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Zapatista rebellion under the radar as NAFTA reaches 20

January 1, 1994 marks the 20th anniversary of two consequential events in Mexico’s history: one still fiercely debated and the other largely forgotten.

On this day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into being. The treaty was designed to open the flow of goods and investment through the United States, Canada and Mexico, create new jobs, promote economic growth and improve environmental conditions and living standards in all three countries.

Also on the morning of January 1, 1994 – timed to coincide with NAFTA’s launch – some 3,000 armed insurgents, mostly rural indigenous people, seized towns and cities in the southern state Chiapas before facing a counter offensive from Mexican troops and retreating back into the jungle less than two weeks later. The anti neo-liberal Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) stood against everything NAFTA espoused, and effectively declared war on the Mexican government, becoming an annoying thorn in their side for the next decade and a half.

For Mexico, NAFTA – signed by presidents Carlos Salinas de Gortari, George Bush Sr. and Brian Mulroney – was a logical extension of the free market economic policies started under the presidency of Miguel de la Madrid, who had led Mexico into the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in July 1986.

The signing of the treaty not only brought clearer trading rules and enforcement mechanisms to the table but also the immediate elimination of tariffs on half of Mexico’s exports to the United States and one-third of U.S. imports into Mexico.

The treaty was designed so that virtually all tariffs between the three nations would be eliminated within 15 years. 

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