Today the hemisphere celebrates Columbus Day in honor of the Italian explorer who unwittingly “discovered” America in 1492. Columbus’ “discovery” of the continent now known as America unleashed one of the largest genocides in recorded history. As a result of European expansion, occupation and colonization of the Americas, the native population dwindled from approximately 30 million people in 1492 to eight million people in 1650, just over 26% of the pre-Columbian population (1).
For this reason throughout the hemisphere Columbus Day is also known as Genocide Day, Indigenous Genocide Day, International Indigenous Resistance Day, and other variations on that theme. What a great opportunity to reflect on current forms of resistance, namely the Occupy Wall Street movement and its potential for immigrant rights organizing.
To get us started, let’s look at the history of occupation in this hemisphere. This land is occupied land and has been for over 500 years. From Columbus’ first reflections on the native population, he had his mind set on control and exploitation:
“They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned… . They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
He was, of course, working in the interest of Spain, who set its sights on colonization of foreign land in order to increase its dwindling economic and political power in Europe. Once the Americas were discovered as a land rich in natural resources and filled with expendable people, most of the European continent followed suit. In the proceeding 500 years, the indigenous population experienced genocide, colonization, slavery, and occupation, (though accompanied by an ever-existent spirit of resistance).
In the 16th through 18th centuries, European powers expanded colonialism throughout the Americas in order to increase the economic and political control over native lands. In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, economic and political control increasingly took the form of the corporation. U.S. and European corporations began increasing their influence over regional and national governments through agreements with the political elite. The United Fruit Company and the Cuyamel Banana Company competed for economic and political control of Honduras in the early 20th century, with both companies destabilizing the country’s economic infrastructure to benefit their own export of bananas to US and European markets (2). Mexican oil production in the early 1900s was managed by the U.K. oil company Mexican Eagle, exporting Mexican oil and taking oil profits along with it. By the mid 20th century, the corporation was firmly in place as the main form of economic influence in Latin America and beyond.
With the US and Mexican elite in agreement that the economic development of the two nations would be driven by corporate interests rather than by democratic process, the next step was formalization of this agreement in the form of a trade agreement. Thus was born the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed into US law by President Bill Clinton on December 8, 1993 (2).
About the agreement, Clinton said, “…NAFTA means jobs. American jobs, and good-paying American jobs. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t support this agreement” (3). Then-Mexican-president Carlos Salinas sold the agreement to Mexicans by saying it would decrease migration to the US by creating Mexican jobs. He infamously said that the choice over NAFTA was “accepting Mexican tomatoes or Mexican migrants that will harvest them in the United States.”
The far more accurate representation of NAFTA came from the indigenous and campesinos of Chiapas, state in the Mexican southwest and poorest state in the nation. The indigenous and campesino-led Zapatista Army of National Defense chose the day NAFTA would go into effect to rise up and declare NAFTA a “death sentence” for indigenous Mexico.
NAFTA gave corporate America a free ticket to export middle-class US jobs and flooded the Mexican market with subsidized US grains, destroying the ability of small farmers to make a living off of corn production and along with it their centuries-old traditions closely attached to cultivation of the land. Without a means to compete with US-subsidized grains, indigenous and campesino Mexicans were forced to migrate north to find work. Public Citizen says that “The number of annual immigrants from Mexico to the United States surged from 332,000 in 1993 (the year before NAFTA) to 530,000 in 2000 – a 60 percent increase. Annual immigration levels today remain high above pre-NAFTA standards” (4).
Neoliberalism also set into motion the deregulation of the banking system. The neoliberal logic goes something like this: If US jobs are exported and unemployment is rising, the only way to continue to increase profits is by injecting credit into the economy. Neoliberals do not recognize, however, that injecting credit into the economy pushes the economy closer to its breaking point. For a great representation of the economic crisis inherent in neoliberalism illustrated using a water balloon, check out this video.
This has been a history of expansion in search of profit. First, our economic system expanded from Europe throughout the Americas through colonization. Then it expanded to national markets through corporate control of those markets. Next, NAFTA opened the door for expansion into previously protected local foreign markets. Finally, with nowhere else to go in search of profits, the economic system set its sights on internal markets, deregulating the banking system and injecting the economy with credit. The 2008-09 collapse represents the end of the line for this expansion—and the culmination of the international resistance to it.
The Occupy Wall Street protests are the largest representation of U.S. resistance and are largely a result of the neoliberalization of the US economy and politics. NAFTA is the poster child for the larger neoliberal project that advocates for private sector control over public policy and the public sphere. As neoliberalism erodes the public sphere – try finding a public place to sit and read a book or have a public discussion; you have two options: the library or a public park—every-day Americans are finding themselves without a voice in the decisions that affect their lives. This increasing frustration has driven people to the streets.
Greg Rodriguez, participant in the local Occupy McAllen effort, writes, “This historical shift in our society towards the hegemony of neoliberalism – with a global drive for economic globalization and privatization of almost all remaining public spheres is everything #OccupyWallStreet is against – it is about the spirit of democracy being relit under the brutal conditions and anti-democratic nature of economic and political institutions which are controlled by self-interested, hyper-individualistic power-heads.”
While neoliberalism has had its impact on immigrants, communities of color, and working class Americans for decades, this is the first time that massive amounts of relatively privileged Americans are feeling the pressure of the economic downturn. Bronx organizers with the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective have reflected on this, saying, “#OccupyWallStreet seems to be a new phenomenon in that we are witnessing a first generation in which massive numbers of young white people are no longer experiencing the economic benefits of the capitalist system. Their working class parents have had their homes foreclosed, their school loans can’t be paid because they too now are unemployed or underpaid in the shrinking job market. Their reality has gotten closer to what black and brown folks have lived for many many years.”
People are angrier and angrier. More and more Americans are finding that the benefits of the current economic system are not making their way down to them. More and more are realizing that our votes are not worth as much as a campaign contribution and that our politicians are working for corporate bosses rather than the people. And so more and more are taking to the streets to occupy everything.
This is a moment of opportunity for the immigrant rights movement. The #occupyeverything movement represents a large portion of the 99%. As they become critical of the economic systems that have plunged them into poverty, we have the opportunity to educate them about immigrant rights and the way that immigrants fit into the 99%.
For the first time since the beginning of the neoliberal project, immigrants and native-born Americans have much more in common than they have differences, economically speaking. As political writer Naomi Klein noted at Occupy Wall Street Thursday night, the last wave of anti-corporate globalization protests came at “the peak of a frenzied economic boom. Unemployment was low, stock portfolios were bulging. The media was drunk on easy money. Back then it was all about start-ups, not shutdowns.”
Now, she continues, “Ten years later, it seems as if there aren’t any more rich countries. Just a whole lot of rich people. People who got rich looting the public wealth and exhausting natural resources around the world.”
This is a moment of opportunity for the immigrant rights movement to bring corporate-driven globalization into the discussion and unite with the increasing numbers of dissident Americans. There is genuine discussion happening about the economic system and how it does not work for the majority of us. The target of the increasing public dialog is the corporate take-over of the economy and political system.
It is the corporate take-over of trade policy that has forced hundreds of thousands of immigrants out of their homes. At the same time, it attacks US workers, shipping well-paying jobs overseas in search of lower wages and less regulation.Yet up to this point, the national immigrant rights movement has avoided honest discussion of the economic system affecting both immigrant and native workers. The farthest we’ve gone is to say, “Look, we only came here to find a better life. And now, we’re suffering too.” We are put in the position of self-defense, progressing the message that we are not taking U.S. jobs and that we love America.
But now, armed with the weapon of increased scrutiny of corporate-driven plunder of the national wealth, we have the opportunity to take the offense. We have to tell the Occupy movement, “Corporate interests have driven us from our country at the same time that they are plundering yours. We are in this together and by working together, we make our efforts to get out of this stronger.”
As a movement, let’s take this opportunity and get involved and engage the Occupy movement. We have more in common that we ever have previously. Let’s make the effort to make our resistance a common resistance as well. After all, we’ve been resisting for 500 years. They have a lot to learn from us.
For ideas on how to teach the connection between neoliberalism and immigration, check out these popular-education-based workshops.
(1) “La catastrophe démographique” (The Demographical Catastrophe”), L’Histoire n°322, July–August 2007, p. 17.
(2) Alison Acker, Honduras, The Making of a Banana Republic. Between the Lines, 1988, p. 64
(3) “North American Free Trade Agreement” online at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_Free_Trade_Agreement
(4) Public Citizen, “Failed Trade Policy & Immigration: Cause & Effect” online at: http://www.citizen.org/documents/ImmigrationFactSheetFinal011309.pdf