The struggles of Chiapas

Print edition : August 29, 1998

Dialogue has ceased in the Zapatista stand-off in Mexico. Will the rebels now match Army's tactics with guerilla action?

IN 1995, the Nobel laureate Octavio Paz offered his idiosyncratic reflections on India, many of them a result of his time as Mexico's Ambassador to India in the late 1960s. At the end of the book, Paz briefly commented on the student uprisings in Mexico City in 1968 and his own fellowship for their democratic struggles (a camaraderie revealed in his wonderful The Other Mexico: Critique of the Pyramid). After an interchange with the Government over its brutal treatment of the students, Paz resigned his post, since he "could no longer represent a government that was operating in a manner so clearly opposed to my own way of thinking" (In Light of India, page 203). On April 20, 1998, Octavio Paz resigned from his life, perhaps in protest again of his Government's brutal actions in Chiapas and of the growth of inequality in society at large.

Upon Paz's death, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo pledged to keep his memory alive; however, in the southern province of Chiapas, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) which tries to keep Paz's values alive, faces the brutality of Zedillo's army.

But just barely kept alive. In the aftermath of the December 22, 1997 massacre at Chenalho, the Government pledged to tread the path of peace, to meet the EZLN in dialogue (Frontline, February 6, 1998). By February 1998 it was clear that the negotiations were a prelude to further violence. The official Mexican negotiator, Emilio Rabasa Gamboa, announced once again that the Government had a "new peace plan for Chiapas". Interior Minister Francisco Labastida Ochoa insisted that the plan intended to remove the EZLN by way of foreign investment ("the only way to raise the standard of life in Chiapas"), since capital inputs, he felt, would undercut the EZLN's base. In a detailed rebuttal entitled "The Table of San Andris: Between the Amnesia from Above and the Memory from Below," the EZLN argued that the Government violated an accord already reached between the parties (at San Andris on February 6, 1996) and sought to undermine the institutions set up for negotiations (the Commission on Concordance and Pacification, created by a treaty in 1995 and the National Intermediation Commission).

The Government, in turn, arrested and deported a French priest from San Cristobal, for his outspoken condemnation of the Chenalho massacre: he was the eighth foreign priest so despatched. If internationalists travelled to Spain to defend the Republic in 1936, many committed young people from Europe and the Americas take turns in Chiapas, acting as observers against state action and offering their skills to the EZLN.

Women of an indigenous community confront Mexican soldiers in Sibaca village in the Chiapas region. The Mexican Army is using brutal tactics to quell the revolution in Chiapas.-GREGORY BULL/ AP

There is a great deal of romance about the EZLN's use of the electronic media as well as about its military elan in taking on the undemocratic Mexican regime. By February 28, however, Ignacio Garcma Garcma, of the International Civilian Human Rights Observation Commission, noted that "the signs we have seen in Chiapas indicate to us that a violent, rather than a peaceful, solution to the conflict is in the making." Once the observers left the province, the Mexican military returned, first in the guise of low surveillance flights over La Realidad and then with the entry of a 50-unit military convoy into Guadalupe Tepeyac.

At dawn on June 10, 1,200 troops from the Mexican state forces entered an EZLN district, the Autonomous Municipal Council of San Juan de la Libertad (once, El Bosque), killed nine people, arrested many of the councillors and slowly dismantled the EZLN's institutions. This was the fourth such autonomous municipality to be captured by the state forces, a dynamic that had forced Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcma to resign on June 7 from his post as mediator in the conflict and to dissolve the National Mediation Commission. Rodolfo Soto Monzan, the State Attorney-General, blamed the EZLN for the struggle and justified the state operations as a necessary means "to establish the rule of law". The EZLN, on the other hand, noted that the state hoped "to find a pretext for declaring that the EZLN has attacked the government, and to launch a military offensive against them." The events at La Libertad, however, may be "the spark that can burn down the country," an EZLN spokesperson noted.

IN early July, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan indicated that the U.N. may wish to assist the peace process in Chiapas. The Mexican Government was furious, and during his trip to the country on July 22-23, Annan backed out and took the Government's position. "I can see that he (Zedillo) is personally committed to finding a solution," Annan said on July 22. "The Government is looking for a political solution and does not seek a military confrontation. I think this is the right approach." Zedillo travelled twice to Chiapas in July, once to declare that "it is the Government that has summoned to negotiate" and it has "not encountered reciprocity" from the EZLN (on July 1) and, again, that the Government "wants and proposes dialogue, without conditions, without evasions, without pretexts." Talk of dialogue is a pretention as the Mexican army swarms into Chiapas to annihilate the rebels.

President Ernesto Zedillo.-JOSE LUIS MAGANA/ AP

After five months of silence, Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN sent another of his signature communiques on July 17, this time with the enigmatic words, "Yepa, yepa, yepa! Andale, andale! Arriba, arriba!" These are the words of the Warner Brothers cartoon character Speedy Gonzalez, a Mexican mouse who cannot be caught by the cat. "Zedillo destroyed any confidence in his government," Marcos noted, "Without confidence, it is impossible to reach agreements. If there are no agreements, why hold a dialogue?"

Indeed, there is no dialogue, since the commissions set up to mediate the conflict have all given way to the Mexican Army's tactics and, as the Mexico City daily Reforma reported (July 18), there is evidence that the rebels are ready to match the army with guerilla actions in the coming months.

Since it signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on January 1, 1994, Mexico's economy has been under duress (with the December 1994 collapse of the peso, sending the 1995 gross domestic product, or GDP, to -8.7 per cent and with only minor gains registered since then). In May 1993, some 3,000 soldiers of the Mexican Army went into Chiapas, but the Government failed to mention the unrest for fear that it might derail NAFTA (the rebellion began the day NAFTA took effect). On January 13, 1995, Chase Manhattan Bank's Emerging Markets group prepared a memorandum on Mexico that candidly stated its interests in the nation: "While Chiapas, in our opinion, does not pose a fundamental threat to Mexican political stability, it is perceived to be so by many in the investment community. The Government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and security policy." In February 1995, Zedillo launched his first offensive, almost as if he was taking orders from Wall Street. Zedillo appointed Enrique Cervantes Aguirre to head the military, a man specially selected for his anti-guerilla experience (he was chief of staff of the 27th Military Zone in Guerrero when the state crushed a leftist uprising in the 1970s).

The U.S. Government has not been lax; there is adequate evidence that the forces in Chiapas, notably the Airborne Group of Special Forces, or GAFE, has been trained in the U.S. in counter-insurgency operations. In March 1996, General Barry McCaffrey, the U.S. drug policy director, met Mexican officials and sealed an agreement to train Mexican special forces at Fort Bragg and to gift the Mexican Army 73 helicopters, night vision goggles, radios and other military equipment to "fight drug runners". That year, the U.S. gave Mexico $3 million in military aid, but in 1998 the figure has risen to $9 million - to buy weapons from U.S. manufacturers to fight narco insurgency. The EZLN denounced "attempts to discredit the legitimate goals of our struggle by describing that fight as drug-trafficking, drug-guerilla lawlessness." A U.S. official admitted before the U.S. Congress on February 25, 1998 that while the U.S. did not have troops in Chiapas, he "would not be surprised" if U.S. Army officials had not toured the region. A spokesperson at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City said that "there is no military presence of the United States in Chiapas," but that there had been "periodic and routine visits made by the defence attaches, who are accredited as diplomats and visit all parts of Mexico, including Chiapas, as part of their normal assignments." These officials made at least three trips to Chiapas in 1997 and one in 1998 (La Jornada, February 26, 1998).

News from Chiapas comes in fits and starts. There is some expectation that the Party of the Democratic Revolution under the leadership of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas (one that includes all manner of leftists, including the bulk of the dissolved Communist Party) will increase its hold on the popular imagination and wrench power from the Party of the Institutionalised Revolution, the undemocratic formation that is mired in corruption and in the dynamic of U.S. imperialism. Cardenas, son of former Mexican President General Lazaro Cardenas who ruled during 1934-40, is currently the Mayor of Mexico City and his party controls 26 per cent of the Chamber of Deputies in Mexico. The struggles of Chiapas need wider support in Mexico and one hopes that the growth of Cardenas' party will faciliate the fruition of the hope, which is now under shadow of the gun.

Vijay Prashad is Assistant Professor, International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, U.S.

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