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THE WORLD | MEXICO

The Zapatistas Are on the March Again--This Time to Mexico City

September 07, 1997|Luis Hernandez Navarro | Luis Hernandez Navarro is a member of the Commission on the Chiapas Peace Accords and counselor of the National Coordinating Office of Organizations of Coffee Growers

MEXICO CITY — President Ernesto Zedillo made no mention of Chiapas nor of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) in his third State of the Union address last week. By contrast, in the few minutes that opposition leader Porfirio Munoz Ledo took to respond to the Mexican president, he asserted that "the most urgent [task] is the establishment of peace and harmony among Mexicans--peace in Chiapas."

If Zedillo had intended to minimize the problem of Chiapas by avoiding it, he failed miserably. Newspapers across the country highlighted his omission as an inexplicable gap in the national agenda. His slight was magnified by the fact that, days earlier, two major television stations had put the Zapatistas back in the public eye by broadcasting long interviews with their leader, Subcommander Marcos. Furthermore, the Chiapas rebels had just announced that 1,111 Zapatistas would set out on a nonviolent march to Mexico City on Sept 8. They will be joined by thousands of indigenous peoples from the National Indigenous Congress. Marcos' participation remains a question mark.

The Zapatista mobilization initiates a new phase in the dispute between the rebels and the federal government. Specifically, it seeks to break the year-long impasse that began when the EZLN suspended its participation in the negotiations held in the Chiapas village of San Andres Larrainzar. Among other things, the Zapatistas then accused the government of reneging on agreements it had made on indigenous rights and culture.

When a mediating body subsequently gained Zapatista acceptance of proposed legal reforms, the government broke its commitment and unleashed a publicity campaign not only against the reforms but also the accords it had signed with the EZLN.

Since then, the situation in Chiapas has worsened dramatically. The number of Mexican army troops in the state has increased to more than 40,000. According to a report by the National Commission for Intermediation, presided over by Bishop Samuel Ruiz, the army and other branches of the armed services are present in 63 municipalities in Chiapas. On average, two indigenous campesinos are killed each day in political violence. In some areas, members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), assisted by the army, have formed death squads to terrorize rebellious Indians. The most infamous calls itself "Peace and Justice." They operate with absolute impunity. Human Rights Watch, along with other international human rights groups, have amply documented the "dirty war" in Chiapas.

But the July 6 elections--in which Mexico's ruling PRI lost its absolute majority in the lower house of Congress, suffered losses in the Senate and saw leftist Cuauhtemoc Cardenas elected mayor of Mexico City--give the Zapatistas a fresh opening in an altered political landscape. Foremost among their demands will be that the government comply with the San Andres peace accords on indigenous rights and culture it signed on Feb. 16, 1996. The marching Zapatistas also aim to consolidate a growing Indian movement and to greet civil society in what they call "the ever-rebellious and dignified territory" of Mexico City. The march, overall, is meant to remind the nation that at a time when many different voices are calling for a transition to democracy in politics, history is often made from below and not negotiated as a concession from above.

True, the root causes of the insurrection that began Jan. 1, 1994, persist. National mediation efforts have been downsized, and without strong mediation groups, virtually no possibility exists for negotiation. The government's noncompliance with the accords has increased mistrust in the power of dialogue.

Still, for the federal government, 1,111 Zapatistas advancing on the nation's capital is a new headache. It is trying to counteract the march's impact by applying a strategy used in past elections--to convert defeat into triumph. Through the media, it has claimed that the EZLN's main objective is to participate in the Congress of the Zapatista Front for National Liberation and become a political force.

The government knows it cannot politically afford to block the march altogether. Nearly a year ago, it failed to stop the Zapatistas from entering Mexico City to participate in the founding of the National Indigenous Congress. Commander Ramona arrived to great fanfare and huge crowds, despite official threats and apocalyptic warnings by some hysterical politicians that the Mexican state would end if the Zapatistas were allowed to leave Chiapas. The government lost the legal debate over the terms of the truce agreement, dropped mega-points in public-opinion polls and, by creating a tempest in a teacup, made itself look ridiculous.

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