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It Won't Hurt Mexico to Recognize Its Indians

February 23, 2001|LUIS HERNANDEZ NAVARRO | Luis Hernandez Navarro, an editor for La Jornada newspaper, is a member of the Commission on the Chiapas Peace Accords

MEXICO CITY — On Saturday, 24 Zapatista leaders, Subcommander Marcos among them, will begin a march through Mexico. What they want is the recognition of Indian peoples as social and historic subjects and also of their right to autonomy within Mexico.

Although Mexico has been a multiethnic and multicultural nation since its founding, not one of its constitutions has sought to reflect that reality. Ruling elites have been obsessed with erasing Indians from the national geography. The Constitution of 1917 enshrined the rights of individuals but did not specifically recognize those of the indigenous peoples. This lack of specific legal and judicial recognition, along with the blatant policies of assimilation applied by a succession of revolutionary governments, failed to wipe out Mexico's Indian peoples but condemned them to exclusion and poverty.

Opponents charge that passage of the proposed constitutional reforms on indigenous rights and culture now before Mexico's Congress would lead to human rights violations and would legitimate caciques, or rural bosses. Others have claimed that the reforms seek to grant special privileges and would lead to national disintegration. But where is the evidence for this? In Nicaragua and Spain, for example, autonomy has not led to any of these predicted outcomes. The state of Oaxaca, where there have been important legal advances toward autonomy along the lines of the so-called Cocopa reform initiative, has experienced no significant conflicts as a result of the reforms.

The reform initiative was drafted by Cocopa, the legislative commission charged with the peace process in Chiapas. Approval of the Cocopa reforms is one of the three conditions stipulated by the Zapatista National Liberation Army, or EZLN, to reopen dialogue.

Recognition of indigenous people as full citizens requires constitutional reform. Autonomy for Indian peoples means transferring to the communities and townships functions like political representation and justice, which currently fall under other government agencies.

Despite the fact that the Mexican Constitution of 1917 has had more than 400 modifications that have transformed two-thirds of its articles, never has a reform generated as much debate as the current one on indigenous rights and culture. The Cocopa initiative was completed in 1996 by representatives of the four political parties to break the impasse in the peace negotiations in Chiapas. The legal proposal was drafted from the agreements on indigenous rights signed between the EZLN and the federal government. Known as the San Andres accords for the village in which the pact was signed, the agreements were endorsed by then-President Ernesto Zedillo but were never implemented.

In the negotiations that led to the San Andres accords and later the Cocopa initiative, the EZLN invited hundreds of indigenous leaders from across the country and scores of noted experts on indigenous issues. The Cocopa initiative was endorsed by 3 million people on March 21, 1999, during a "national consultation" promoted and overseen by the rebels.

On Dec. 5, just four days after his inauguration, President Vicente Fox presented the Cocopa initiative to the Senate as if it were his own.

The Mexican Congress now has before it the possibility to repair the historic injustice borne by indigenous peoples and pave the way to peace in Chiapas. If this opportunity is not taken, the whole country will suffer the consequences.

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