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Chiapas 'War' Ends in a Whimper

Tragically, the peasants were led into a dead end by a sham; ironically, the nation's transformation has overrun their cause.

September 15, 1997|JORGE G. CASTANEDA | Mexican political scientist Jorge G. Castaneda is teaching this term at New York University

The 1,111 Zapatista activists or sympathizers marching on Mexico City last week were a painful and sad symbol of the predicament their movement has gotten itself into. Having captured the imagination of the media and solidarity groups the world over, and having achieved real support within the rank and file of Mexican public opinion and the left, Subcommander Marcos and his well-organized indigenous communities have reached a dead end. Or rather, the dead end they plunged into a couple of years ago has become woefully apparent.

The Zapatistas went to the capital ostensibly to strengthen the demands of autonomy for their communities and peace in the Chiapas highlands, and to press the government to comply with last year's San Andres Larrainzar agreements on indigenous rights and culture. In fact, Marcos chose the dramatic trek because he has no other options, and therein lies the tragic quandary that he and his companions set up for themselves from the start.

The Jan. 1, 1994, uprising was indeed one huge bluff: Marcos and the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Movement) got the world's attention on three premises that turned out to be false.

First, they pretended that they were launching an armed struggle that they could suspend in favor of negotiations or reignite. In fact, the Zapatistas never had armed capability of any sort; the option of renewing hostilities did not exist, especially after tens of thousands of army personnel poured into Chiapas.

Second, Marcos pretended to represent the bulk of the indigenous communities in Mexico, in Chiapas or at least in that state's highlands; in fact, he did not. What the EZLN accomplished was extraordinary: organizing the disorganized, the extremely poor, the weakest of the weak, in one very circumscribed area of Mexico. But this feat, however remarkable in the annals of the Latin American left, was not extensible to other areas.

Finally, Marcos was able to generate attention and a measure of credibility, especially from the foreign news media that descended on Chiapas that January, by giving the impression that his movement was part of a broader coalition of "civil society" seeking to transform Mexico. In fact, that coalition was flourishing, but its agenda was far removed from Marcos' and the Zapatistas'.

When, early in 1995, the new Zedillo administration called Marcos' bluff by unleashing a military offensive against the Zapatista havens, the writer-soldier had nowhere to turn. His support in Chiapas was limited, and though "civil society" in Mexico and Europe was willing to mobilize to save him and the indigenous communities from annihilation, it was reluctant to offer more sustainable support of the movement's agenda. Opposition political parties in Mexico were focusing on electoral reform, promoting candidates for the crucial 1997 midterm elections; they did not see much benefit in being identified with the masked and supposedly armed rebels from the hills and jungles of the southernmost tip of Mexico. Unlike the 1994 presidential elections, when the left openly associated itself with Marcos, this year the leftist party would not touch Marcos with a 10-foot pole. The right, naturally, ignored the entire affair, as did the president in his address to Congress Sept. 1.

Paradoxically, Marcos and the Zapatistas may be suffering the consequences of their own success. They, along with many other sectors of Mexican society--the opposition parties, civic groups, the intellectuals, parts of the government party and establishment system--have finally begun to dismantle one-party, authoritarian rule in Mexico. As that happens, each actor in the struggle inevitably sees his or her role affected and transformed in the subsequent, unfolding chapters of a new script. Just as many activists and intellectuals have had to move toward the back of the stage while the newly empowered actors dominate (or monopolize) political life, the true dimensions and impact of the 1994 rebellion begin to settle in. Mexico is not a nation of indigenous peoples, though it has an enormous debt to them; Marcos does not represent the atomized indigenous groups of Mexico, though he put them on the national and world map; the construction of Mexican democracy will not come about through armed struggle or a transparent imitation of it, though the events of 1994 indirectly contributed to the opening we see today. And finally, the demands of the peasants marching on Mexico City are either irrelevant to the majority of the nation's inhabitants or too abstract to become the basis for serious negotiation.

So the march on the capital was more an act of desperation than of boldness; it was a cry in the dark that few will hear and fewer still will heed. What happens to the 1,111 Zapatistas and their supporters now is less important than the tragic nature of their protest. They have followed Marcos into a dead end, and for all his mediagenic skills, he lacks the means to get them out.

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