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PERSPECTIVE ON MEXICO : Rebellion Against Economic Exile

January 23, 1994|GEORGE A. COLLIER | George A. Collier is chairman of the department of anthropology at Stanford University. He has been studying agrarian politics and agrarian change in Chiapas since 1960.

Meeting recently in Russia, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin agreed that social costs of economic restructuring are worrisome, acknowledging what has been brought home to Mexico's President Salinas de Gortari with a vengeance by the Zapatista rebels of eastern Chiapas. The governments of both Mexico and Russia are confronted by the resentment of "client" groups that are losing the protection and paternalistic benefits of the former corporatist state. Meanwhile, economic restructuring, although promising future prosperity, rewards some at the expense of others. In the Mexican case, the rebels of eastern Chiapas count themselves among those "others."

Press reports describing the Mexican uprising portray the rebels as Indians upset over years of poverty and discrimination. The reality has more to do with changing government policies, agricultural modernization and cultural isolation that disproportionately threaten the Indians of eastern Chiapas, who make up the ranks of the Zapatistas.

In the wake of the 1982 debt crisis, Mexico dismantled market controls, sold off state-owned enterprises and reneged on commitments to client groups like peasants. In much of Chiapas, Indian leaders used long-standing ties to the PRI, Mexico's ruling party, to weather the changes. Rural power holders repositioned themselves advantageously as produce merchants in the changing rural economy, while the government channeled funding through them for followers. Although opposition parties made inroads in central and western Chiapas in the 1988 elections, community leaders loyal to the PRI deflected and marginalized the opposition with tacit cooperation of the government.

Some peasants profit from economic restructuring by capitalizing their agriculture. In central and western Chiapas, wealthier peasants spend earnings from other economic activities for fertilizer, herbicides and harvest transport. Others, who lack capital or must borrow at usurious rates, cannot afford to farm. They rent out their land and work as poorly paid field hands. Throughout Mexico, restructuring is widening the gap between well-to-do peasants, many of them favorable to the PRI, and poor peasants, often disenfranchised, who swell the bottom strata of their communities or eke out livelihoods as squatters on the peripheries of nearby cities and towns. Privatization of Mexico's agrarian reform land, envisioned in recent revisions of the constitution, will widen the gap as wealthy peasants buy out others' parcels, much as wealthy Russians are buying up privatized Russian housing.

But eastern Chiapas's poor peasants have neither urban centers to turn to nor established places in the structures of power. The region was settled as late as the 1950s, when Indians from Chiapas' over-populated central highlands arrived in unregulated migration, swelled by colonists from central and northern Mexico in the 1970s. As they converged in rapidly shifting frontier settlements in the tropical forest, migrants shucked ethnic origin for generic peasant identities, diverse sects of Protestantism and new forms of peasant organizing, which appealed to but rarely won support from the Mexican state in a reign the government did not control.

As government dismantled programs favoring peasants, those of eastern Chiapas gave up hope for their future within the country's new economic system. Peasants kept on the move, satellite images show, battling with other settlers for territory, as cornfields rapidly converted tropical forest soils into land good only for grazing or coffee growing. In this remote region with few roadways or urbanized settlements, peasants had nowhere to turn to escape the threat to their life of subsistence agriculture.

Many of the immigrants to eastern Chiapas from central and northern Mexico were fervently leftist, with political roots going back to the 1968 massacre in Mexico City's Tlatelolco Square. By the 1980s, settlers had formed unions as alternatives to the peasant organizations of the PRI. As the state removed subsidies for fertilizer and dismantled the system of agrarian credit, the opposition groups sought non-government credits and market outlets. So while central and western Chiapas peasants responded to changing politics from within the traditional power structure linked to the PRI, those from the eastern part of the state turned to opposition groups to alleviate the painful changes being made by the government.

Mexico, then, must negotiate with the rebels--as it has offered to do--because it probably cannot root them out of the rugged, inaccessible lowlands. With the attention of the world on it, Mexico will surely offer to alleviate the hardships of this zone. But can Mexico or Russia--or our own society for that matter--meet the needs of the growing ranks of those whose homes, livelihood and enfranchisement are threatened by economic restructuring?

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