On January 21, Enrique Peña Nieto stood poised behind a podium in Las Margaritas, a city seized by the Zapatista National Liberation Army in 1994. Before him, hundreds of wide-brimmed hats shifted in the afternoon sun. He arranged his papers and prepared to address the residents of Chiapas, a state where 78 percent of the population lives in poverty. Flanked by Rosario Robles, Secretary of Social Development, (Sedesol) and a number of local civil servants, Peña Nieto announced the launch of the National Crusade Against Hunger, a comprehensive social program that aims to reduce poverty and hunger among the nation’s 7.4 million poorest residents.
“This program is not only the initiative with the greatest social content that has been proposed by the Republic’s government,” he said, “but also the greatest ethical obligation that we have to society.”
The audience applauded, the event ended quickly, and onlookers were ushered out through metal gates by federal police officers. While Peña Nieto never ventured into the specific content of the program, comfortably treading in the surface waters that politicians so skillfully navigate, the Crusade intends to address a problem that has serious and wide-reaching implications throughout Mexico. The National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development (CONEVAL) estimates that 52 million people – 46% of the total population – currently live in poverty and extreme poverty.
Yet since the Crusade was announced this past January, the program has been more theatrical than tangible, a parade of electoral scandal, political jousting, and corporate handouts that has become emblematic of a country’s disillusionment with its new government and old institutions.
In broad terms, the National Crusade Against Hunger (also known as SINHAMBRE, Without Hunger) is a six-year plan to alleviate poverty and hunger among the most vulnerable populations in Mexico. Based on the Zero Hunger program created by Brazilian ex-president Lula da Silva, the program will eventually work with 400 mostly small and rural municipalities. In total, the project is expected to cost $3 billion pesos, just under $250 million dollars.
The government calls the Crusade a strategy for social inclusion and wellbeing, to be implemented through a participatory process. It has five primary objectives:
- Zero hunger through adequate nutrition for those in multidimensional, extreme poverty, and lacking access to food
- Eliminate infant malnutrition and improve weight and height indicators among children
- Increase food production and the income of farmers and small-scale producers
- Minimize post-crop losses and the loss of crops during storage, transportation, distribution and commercialization
- Promote community participation in the eradication of hunger
The preliminary phase of the project will be carried out in 80 municipalities that have been prioritized, according to Sedesol officials, due to the severity of their condition. In these municipalities, Sedesol plans to install state-run Diconsa stores (that will ensure supply of basic food staples), Liconsa milk distribution centers, and school cafeterias, in addition to providing food donations to be distributed through the Secretary of Health’s state offices. This preliminary phase will reach an estimated 365,000 residents.
A New Way of Governing?
Barely out of the gate, the Crusade has already sparked two major political scandals. With mid-term elections in July, members of the opposition accused the Peña Nieto government of using Crusade funds to support candidates of his ruling PRI party. Later, the announcement that the Crusade is partly financed by corporate sponsors including transnational food companies caused a major furor when it was revealed that the Crusade awarded ‘nutritional’ contracts to a number of companies whose products have distinctly negative effects on nutrition, like the Swiss Nestle and U.S. PepsiCo.
Much of the controversy centers on Rosario Robles, the polemic head of the Secretary of Social Development. Robles is well known in Mexico for her political ascent as the first female mayor of the Federal District, a position she held from 1999 to 2000. But she is perhaps best known for her so-called stormy departure in 2004 from the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution that she helped to found. After forming a consulting firm to support female politicians, among them prominent PRI members, Robles became a flag-waving supporter of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the authoritarian powerhouse that ruled Mexico for 71 years through a system of social control that included offering political favors and hand-outs in exchange for tri-color votes.
In 2012, Robles backed Enrique Peña Nieto in elections that would seat him as the president of Mexico and mark the return of the PRI to power. The success of the PRI in the booths was, in part, due to a massive rebranding campaign that appeared to successfully separate the infamous PRI of old from the ‘new’ and reformed PRI embodied by the impeccably groomed Enrique Peña Nieto.“I am not a PRIista,” Robes said in a recent interview with El País about the Crusade. “I believe in Peña Nieto and in this new generation of the PRI, one that is committed to a new way of governing and that has a completely different vision from the PRI of the past.”
While the PRI has forged strategic alliances among Mexico’s most powerful political parties, notably with the signing of the Pact for Mexico between the three major parties, some old habits appear to die hard. In February, only two months after Peña Nieto’s election, suspicions began to grow. The leader of the PRD, Jesus Zambrano, accused the PRI of using political favors to buy votes, claiming that the Crusade was nothing more than a means of “trafficking” politics to people in need. In March, leaders in the National Action Party (PAN) also expressed concern, asking that the resources used in the Crusade be clearly traceable to avoid any misuse of funds in the months leading up to regional elections.
Robles and Peña Nieto both assured the public and their political counterparts that the Crusade would not be used for electoral gain.
But in April,these suspicions became reality. A video was leaked in which a number of Sedesol officials in the state of Veracruz were recorded discussing how the party would use social programs such as the Crusade to help secure PRI votes in upcoming elections. The PAN filed a lawsuit against the governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte, and 57 government employees, among them Rosario Robles, for the wrongful use of public funds. Scandal erupted; Rosario Robles dismissed seven Sedesol employees, but saved herself in doing so.
“I don’t belong to any party,” Robles stated after the event, “and the only battle that I am fighting is against hunger and poverty.” Members of the PAN and the PRD demanded that she abandon her post, considering the video damning evidence that Sedesol was acting for the PRI’s political gain. “I will not abandon my post,” she said. “This has nothing to do with me.”
Later that month, again before a crowd in Chiapas during the Crusade’s official launch on April 19, Peña Nieto publicly offered a consoling “Rosario, don’t worry,” in response to the criticisms unleashed against his Secretary of Social Development. The next day Zambrano countered Peña Nieto in an interview, “Yes, you should be worried, Rosario,” he said, “Because now more than ever the eyes of a lot of people are wide open and watching.” For the first time since it had been signed, it appeared that the Pact for Mexico might be crumbling under the weight of the controversy.
Following a full release of the Crusade’s selected municipalities, in June the Federal Institute for Access to Public Information (IFAI) ordered the Secretary of Social Development to turn over all supporting documents outlining the criteria used to select 400 municipalities among the nationwide total of 2,457. The state offices of Sedesol responded to the request, stating that they had no such information, indicating that it could possibly be found at the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development (CONEVAL).
Sedesol eventually responded to the IFAI, offering four criteria: number of people in extreme poverty, percentage of the population in extreme poverty, number of people in extreme poverty and malnourished, and percentage of the population in extreme poverty and malnourished. Robles stated that Sedesol chose 381 municipalities based on these criteria and, “to complete the regional and national coverage,” they added a few more from South Baja California, Morelos, Tlaxcala, and Colima.
The holes in such claims were first made evident in the Federal District, a stronghold held by the left since 1997 and governed by Rosario Robles in 1999 when she still belonged to the PRD. In the capital city, the Crusade omitted the two poorest delegations while including the four delegations with the largest number of voters: Iztapalapa, Gustavo A. Madero, Alvaro Obregon, and Tlalpan. In fact, of the 381 municipalities originally selected for participation in the Crusade, 213 will be holding local elections July 7.
As pressure mounted, Robles announced in late June that the Crusade would be suspended in the 14 statesholding elections this July to allow the voting to carry on without accusations of electoral interference. When asked if the suspension could mark the beginning of the end for the troubled Crusade, Robles responded: “How could it be dead, given the needs of the people? Political noise is one thing, but the game taking place on the field is another,” she said. “That is where we will or lose and it is about hunger.”
She assured that the Crusade would again enter into full swing on July 8.
Sweet Corporate Allies
The corporate contracts awarded as part of the Crusade have given further reason to doubt who the true beneficiaries will be.
When the headlines first hit the press, nobody missed the irony. Nestle, Pepsico, Quaker and other multinationals largely responsible for injecting huge quantities of refined sugar, saturated fats and empty calories into the Mexican were the very same companies given contracts under the Crusade. Since free trade agreements such as NAFTA opened the door to transnational products and ad campaigns, the nation has developed crisis levels of diabetes and obesity, alongside poverty-related hunger.
In PepsiCo’s contract with Sedesol, for example, the soda pop giant agrees to support the Crusade against Hunger with “donations of nutritious products” that will improve the “well being and social inclusion for a population in a situation of poverty and extreme poverty.” Even if they’re not donating Pepsi products, critics have rejected the idea that a corporation whose golden goose has been high fructose corn syrup-filled soft drinks would be given a role in staving off hunger among Mexico’s poorest.
Nestle will be developing programs such as the “Dulce Negocio de Nestle,” (“Nestle’s Sweet Deal”) to support female-owned businesses in a variety of sectors, and “Project Coffee” and “Project Milk,” which will offer training to small coffee and milk producers ostensibly to improve their business models. Nestle practices and imports have historically been the nemesis of small producers.
Farmers across the country have criticized the involvement of multinationals in a crusade aimed to develop programs in the long-neglected Mexican countryside. Alvaro Lopez, leader of the National Farm Workers Union criticized the national program in the Mexican daily La Jornada saying, that a plan to relieve hunger “must be accompanied by increased agricultural production.”
While Nestle, for example, would be working with the Mexican government to stimulate production in the countryside, rather than simply handing out their own products (they currently market 1,600 different products in Mexico). But the question remains whether federal tax dollars are best spent subsidizing the same transnationals that have long undermined local producers and, arguably, contributed to the decline in Mexican production.
In the words of Las Abejas, a civil society group of Tzotzil Maya based in Chiapas, “the Crusade is supported by transnationals that carry off our riches, the same transnationals that are the cause of our country’s hunger.” The group said in a statement that with the Crusade the preferred weapon of the current government has shifted from “lead bullets” to “sugar bullets.”
The Crusade has come to represent a country’s continued frustration with its long-troubled institutions and the malfeasance still at play in local politics under what has been branded as a new and reformed PRI. For many it demonstrates the regal treatment given to the same corporations that have undermined rural development and internal efforts to improve the health of Mexico’s residents.
Roots of Hunger
Behind the political theatrics, electoral scandal and corporate handouts, the problem of hunger and poverty in Mexico continues relatively unabated. Mexico has some of the highest levels of income inequality in Latin America and continues to be plagued by the duel problems of malnutrition and obesity. In 2010, 28 million residents did not have adequate access to food.
The Crusade has publicized the faces, stories, and hopes of the millions of Mexicans who continue to live in extremely precarious conditions. But even apart from its stumbling beginnings, it fails to offer a rubric for fundamental change in a nation where hunger has tremendous economic, social and human costs.
Eva Hershaw is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City and a member of the CIP Americas Program www.americas.org.
Writer: Eva Hershaw
Editor: Laura Carlsen
Citation: Produced by the CIP Americas Program http://www.americas.org/archives/9962