From the PPP to Proyecto Mesoamérica:   Vampires and zombies of development

Written by, Alicia Swords

   In Mesoamerica, the Inter-American Development Bank is funding an “Aid-for-Trade” Initiative to enhance the region’s position in the global marketplace. The efforts initiated in 2008, when Mexican President Felipe Calderón with leaders from nine member countries launched the Proyecto Mesoamérica (PM).

   The PM describes itself as a “space for dialogue” to reduce trade and transport costs, increase foreign investment and enhance trade competitiveness from Mexico to Colombia.  To do so, it advances infrastructure to reduce highway travel time, cut border-crossing time, trim costs for electric power, and diminish the “digital gap.”

   What is not clear from its colorful website is that the PM repackages and extends the Plan Puebla-Panamá (PPP), a development and integration proposal that by 2004 was widely acknowledged as a failure.

   In 2000, the PPP was born as a temporary consensus among the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Mesoamerican governments, investors, and international institutions.  The PPP’s vision was for “social and ethnic development” by integrating the region’s economies with the global market.

   The PPP didn’t receive the welcome its proponents desired.  After September 11, 2001, investment became harder to mobilize, and the IDB refused to offer preferential financing rates, leaving the PPP without the public and private financing it hoped for.

   Critics were troubled by the plan’s lack of public consultation.  The plan envisioned transnational extractive industries, strategic infrastructure for transportation and communication, tourism, and biological and agricultural technologies.  As news spread, the PPP appeared as a threat to local livelihoods and to indigenous and democratic rights.  Within a few months of its birth, a network of civil society organizations emerged to oppose to the plan.

   Zapatista sympathizers saw the PPP as part of the government’s counterinsurgency plan.  In March 2001, when the Zapatistas and 250,000 people marched on Mexico City, the Vicente Fox government clearly ignored the movement’s demands for the indigenous rights law in favor of the PPP.

   Because the PPP’s projects were transnational, resistance to it also became transnational.  From 2001 to 2004, grassroots and non-governmental organizations combining left politics, labor, liberation theology, campesino, women’s and indigenous struggles convened a series of political forums to raise awareness about the PPP.  Hundreds participated. On October 12, 2002, the anti-PPP network organized a day of protest, blocking the Pan-American Highway at various points throughout the region.

   By 2004, The Economist declared that “there was no trace of the PPP in southern Mexico.” Grassroots efforts contributed, along with financial and political obstacles, to the disintegration of the PPP in Mexico.

   In a 2013 interview, Francisco Gallardo of the NGO Transforma Chiapas explained that ten years later, many PPP projects were still incomplete.  Gallardo likened the projects to vampires and zombies. Though they do not fulfill their development goals, like zombies, they never really die.

Construction companies and financiers must still be paid, so the projects suck, vampire-like, from the public purse.  While the Tuxtla-San Cristóbal highway was finished, airports in Comitán and San Cristóbal were built but closed and never used; the Chiapas marine port is not in operation; and the trans-Isthmus railway was never built.  Gallardo said, “Construction is the business.” He explained that because profits were derived from financing and construction, project completion was not necessary.
The plan didn’t die completely either. From 2003 to 2008, the Mexican government and IDB worked to restructure the PPP. In southern Mexico, its projects continued under other names, and South of Mexico, the IDB hired public relations company Fleishman-Hillard International to improve the plan’s image.

PPP-protest-AliciaSwords(2)

Marchers express their opposition to neoliberalism and accompanying development projects in the municipality of Huitiupán, Chiapas, Mexico, during the “3rd Chiapan Gathering against Neoliberalism” on March 24, 2004. Photo: Alicia Swords.

     By 2008, when the PM took on the PPP’s projects, resistance weakened. Regional forums continue on specific topics, such as dams, water, and mining, as does resistance to specific projects, including La Parota Dam in Guerrero, wind farms in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, El Tigre Dam on the Honduras-El Salvador border, and others, but it remains to be seen if transnational resistance will resume strength to challenge the PM.

Today, there are important questions to ask about the MP.  Why should investors commit to financing infrastructure projects that failed ten years ago?  How can grassroots organizing keep up with the fast moving targets of mobile transnational capital and its development projects?  What alternative development might civil society imagine instead?

Picture3

“And this is development”: At right is a drawing from popular education materials used to oppose the PPP in Mexico.

Alicia Swords

Associate Professor
of Sociology at
Ithaca College and
CUSLAR advisory
board member.

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