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“Viva Mexico!” – An introduction to our host country

Mexico has often been thought of as a gateway country, and in recent times this has been reflected in much of its art, literature and cinema. But Mexico is much more than a borderland: it covers nearly 2million square kilometres; is the eleventh most populous country in the world, with 109 million citizens; and has the 11th largest economy, making it the only Latin American country to sit on the OECD.

Below Mexico lie Guatemala and Belize, above are the US and Canada. In recent years the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico and these two countries has had a major, though much contested, impact on the Mexican economy. Mexico’s economy is expected to shrink by 7% this year, making it one of the countries hardest hit by the global banking crisis. Clearly, the impact of all this on workers and their families poses large challenges for the unions.

Transport Industry
Mexico’s geographical location and character has, inevitably, determined the way the country’s transport industry has evolved. Surrounded by the sea - the Pacific to the South and West; the Gulf of Mexico to the East; and the Caribbean Sea in the southeast – there is a vital shipping industry with 76 seaports. Of these, four major ones, Altamira and Veracruz in the Gulf of Mexico; Manzanillo and Lázaro Cárdenas on the Pacific Ocean, are responsible for handling 60% of the country’s cargo. Inland the country is traversed by two large mountain ranges, the Sierra Madre Oriental and Occidental, which made road building a difficult and expensive task: most of the highways are tolled.

The railways were privatised in 1997 and as these are still used primarily for freight; it has been left to regionally privatised bus companies to carry most of the country’s domestic traffic. Those wanting to travel from city to city use the mass transit system. The capital, Mexico City, also has its own underground system, elevated train and suburban link; Guadalajara, too, has a commuter rail link and Monterrey, an underground and an elevated Metro. Mexico City International Airport is the biggest in Latin America carrying over 21 million passengers a year. Elsewhere in the country there are over 1,000 airports but only 200 or so have paved runways.

Recent History
In 1821 Mexico gained its independence from Spain but, as in many postcolonial countries, the wealth continued to be controlled by foreigners who owned the transport system and many of the factories and mines. A small indigenous elite owned most of the land while the majority of the population lived in profound poverty. Under the leadership of General Porfirio Diaz the gap grew larger and when Francisco I. Madero led strikes across the country over unfair wages and conditions, the dictator was forced to hold elections.

Threatened by the significant number of votes Madero received, Diaz had him imprisoned. But the effect of Madero’s mobilisation was felt throughout the country; inspiring two of Mexico’s greatest folk heroes: Pancho Villa in the North and Emilia Zapata in the South. Between them they led insurgencies against the army, gaining control of their respective regions. Diaz resigned in 1911, fleeing to France. Madero took control of the country but was opposed by Zapata who disapproved of the timidity of his land reform programme. The country fell into Civil War and in the ensuing battles many large haciendas and ranchos were destroyed. In 1917 Venustiano Carranza became president and a constitution drawn up by revolutionary leaders, that was strongly pro-union and had land reform at its centre, was accepted by Carranza. This constitution
is still in effect. Today nearly half of Mexico’s farmland is run by farm cooperatives that resulted from the land redistribution instigated during the revolution.

The revolutionary period lasted until 1940. In 1934, Cárdenas was elected; he furthered the land redistribution programme and nationalised Mexican oil. In the Seventies the price of oil rose and Mexico’s debt increased; by the Eighties inflation was endemic and the times were made harder for workers by severe increases in the price of gas, food, and electricity. Then in September 1985 an earthquake hit Mexico City killing 8,000 and causing billions of dollars worth of damage. At about this time the flow of undocumented workers into the United States began to have a major effect on the domestic economy.

Trade Union Rights
The battle between company, or ‘yellow’ unions, and independent trade unions has been particularly marked in Mexico. ITF affiliates, however, have led a renewal of the progressive trade union movement in Mexico, taking the lead in the country’s developing union movement.

These radical unions have fought hard battles for workers’ rights nowhere more so than in the ‘Maquiladoras’ in which a million Mexicans work. The Maquiladoras are factories, operating under NAFTA, that import duty-free materials and equipment, assemble goods and then re-export them (the term ‘maquiladora’ refers to the practice of millers charging a "maquila" for processing other people's grain.) Most Maquiladoras are located along the United States-Mexico border but the companies are mainly foreign-owned.
Despite this, as of 2006, they still account for 45 percent of Mexico’s exports. The majority of workers in the maquiladoras are women.

Edo Fimmen
Edo Fimmen, ITF General Secretary from 1919 until his death in 1942, and one of the most important figures in the history of the ITF, died in Mexico. His impact on the international union movement, and on the ITF in particular, was twofold. He was among the first to see that an increasingly international economic environment meant unions, too, needed to act on a trans-national basis and he encouraged unions to act boldly and decisively. Under his leadership the ITF was transformed from a European organisation into a global one.

In the inter-war years Fimmen built regional organisations in other continents, responding to issues of colonialism and underdevelopment. Throughout the 1930s he visited North Africa, and then China and Japan, establishing an ITF secretariat for the Far East. During the Second World War he campaigned with the ITF in support of anti-fascist resistance movements. This included the construction of an illegal resistance network of transport (mainly railway) unions in Nazi Germany, and assistance to the republican forces in the Spanish civil war. But in 1938, after the ITF congress in Luxembourg, Fimmen collapsed. He recovered enough to oversee the move of the ITF from Amsterdam to London during the Second World War, but finally consented to go to Mexico to convalesce. He died in Cuernavaca in December 1942.

The Environment
As everywhere else in the world the environment has become an increasingly hot topic in Mexico, not least in Mexico City itself, notorious for its high levels of pollution. This is why the ATM (the Alianza de Tranviarios de México, an ITF affiliate) is working to implement a radical new public transport programme to cut carbon levels in the city. The ‘Zero Emissions Corridor’ has been developed by the ATM’s General Secretary, Benito Bahena Lomé, in conjunction with the mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, and the city’s Minister for Transport, Armando Quintero. A main artery of Mexico City, stretching 36.6 kilometres, will be operated by electric trolley buses which will transport tens of thousands of the city’s inhabitants every day. The organisers argue that this to a safe, quiet and clean transport system will decrease levels of pollution, not only contributing to a reduction in global warming but increasing the health of the city’s inhabitants and workers. The participants are hoping the ‘Corridor’ will act as a flagship for the city’s ecological intentions, promoting the idea of environmental awareness and standing as a model that other countries can reproduce in their own countries. “‘The Zero Emissions’ Corridor’ is a clear move towards a greener, healthier and safer city.” Bahena Lomé has said: “trade unions have to promote the implantation of more ecological corridors, we need to act now or we will compromise the future of the next generation.”

Practical Information
  • Electricity: 110 volts, AC 60 Hz. Two-pin flat blade attachment plugs are standard.
  • International Dialling Code: The international access code for Mexico is +52. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 001 for North America).
  • Mexico emergency numbers: 060 and 080.
  • Time: Local time is GMT –6 (GMT –5 between the first Sunday in April and the second last Saturday in October).
Language: Spanish is the official language. Some English is spoken in the large cities and tourist areas.

The climate of Mexico varies according to altitude. The low-lying coastal areas are typically tropical, hot and humid, but the weather in Mexico City, which is at an altitude of 2,300 meters above sea level, is far more moderate. Mexico City has pleasant summers and mild winters, with an annual average temperature of 64 °F (18 °C). Seasonal variations in temperature are small, but May is the warmest month of the year, and January the coldest. Mexico City has a high average annual rainfall, most falling in summer, the wettest month being July, and the driest month February.

Banking Facilities
Banks are normally open 09:00 to 16:00 Monday to Friday; banking facilities and an ATM are located at the Congress venue.

Mexican currency is the Peso (MXN) divided into 100 centavos. Credit cards are widely accepted particularly Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Travellers cheques are generally accepted, but cannot be cashed on Sundays. ATMs are available in most cities and towns and are the most convenient way to get money, but for safety reasons it is recommended that they only be used during business hours. Foreign currency can be exchanged at one of many casas de cambio (exchange bureaux), which have longer hours and offer a quicker service than the banks.

Those entering Mexico from an infected area require a yellow fever certificate. There are no specific vaccination requirements for visitors to Mexico; however visitors should take medical advice if travelling outside the major tourist areas. A small malaria risk exists in some rural areas but not on the Pacific or Gulf coasts and in the summer dengue fever is on the increase. Sensible precautions regarding food and water should be followed and visitors are advised to be cautious of street food and stick to bottled water. It is strongly recommended that adequate medical insurance is taken to cover participants for their visit. Please note that the inscription ‘Agua No Potable’ means water is not drinkable.

Generally waiters and bar staff should be tipped 10% to 15% if a service charge has not already been added to the bill.

Personal Safety
Participants should be aware that Mexico City, like most large cities, has areas in which security can be a problem. Travellers should be vigilant and alert at all times and it is recommended that participants use authorised taxi services from taxi ranks or hotels.

The ITF has appointed Mexicana Airlines (MX) as the official airline for its 42nd Congress.

For discounted flight reservations please contact Jane Wilson at Dovetail Foks (the ITF’s travel agent), telephone + 44 20 7025 1515 / fax + 44 20 7025 1519 / e-mail: ITF@dovetailfoks.com. Dovetail Foks will be available 24 hours a day in order to service Congress participants’ flight enquiries and we would urge you to make reservations as far in advance as possible in order to reduce your travel costs.

Crèche facilities will be available for the duration of Congress. Further information will be available in the near future. If you are interested in the crèche facilities, please tick the appropriate box when registering and include the details of the child/children concerned.

Lunches and Refreshments
Light lunches, refreshments and drinks will be available for sale at the Congress Centre. All food items are pork and alcohol free, and the menu is varied. Although there are a variety of cafes and restaurants in the surrounding area, the ITF advises all Congress participants to use the facilities in the Congress Centre, which are both reasonably priced and of good quality. Reservations for restaurants are recommended.

Value Added Tax (VAT or IVA) is charged on most items. Tourists arriving by air or sea will be able to recover the 15% IVA / Value Added Tax they spend on goods exceeding 1,200 Pesos / USD $115 as they depart the country. Visitors who cross the border by land will not be able to receive VAT refunds. Goods must be purchased with credit or debit cards issued outside of Mexico and visitors must present passports at the time of purchase, and get a receipt and official VAT Refund Form from the store. For those who qualify, half the VAT will be refunded immediately in pesos, to a maximum of 10,000 Pesos/USD $995, and the balance will be credited to the credit card used within 40 days.

Non-residents are allowed to bring in duty-free products and goods to the value of US$300 without incurring duty fees. Prohibited goods include fresh food products and the import of canned food. The export of archaeological artefacts is strictly forbidden.