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The Roots of Chiapas

NAFTA supporters said that it would bring democracy to Mexico. But in the wake of the uprising in Chiapas, it looks like more democracy is arriving in an old-fashioned way -- through popular rebellion.

Jonathan Fox

[Editor's Note: This article reflects events in Mexico prior to 24 March. The killing of Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta, presidential candidate of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, occurred as we were going to press.]

JANUARY 1, 1994 was to be celebrated in Mexican history as the opening day of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The rebellion in Chiapas changed all that. According to José Juarez, leader of the Chiapas Union of Ejidos of the Jungle: "When President Salinas went to bed on New Year's Eve, he thought he was going to wake up a North American. Instead, he woke up a Guatemalan." While the government security forces were on leave or still asleep, as many as 2,000 indigenous rebels took over four major county seats, including the colonial capital of San Cristobal de las Casas. Not all were armed, but they displayed the uniforms, cohesion, and discipline of a well-trained military force. From their first "Declaration of War," however, their strategy seemed clearly to be more political than military. The rebellion caught Mexico's national leaders completely by surprise. When a small military confrontation last May led to news reports of secret training camps, the Minister of the Interior, a former governor of Chiapas, declared "There is definitely no guerrilla activity in Chiapas." That certainty was not shared in Chiapas itself, where underground military preparations were an open secret. When I visited San Cristobal last June, it was clear that an armed conflict was coming.

Still, the impact transcended expectations. No one imagined that an uprising in a handful of municipalities would open huge cracks in the national political system, shake the Mexican government to its foundation, and enable a vast array of social forces to seize the opportunity to pry the system open still further.

Another Central America?

The red bandannas and dramatic declarations that provided the uprising with its popular imagery resonated with Central America. Observers have long suggested that Chiapas -- once part of Guatemala -- has more in common with Central America than with the rest of Mexico. And in terms of social polarization, open racism, and the impunity with which local elites use repression, the resemblances are strong. The Zapatistas, however, are not the Central American revolutionaries of a dozen years ago. They do not propose to impose their alternative project on Mexican society as a whole, their official statements do not mention socialism, and their main political demand is for a government of transition to hold free and fair elections at all levels of government.

More fundamentally, Chiapas is part of a national political system quite different from any in Central America: the ruling party is much broader, and civil society much stronger. The decisive political importance of these national differences was sharply underscored when, after less than two weeks of fighting, Mexico's President Salinas declared a unilateral cease-fire and sat down to negotiate. He agreed at least partially to the Zapatistas' conditions, and a political solution became possible. Mexican civil society and important factions within the regime were, for the time being, strong enough to hold off the initial military response.

To be sure, the regime remains deeply divided, and it is too soon to predict how the conflict will finally be resolved. But as I write in mid-March, the cease-fire has held, and negotiations have begun. The colonial Cathedral of San Cristobal was the first site of political negotiations between the federal government and the Zapatista political and military leadership, complete with ski masks and weapons. (The Mexican army had taken the position that only criminals wear masks. They apparently did not have the last word.)

The fate of these peace talks depends in part on two other sets of negotiations that grew out of the January rebellion. In Chiapas, a broad coalition of indigenous social and civic groups has formed to promote peace with justice and democracy. Many communities in the region in revolt, after months of assemblies and internal debate, divided over whether to take up arms. Now groups on both sides of the question have come together, and the federal government has given the new state-wide network unprecedented respect and recognition. The government may have intended to isolate the rebels politically, but to no avail. The state-wide coalition has declared support for Zapatista demands, though not their decision to take up arms. At the same time, a third set of negotiations -- between the national government and the major political parties -- has produced an agreement promising unprecedented democratic electoral reforms.

With negotiations moving forward both regionally and nationally, it is already clear that the Chiapas rebellion has transformed Mexican politics, from bottom to top. Although authoritarian backlash is still possible, for now democratization and social reform have moved to the center of the national agenda. How could this have happened? And where might it lead? The beginnings of answers to these questions lie in the economic and political life of Chiapas itself.

Why Chiapas?

Chiapas is a region of large cattle ranches and coffee plantations, alongside tiny family plots; its notoriously unequal distribution of land remains largely untouched by agrarian reform. Indeed, Chiapas accounts for fully a third of the agrarian reform department's backlog of unresolved conflicts and land distribution decrees that were never carried out on the ground. For the campesinos, it is a backlog of broken promises. And their hope to see those promises redeemed within the system was dashed by recent reforms of the Mexican Constitution. The government, moreover, for years unwilling to redistribute land in Chiapas, encouraged landless families to move to the Lacandon jungle, cut down the forest, and raise subsistence crops, coffee, and cattle. This policy produced a long and bloody history of land conflicts; uncounted dozens, perhaps hundreds, of community leaders have been murdered with impunity over the last two decades. This class conflict is deepened and intensified by the racism of the Chiapas ruling elite. Discrimination in Chiapas is much more overt than in most indigenous regions of Mexico -- until the mid-1950s, San Cristobal was literally an apartheid city.

The mainstays of the peasant economy, too, were in deep trouble in the period leading up to the rebellion. Prices for coffee, cattle, and corn were down and logging was banned (at least for peasants). These problems aggravated long term crises of the regional peasant economy, including a shortage of land and erosion in the highlands and poor soils in previously forested lowlands. Meanwhile, the national government slashed farm support programs -- agricultural credit and technical assistance -- deepening the regional economy's downward spiral.

The insertion of NAFTA into these already unpromising conditions signified a deepening of rural problems -- the end of land reform, increased polarization within Mexico between North and South, and the exclusion of indigenous peoples from the national debate. The trade opening especially threatened corn, a crop with great symbolic as well as economic significance. The intense debate about NAFTA in the United States also may have prompted the Mexican government -- more worried about international embarrassment than local turmoil -- to pretend that nothing was happening in Chiapas. In fact, some analysts suggest that Salinas appointed the hard-line governor of Chiapas, Patrocinio Gonzalez, to become Minister of the Interior precisely to keep the lid on during the NAFTA debate. Gonzalez would have run the 1994 presidential elections, had he not been removed as part of Salinas's turn to a political solution.

By launching the revolt on the first day of NAFTA, the Zapatistas guaranteed themselves international press attention. Their official statements stressed that their main goal was simply to draw attention to the political and economic crisis in Chiapas (see "Who are the Zapatistas?," page 25). And Subcomandante Marcos's charge that NAFTA is a "death sentence" for Mexico's indigenous peoples became the emblem for the rebellion. Some US specialists on Mexico were puzzled by this emphasis on NAFTA. One said that it couldn't be an indigenous rebellion: how could Indian peasants know about NAFTA? Another suggested that the timing was just a coincidence. The experts ought to have known that the pro-government media have been trumpeting the onset of NAFTA throughout the country for a long time.

But there is a puzzle here: if the rebels' main goal was to attack NAFTA, they would have launched the uprising the week before the US congressional vote instead of waiting for the treaty to take effect. Still more fundamentally, the grievances that led to the rebellion cannot be understood exclusively by reference to the rural economic crisis and NAFTA. For although their effects were felt throughout rural Mexico, only Chiapas rebelled. What, then, is different about Chiapas?

Force and Fraud

Part of the answer is politics. Consider the Zapatistas' two main targets. While in command of the region's power centers, they destroyed the town halls and the police stations, but touched little else. In Altamirano they whacked away at the "municipal palace" with sledgehammers for two days. Before the army began sweeping through the region last spring, the main sources of repression in Chiapas were the local and state authorities -- police under the control of "elected" officials. Since the mid-1980s, Amnesty International, Americas' Watch, and Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights have documented a systematic use of torture and political violence by the state and local police. The problem of repression in Chiapas came briefly to national attention in 1992 because of an indigenous march from Palenque to Mexico City (a distance of about 1,000 kilometers). The protest was called Xi Nich -- the "Ant March" -- and with support from the progressive church the marchers made it to the gates of the capital, prompting national authorities to negotiate. The government promised to meet many of the demands, but after the marchers returned home few agreements (they charge) were ever carried out.

The underlying political problem in Chiapas is the lack of free and fair elections for all levels of government: basic freedoms are not respected and election numbers are regularly cooked. According to a study of the 1988 presidential elections by the non-partisan Fundación Arturo Rosenbleuth, the remote rural Ocosingo federal election district -- one of the centers of the uprising -- reported one of the highest rates of voter turnout in the country. Of those on the rolls, 81.5% reportedly voted, a figure well above the reported national turnout of 50.3%. When compared with the population figures, this meant that 99.5% of the voting age population of the district voted, giving Salinas 95.6% of their votes. Borrowing from Gogol's Dead Souls, the official 1988 rolls included more than 105% of the voting age population in another 35 rural election districts around the country, including 125% of the adult population of the Comitán district, also one of the areas in revolt.

As the turnout numbers suggest, these authoritarian enclaves are not simply remote rural backwaters, cut off from national politics and as yet untouched by the government's modernization project. As national elections are contested more and more, the winning margins narrow. So the national leaders of Mexico's ruling party need these controlled districts more than ever. Authoritarian enclaves made the difference in the 1988 presidential race, and could swing the vote in 1994 as well. That is why Chiapas is so important: the struggle for political democracy at the national level depends on the fight for local democracy.

But politics in Chiapas is not simply a matter of electoral fraud; force, too, plays a central role. The political class in the Chiapas state government is especially authoritarian, and recent governors have been particularly brutal -- which led the Zapatistas to take one as a prisoner of war. This general-turned-rancher was later released unharmed, to facilitate the negotiations. The governor at the time of the rebellion (a political appointee, now also fallen) was especially irritating to the citizens of Chiapas because he was considered an imposed foreigner -- Elmar Selzter Marseille, from a plantation family of German descent. His charges that the rebellion was "foreign-inspired" were not well-received.

More immediately, political conflict last fall convinced many that prospects for peaceful change within the system had closed up, contributing to the popularity of the Zapatistas among the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. Right-wing forces in the Mexican government, together with the Papal Nuncio and his allies in the Catholic church, openly tried to have Bishop Samuel Ruiz removed from the diocese of San Cristobal. Don Samuel is the "Archbishop Romero of Chiapas," a towering figure whose defense of the rights of the indigenous is legendary. He organized the first state-wide indigenous congress in 1974, in honor of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, the chronicler of the conquest and first European defender of indigenous rights. Much of the rich web of social organizations built by the indigenous peoples of Chiapas trace their origins to this first taste of freedom of expression and assembly. The public attacks on Don Samuel brought over 15,000 indigenous people down from the mountains to march in his defense through the streets of San Cristobal last fall -- the largest protest in the history of Chiapas, even larger than the 1992 protest against the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest.

The Zapatistas

If poverty and authoritarianism explain what makes rebellion possible, they do not explain why rebels choose to take the extraordinary risk of directly confronting state power. Who, then, are the Zapatistas? What mix of history, interest, and conviction brought them together? Contrary to early claims by the government about foreign involvement, the Zapatistas are Mexican, mostly indigenous. Some Mexican participants may well have had combat experience in Central America, but no evidence of foreign participation has been presented. Starting with their "Declaration of War," the official Zapatista communiques are written in the tradition of the Mexican Revolution, citing Article 39 of the Constitution which vests national sovereignty in the people.

The Zapatistas' early origins are quite murky, but for at least a decade they have sunk roots in rural Chiapas and possibly elsewhere in Mexico. They organized in total isolation from the rest of the Mexican left, and reliable information about them is very limited. Politically, they may have begun as a convergence of splits from an influential neo-Maoist political group called Política Popular with more Central American-style revolutionary ideas. Recent reports suggest that since the end of the Cold War their ideology has shifted much closer to the mainstream of Mexico's broad democratic movement. Since the rebellion, all their official public statements call for constitutional democracy and social reform. Their initial "Declaration of War" called for the "Powers of the Nation" (the legislature and judiciary) to "restore the legality and stability of the Nation by removing the dictator [meaning Salinas] from office." In Subcomandante Marcos's words, "we demand the formation of a new government of transition that would convene free and democratic elections for August 1994." They deny that they are trying to impose their project on Mexican society by force.

More radical demands have been heard from fragments of interviews with militants on the ground. This may reflect differences between leadership and base, or political differences within the Zapatista Army (EZLN). Given the alphabet soup of Chiapas rural politics, it would not be surprising to discover that several distinct groups came together in recent years to form the EZLN.

Whatever their ideological roots, the Zapatistas gradually won over many activists who had long tried organizing for change within the system. Chiapas is full of independent peasant organizations, many with two decades of tough organizing behind them. Some are spiritually-inspired while others are more secular. Some focus on community economic development projects while others are more culturally and ethnically identified. Some are affiliated with national groups, like the National Network of Coffee Organizations, the National Union of Autonomous Regional Peasant Organizations, the Independent Central of Farmworkers and Peasants, The National "Plan de Ayala" Network, and the Independent Front of Indian Peoples, while others prefer to stick to local and regional alliances. Some fight for land rights and against human rights abuses, while others steer clear of such dangerous issues.

The Zapatistas come out of this world -- a dense network of associations seeking to change the system but consistently encountering more repression than reform -- and they have already helped to transform it. Until the January uprising, the community-based indigenous and peasant organizations of Chiapas had operated largely independently from one another. But in the wake of the January uprising and the political space it opened up, they have come together in a state-wide network of unprecedented political breadth and diversity.

In spite of the Zapatistas' clearly local roots, government spokespeople have sought to discredit the movement by claiming that it cannot be truly indigenous. Indigenous revolts are supposed to be "spontaneous," but the January events were well-planned in advance. The government alleges that the many indigenous people who participated were actually duped by non-indigenous professional revolutionaries. Indigenous peoples are also supposed to have only local, immediate demands; the official view is that they are not concerned with national politics. For this reason, the Zapatista emphasis on political democracy is offered as conclusive evidence that this is not an authentic indigenous movement.

In response to government charges, the Zapatistas claim that their top leadership is exclusively indigenous. This message was a bit muddled since their principal spokesperson, Marcos, is not indigenous (though he has made it clear that he is merely a "subcomandante"). When the top leadership met with the press for the first time in early February, though, the confusion began to clear up. Spanish is a foreign language for all of the leaders -- indeed, Commandante Ramona reportedly speaks only Tzotzil. They affirmed that their Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee is the highest political authority, though Marcos is the main military strategist. They said that Marcos is their spokesperson because "he has such a facility with Spanish. We still have a helluva lot of trouble with it. That's why we need him to do lots of things for us. . . . But we make the political decisions." No one seems to know who Subcomandante Marcos is, other than those who have pointed out that his name stands for Margaritas, Altamirano, Rancho Nuevo, Comitan, Ocosingo and San Cristobal, the main towns in the zone of conflict.

Moreover, the Zapatistas' initial deemphasis of ethnically-specific demands may reveal more about the extreme complexity of the ethnic map of the main region in revolt than about the social origins of the EZLN. The Cañadas region is an area of relatively recent settlement, mostly by indigenous homesteaders from other parts of Chiapas, especially from the densely-populated Altos region, but also by some mestizos from other Mexican states. Thus the different ethnic groups are not settled in their own geographically and culturally distinct areas. The result has been a great deal of inter-ethnic mixing, and Tzeltal has reportedly become a lingua franca, along with Spanish. This mixing may help to explain why the rebellion shows signs of a broader pan-Mayan identity. It also accounts for the relative absence of ethnically-specific demands based on primordial claims to the region where they live, and for the central place of the demand to be treated as full citizens of Mexico -- though the Zapatistas have recently proposed the creation of indigenous co-governors, as counterweights to mestizo-dominated state authorities.

State and Society Respond

When the rebellion began on the first of January, the government was initially paralyzed by surprise. Eventually, more than 12,000 troops were sent in from all over the country. In most of the towns occupied by the rebels, the army waited for them to leave before moving in. In San Cristobal, the rebels left at six in the morning, just as they had arrived, with no combat. The army arrived at six that afternoon. In the end there were relatively few battles, though it took the army some time to dislodge the rebels from Ocosingo, and the EZLN kept the army pinned down for several days at the Rancho Nuevo military base. By 6 January the president made his first public appearance, taking a very hard-line stance. The government was trying a military solution, complete with widespread torture, disappearances, and reports of secret graves. Soon, however, the combination of international and domestic pressure for a peaceful solution led Salinas to change strategy. In a clear shift from the post-NAFTA afterglow of positive news coverage, the international press was, from the beginning, remarkably critical of the Mexican government. Liberal US advocates of NAFTA, having bet heavily on its democratizing impact, were relieved when President Salinas declared a unilateral cease-fire. He called in the former Mayor of Mexico City, Manuel Camacho, runner-up in the secretive inside competition to become the ruling party's presidential candidate, to head a peace and reconciliation commission. Camacho is widely respected for his political negotiating skills, and has important family ties to Chiapas. He immediately called on Bishop Ruiz to help. As Camacho came back into play, after having lost the most important political game in town, speculation spread -- with Camacho's encouragement -- that he might reenter the race for the presidency. Some Mexico City conspiracy theorists even suggested that Camacho himself was behind the revolt. (A more plausible conspiracy theory would predict efforts by powerful opponents of serious political change who remain entrenched within the state to throw a monkey wrench into the delicate peace talks.)

Within civil society, the government's early hard-line response had the unintended consequence of mobilizing and unifying a broad, disparate range of groups, including the Catholic church, independent print media, a nascent human rights movement, non-government development organizations, indigenous rights groups, and national political parties (See "Support for Zapatista Goals," page 26). A small announcement published in Mexico's most important newsweekly gives a sense of the response. It comes from the Mexican Center for Children's Rights: "Now is the time for us to know who we are. Thanks to the EZLN for the days of light you are giving us." The response was so strong that when Salinas first announced his shift to a political approach, he described it as a response to the calls for peace from civil society, suggesting that their pressure helped to tip the balance in the secret, high-level debate over military versus political solutions.

Remarkably, even strong critics of the Zapatistas and their big city sympathizers have recognized the legitimacy of their demands. Reacting to a government offer of amnesty, Subcomandante Marcos asked: "Why should we be the ones to ask for pardon?" Acknowledging his eloquent challenge, Nobel Prize-winning writer and Zapatista critic Octavio Paz said, "it really moved me -- it's not the Indians of Mexico, but we who should be the ones who ask for pardon. I don't close my eyes to the responsibility of our authorities -- especially those in Chiapas -- nor to the no less serious responsibilities of the selfish and narrow-minded comfortable classes of that rich province. But the responsibility also extends to Mexican society as a whole. Almost all of us, to a greater or lesser extent, are guilty of the iniquitous situation of the Indians of Mexico, since we have allowed, with our passivity or our indifference, the extortions and abuses of the plantation owners, the ranchers, the caciques [local bosses] and corrupt politicians."

One of the most influential institutions in civil society, the Catholic church, has responded by closing ranks in support of Bishop Ruiz. The earlier attacks against Ruiz appeared to fit the classic, Central American-style image of church hierarchy versus liberation theology. But things turn out to have been more complicated. The church's institutional interests were involved, since the Pope's Ambassador, a foreigner, had pushed the top leaders of the Mexican church aside to become President Salinas's main church ally. He also angered many bishops by agreeing to accept the government's story about the "accidental" airport murder of the Cardinal of Guadalajara (by machine gun at point blank range). Now that Ruiz has become the key link in the new peace talks, the balance of power within the Mexican church seems to have shifted to the national authorities.

Rebellion and Democracy

Prompted by economic distress and political subordination, rooted in a rich network of regional associations, and protected by a broader Mexican civil society, the Zapatista revolt is as important as the student movement of 1968, citizens movements after the Mexico City earthquake, or the 1988 movement for democratic presidential elections. As pro-democracy elements within the church have increasingly joined with human rights, civic, grassroots and indigenous movements throughout Mexico, civil society seems to have gained strength in its long-term, two-steps-forward/one-step-back struggle to weaken authoritarian rule. One sign of this progress is the government's pact with the national political parties. It promises independent oversight of the election commissions, independent auditing of the voter rolls, fairer access to the media, and lower campaign spending ceilings. Whether the government will keep these promises is another matter, but the broad sympathy for the Zapatistas throughout urban as well as rural Mexico indicates that the government will pay a very high price if it commits fraud in the upcoming presidential elections.

At the bargaining table in Chiapas, the government preferred to deal with local and regional issues, making national concessions only on some general principles to defend indigenous rights. That approach misses the point, and could carry dangerous implications. As Bishop Ruiz put it, "From the beginning the Zapatistas raised national issues . . . Those who think they can isolate the problem of Chiapas from the national context as the way to solve this problem didn't understand anything. This is a problem that is raised to the national level because the indigenous are not only in Chiapas. Their situation is the same all over, and all of them have been identifying with the [Zapatista] cause, though not with the means." As of this writing, an agreement has been reached and the Zapatista leadership is consulting their rank and file. They seem to be relying on civil society in the rest of Mexico to further the struggle for democratization at the national level. But the draft agreement -- now being debated in the villages -- does not seem to require them to turn their weapons in. They may simply wait and see whether the government fulfills its promise of a free and fair election in August.

The Zapatistas are not going to accept the usual promises, and if peace talks break down the revolt could spread, well beyond Chiapas. Indigenous peoples represent at least the bottom 10% of Mexican society. According to one rank and file Zapatista militant near Guadalupe Tepeyac, "we don't know much about the proposals, but even if we did, that wouldn't be enough. I think that agreements have always been paper that the government takes to the bathroom. I want to see what happens to the land. That's why Emiliano Zapata died."

When asked what happens if the negotiations break down, he replied: "If they break down, they break down. We're here. Then we'll play our role. We'll see who's more ready. Maybe the army soldiers are more ready to die. Or maybe we're more ready to die."

Originally published in the April/May 1994 issue of Boston Review

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