La Semana: Monday, July 25
The week in international trade disputes and reproductive rights in Mexico
Welcome to a Monday (missed my deadline!) edition of The Mexpatriate.
In today’s newsletter:
Tempest in a Treaty: Conflicts in the USMCA
“La Marea Verde” and the Current Outlook for Abortion in Mexico
Please share your comments, feedback and questions, and feel free to forward this to anyone who may be interested. You will find all sources linked to directly in the body of the text.
“There has never been a moment that I can remember in which I didn’t have plans for yet another search for some unrecorded recipe, fabled regional cook, or elusive herb or chile.”
—Diana Kennedy, “doyenne of Mexican cuisine”, who passed away on Sunday, July 24 at age 99
A mañanera to remember from July 20:
Tempest in a Treaty: Conflicts in the USMCA
When I wrote last week that “serious deliberation” and “effective public diplomacy” might be lacking in the near term of the US-Mexico relationship, I didn’t expect my hypothesis to be confirmed so quickly.
On July 20, President López Obrador added cumbia to the morning press conference, playing the song “Uy qué miedo” by Chico Ché to express his sentiments towards the complaints brought by both the United States and Canada regarding possible violations of the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA, or T-MEC in Spanish) in relation to the energy sector. “Oooo, how scary/Look at how I’m trembling,” sings Chico with a smirk, as AMLO grins. The next day, representatives from the U.S. and Canadian governments asked that Mexico take the issue “seriously” and noted that the potential economic impact on the country is “no laughing matter.”
Is AMLO right to shrug—or shimmy—off the significance of these complaints? Or is Mexico headed for a potential international trade disaster? Nothing is happening fast: this problem could be seen coming from miles away, and the outcome will take time to adjudicate. “The complaint brought by the US accuses Mexico of restricting market access, failing to protect investment and pushing policy changes that curb the use of clean energy from private producers,” summarizes an article in The Financial Times. Since the reform to the Ley de la Industria Eléctrica (Electrical Industry Law) was passed in March 2021, lawsuits have been filed by multinational companies that claim the law violates their contracts, partly by requiring that electricity generated by the CFE (Federal Electricity Commission) be prioritized over that generated at privately owned plants. “Mexico’s policies have largely cut off US and other investment in the country’s clean energy infrastructure,” claimed a statement by US trade representative Katherine Tai. The largest private generator of electricity in Mexico, Spanish multinational Iberdrola, was fined $466 million dollars in May by the CRE (Energy Regulatory Commission) for alleged “administrative irregularities”, and other foreign companies have been blocked in obtaining permits, even with projects already underway.
The next step is to begin talks with the Mexican government, and if no resolution is reached within 75 days, the parties will proceed to form a conflict resolution panel under the auspices of the treaty. This panel will have 150 days to deliberate and another 30 days to present its conclusions.
“The country that insisted on a system for dispute resolution was Mexico,” according to analyst Luis de la Calle. “It’s in Mexico’s interests to have an institutional mechanism, instead of getting in a street fight with the US.” The Dispute Settlement Chapter (31) has been invoked four times so far in the life of the USMCA: the US and Canada have each brought complaints against each other, and Canada and Mexico brought one against the United States regarding regulation of origin of automotive parts. The difference with this dispute is that it addresses a “series of decisions designed to modify state policy”, rather than disagreements over more isolated trade incidents.
Meanwhile, what could be a dry technical matter makes fantastic material for AMLO’s narrative of the Northern bullies and their “conservative intellectual” Mexican allies trying to exploit Mexico’s natural resources, reinforcing his pursuit of “energy sovereignty”, which can only be obtained through the state-owned CFE and Pemex.
“Anxious to find foreign support, given that their domestic efforts have not progressed in the battle against obradorismo, elite Mexican groups believe the moment has come to take down the “4T”, politically and economically, without taking into account that AMLO’s proposal of energy restitution has broad social support,” writes journalist Julio Hernández López in La Jornada.
While appeals to patriotism can motivate voters, a lackluster economy can be even more persuasive and the United States is not only Mexico’s largest trading partner, but “the Mexican states with the least informal labor, better wages, less poverty are all linked to foreign commerce.” If Mexico is found to be in violation of the treaty, there will be fines and possible trade retaliations. There may also be newfound squeamishness from foreign investors.
“La Marea Verde” and the Outlook for Abortion Rights in Mexico
In the eruption that followed the first rumblings of the leaked majority US Supreme Court opinion, and then the overturning of Roe v. Wade on June 24, abortion rights came into focus not just in the US, but worldwide. For many Americans, the fragility of reproductive rights exposed by this decision has inspired angst, and also a renewed examination of the global context on this fraught issue. In the immediate aftermath, I noticed a frequently copied and pasted text appear on friends' Facebook walls that heralded abortion rights in Mexico in comparison to the post-Roe US, which led with: “since 2021, abortion is no longer a crime in Mexico, although its legalization varies by state.” First, if decriminalization varies by state, can it also be true that abortion is no longer considered a crime? Is Mexico really now more progressive than the US, at least from a judicial perspective, on reproductive rights?
To answer these and other questions in the broader context of maternal health in Mexico, I discovered that (surprise!) the truth is not as simple, or as catchy, as a viral post. I was surprised by some of what I learned—for example, that most people serving prison sentences in Mexico today for abortion are men (I will explain)—but the reality on the ground in most of Mexico, even in the wake of the historic 2021 Supreme Court (SCJN) ruling that declared it unconstitutional to prosecute a woman for abortion within the first 12 weeks, is one of conflicting state penal codes, fear of being reported, and societal stigma in a country where majority public opinion is anti-abortion. “...Abortion is still regulated as a crime and since penal matters—in general terms—are part of local law, each of the penal codes in the 32 states legislates the issue differently,” explains a comprehensive report published by the feminist advocacy organization GIRE (Information Group on Reproductive Choice). They tell the stories of girls and women who have faced negligence from authorities when reporting rape and trying to exercise their legal right to a termination, have been reported by hospital staff to the police when seeking medical care for miscarriage or have been caught up in red tape requesting permission to terminate a high-risk pregnancy.
The movement for abortion rights in Mexico—which in recent years has been identified with “la marea verde” or the “green tide” across Latin America—launched in the 1980s, and its most significant victory in recent memory (before last year) was the decriminalization of abortion in Mexico City in 2007. This allowed for the establishment of four public abortion clinics, which have had a stellar safety record in performing 247,000 “legal pregnancy terminations”, or ILE, 89% of which are medical abortions (using pharmaceuticals). The number of abortions performed annually peaked in 2013, but has been steadily declining since–of course, most dramatically in 2020 due to COVID-19–confirming what has been observed in other countries: legalizing abortion appears to correlate with lower, not higher, abortion rates.
But in the rest of the country, a counter-legislative backlash brought about the insertion of “life begins at conception” clauses in 20 state constitutions and despite the efforts of advocates, only 3 states followed CDMX’s lead in decriminalization between 2007 and 2021: Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Veracruz. Hence the significance of the SCJN ruling in September 2021, which addressed two separate cases: one was the addition of this life-at-conception clause in the Sinaloa constitution and the other, the imposition of prison sentences for women who abort or those who assist them in Coahuila. Both were found to be unconstitutional. In the Sinaloa case, the SCJN ruled that legislatures cannot judicially define the “origin of human life”, and in the Coahuila case, that threatening imprisonment affects the “right of a woman to choose”. In other words, while abortion remains a crime on the books in many state codes, it can no longer be punished with prison time: it has since been decriminalized (within first 12 weeks) in Baja California, Sinaloa, Colima, Guerrero and Baja California Sur.
While maximum sentences have varied by state from 3 months to 6 years, it is important to note that abortion in Mexico is broadly defined in the law, from an elective pregnancy termination to an involuntary termination, which could be caused by an assault. Hence, the men serving time for “abortion” are likely serving concurrent sentences for violent abuse of pregnant women (though there are no confirmed data on this), which caused miscarriages. From September to December 2021, prosecutors opened 224 criminal investigations into alleged abortions across Mexico (despite the SCJN ruling), but it is not clear if these are for elective or involuntary terminations. It is also hard to find reliable data on the number of women who are currently serving sentences for abortion, since in some cases they may have been charged with “homicide of a family member”, but in the last decade, there is public record of 142 convictions (38% women, 45% men) for abortion, or only 3.8% of the total reported to the authorities.
Rather than look to Mexico for solace, I think it would be wise for pro-choice advocates to take notes from the trenches of the grassroots movement here. Underground “support networks” (redes de acompañamiento) have been aiding women for decades, and have developed cross-border relationships to offer guidance for women living in bordering US states as well. One advantage that activists have on the northern side of the border is wider support in the realm of public opinion: according to recent Pew Research Center surveys, 61% of Americans polled say abortion should be either legal with no exceptions, or legal with some exceptions. In Mexico, 55% of those surveyed in a national electoral poll in 2021 disagreed with the statement “a woman should be allowed to abort if she chooses”.
On the other side of this issue, I think that those wishing to ban abortion in the US should take a hard look south of the border to comprehend the messy fallout from enforcement of state legislation on reproductive decisions. For now, the question of whether Mexico or the US can be considered more progressive on this issue remains an open one.
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