announced his backing for a regional development plan, known as the Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), pointing to the project as the solution to underdevelopment in rural southern Mexico and Central America. The plan, it was argued, would provide farmers, campesinos, and other rural Mexicans with new economic possibilities. Now, however, it seems that promise has gone the way of his campaign pledge to end the conflict in Chiapas "in fifteen minutes."
Fox emerged quickly after his election as the lead promoter of the PPP, an ambitious Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) project intended to build the physical infrastructure needed to plug southern Mexico and Central America into the NAFTA zone. However, when Fox and the IDB speak of PPP-built highways, a regional electrical grid, and new industrial zones for maquiladora manufacturing, many of the region’s residents fear that the developed strategy that guides the PPP will mean the loss of their land and traditional livelihoods. [ more ]
In Mexico, rural issues have risen to the top of the public agenda as NAFTA is fully implemented. Each year there are fewer protections for Mexican farmers. As a result, life grows more precarious for millions of campesinos in the countryside. As negotiations for the Central America Free Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) proceed apace, Central American farmers are anticipating similar problems. Because of this, many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) concerned about the PPP have urged that rural issues be addressed by the Plan Puebla Panama. This is unlikely to happen, however, as IDB officials have insisted that PPP planners will not take agricultural issues or land tenure into consideration.
In 2000, the PPP was presented as a fait accompli. Today, however, largely as a result of citizen groups acting to question the plan, the future of the PPP–or, at least, Mexico’s leadership in the project–is less certain.
The movement against the PPP surged to life more quickly than the program itself. By the end of 2002, just two years after Fox publicly announced the program, Mexicans and Central Americans had already held three international gatherings and dozens of regional meetings to discuss the PPP and plan their response. Thousands learned about the PPP and developed strategies for opposing it. On October 12, 2002 Indigenous Peoples’ Day, more than 60,000 people blocked roads, took over airports, rattled the gates at Mexican and U.S. embassies, shut down border crossings, and spray-painted "No PPP!" on walls of foreign-owned factories. [ more ]
Citizen resistance, along with the economic impacts of the U.S. recession, have derailed several PPP initiatives. Melquiades Morales, governor of Puebla, Mexico, canceled the first phase of "Proyecto Milenium," [sic] a planned highway and assembly-plant corridor designed to draw investment away from Mexico City and the northern border. Morales said publicly that the project was canceled "because of the peasants’ demands." Similarly, a planned superhighway from the capital of the neighboring state of Veracruz to Mexico City was re-routed after widespread public protest that it would have cut through a cloud forest. Farther south, the Salvadoran government cancelled a six-lane beltway planned for the national capital (a complement to the PPP) after communities in the proposed path of the proposed roadway mobilized in opposition. (For a review of PPP setbacks in the last year, see Chiapas al Día #329 , by Miguel Pickard of the Center for Political and Economic Research for Community Action, CIEPAC (English).)
Mexican leadership for the PPP initiative has also lost momentum. In the past seven months, three different individuals have filled the position of PPP director for Mexico. Responsibility for the PPP program shifted last summer from the Office of the Presidency to the Foreign Affairs Secretary–a move seen by many as a signal of the plan’s slipping profile. The 2003 Mexican federal budget shows a U.S.$37 million cut in that secretariat’s budget, and a U.S.$491 million reduction in the overall PPP budget. Officials at the IDB–a key funder and the intellectual author of the PPP–have recently expressed regret over Vicente Fox’s lessened interest in the program, saying they aren’t optimistic about the Mexican government’s commitment to the PPP.
As the Mexican government increasingly refuses to discuss the PPP, Mexican communities who will be affected by PPP projects are left with only the IDB as a sounding board. The IDB long maintained it could not organize public consultations on the PPP, as that would infringe on national sovereignty. However, perhaps as a result of government inaction and growing public unrest with the plan, the IDB finally stepped in and organized a series of consultation meetings in Central America, which many NGO observers characterized as merely perfunctory. As an example of the meeting’s shortcomings, they point to the session held in Belize. It was conducted in Spanish–a language spoken by few in that country.
Despite setbacks, however, several PPP programs are moving forward. Construction crews are pouring asphalt across Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec to connect the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The plan for this highway predates the PPP by five years, but was delayed until late 2002 by community opposition. Today, this inter-oceanic link is part of the PPP’s proposed highway network, which covers more than 5,500 miles. By 2008, PPP-built highways are planned to tie central Mexico to the Panama Canal, traversing eight nations and accounting for 85% of the U.S.$4.5 billion PPP budget. These new highways will be large-scale, multi-lane constructions designed for international commerce, often coming with high tolls that will make them inaccessible to local users.
At the same time, a team of engineers coordinating construction on the Electrical Integration System for Central America (SIEPAC) have established their headquarters in San Salvador. A grid of power lines that will carry electricity from Panama to Mexico by 2004, SIEPAC was a narrow victory for PPP planners. The Salvadoran national assembly rejected the U.S.$40 million IDB loan for the Salvadoran portion of SIEPAC largely as a result of pressure from the Center for the Defense of the Consumer , after every other country in the region had approved the program.
While access to electricity is a critical issue in most of Central America, the U.S.$320 million SIEPAC project responds to the needs of big corporations, not residential users. SIEPAC adds millions of dollars to the public debt of each Central American nation and increases reliance on destructive hydroelectric dams for power generation, without providing any guarantees that the power it transmits will be affordable for Central Americans.
While the Center for the Defense of the Consumer lobbied against this regional energy system, IDB officials traveled to San Salvador to lobby in favor of it. A second national assembly vote approved the program.
With Mexico as an early proponent of the PPP, many observers assumed that Central America would be a tougher sell, given the history of difficult internal relations in the isthmus. Today, however, Fox rarely mentions the PPP; PPP headquarters have moved from Mexico City to Panama City; and several Mexican PPP projects have been cancelled while SIEPAC moves ahead.
Mexican politics and economic troubles are only part of the story. Even as the United States-Mexico agenda has stalled, Central America is attracting increased attention in Washington, as the Bush administration negotiates a free trade deal with the nations of Central America–a move that is widely regarded as an effort to advance FTAA talks.
Wendy Call is a freelance writer who divides her time between Massachusetts and Oaxaca. She is working on a book entitled No Word for Welcome: Mexican Villages Face the Future , about indigenous communities in Oaxaca and globalization. She can be reached at < wendycall@world.oberlin.edu >.


Join our network to receive
email announcements that tell you when new items like this article are posted
to the Americas Program website. Information on our privacy policy is available
on our network sign-up page.


Published by the Americas Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). ©2003. All rights reserved.
Recommended citation:
Wendy Call, "PPP Focus Moves South as Mexican Backing Loses Momentum," PPP Spotlight #1, Americas Program (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, February 20, 2003).
Web location: