A long march in Mexico

Print edition : March 31, 2001

The struggle of the indigenous people of Mexico for their rights enters a new phase with EZLN activists organising a march from Chiapas to the capital.

ON February 27, representatives of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) started on a caravan from San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, in what was nicknamed 'Zapatour' by accompanying activists. A movement that emerged on the world stage in the early morning hours of January 1, 1994 in the resource-rich but poverty-stricken southern province of Chiapas set off for Mexico City to announce a new stage in its struggle. When the Zapatour entered Mexico City on March 11, it proved that it was not just a movement of the marginalised indigenous people in Chiapas, but a truly Mexican national movement.

In Mexico City's main square on March 11, as EZLN's march entered the capital.-DANIEL AGUILAR/REUTERS

The day the EZLN arrived in Mexico City, Subcomandante Marcos, representative of the EZLN, announced at the city centre: "We have arrived. We are here... We are not some fleeting fashion which, when it passes, will be stored in the calendar of defeats fo r this country to look upon with nostalgia... We are rebels because the land is rebel if someone is selling and buying it, as if the land did not exist, as if the colour we are of the earth did not exist.'' These powerful words were met with tremendous a pplause from the crowd of 100,000 in the Zocalo.

When the EZLN was formed in 1994, it was greeted with warmth across the world as the harbinger of a new wave of Fourth World revolution (aided by the dot.comrades across the globe). A few months before the EZLN left the Lacandon Jungle for the main town of Chiapas, Mexican political scientist (and now Foreign Minister) Jorge Castaneda, in a celebrated book entitled Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War, bemoaned the end of the Left in Latin America. Castaneda did, however, ac knowledge the central position of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which are "an increasingly important component of the Left and of the expression of popular movements." The EZLN came from this milieu, born of more than a decade of hard political w ork before the 1994 uprising. But the detractors of the EZLN accused it of being unrepresentative, indeed of being a creature of an international Left community that was in love with Third World guerillas, nostalgic for Che Guevara and naive about the Me xican reality. But during the Zapatour, as tens of thousands of Mexicans met the EZLN representatives at every stop along the way, through Puebla, Oaxaca, Toluca, and finally when a hundred thousand of them gathered in the central square of Mexico City, the EZLN was offered the mandate of the people. The journey from the jungles of Lacandon to Mexico City made it clear that the EZLN had plenty of popular support.

As the march began, the government reacted with frenzy. The unarmed caravan was shadowed by members of the Federal Preventative Police, and the government refused to allow the Red Cross to accompany it. The government threatened to imprison the leadershi p and refused to meet with EZLN representatives if they wore masks. "Why are they so afraid of a peaceful, unarmed march of the marginalised indigenous who are not working for the fall of the government or asking for the expropriation of the factories, o r for the nationalisation of banks, or for the handing over of power to the workers in businesses, or for the surrender of the federal army," an EZLN leader asked in a speech at Toluca on March 5. "The only thing we are asking for through this march is f or (the government) to recognise us as indigenous and as Mexicans. It is the hysteria of the Right that is turning this mobilisation into a revolution," he said.

Since December 2000, the Mexican government has been led by the conservative National Action Party (PAN) of President Vincente Fox. Mr. Fox was eager to end the stalemate in Chiapas, but it seems that he wants to do this on his own terms and not on those of the EZLN. On March 13, representatives of the government presented an anonymous document to the EZLN. It suggested that the EZLN meet 20 elected officials and some members of the government's Concord and Pacification Commission (COCOPA) and not the e ntire Congress of the Union. Insulted by the anonymous document, the EZLN told the press that the purpose of the caravan was for the non-negotiable constitutional recognition of indigenous rights and culture. In fact, on the first three days of the March , the Indigenous National Congress (CNI) crafted six demands, which included the recognition of the constitutional rights of the indigenous (as represented in the San Andres Accords signed by the government and the EZLN in February 1996, but not implemen ted as yet), the return of indigenous lands to communal stewardship, and the demilitarisation of indigenous regions (such as Chiapas, where 70,000 federal troops garrison the State). Despite Fox's telegenic amiability, the government was obdurate. It was as if the EZLN and the CNI were not to be taken seriously. "It is time that Fox and those he serves to listen and to listen to us," Marcos told the Congress. But "those he serves", the Mexican elite and the United States government, do not want to liste n to the EZLN.

Why does the Mexican elite and the U.S. drown out the voices of the submerged? It could be because the simple claims of the EZLN for indigenous rights have a much larger purpose. It is asking for the enlargement of the space for democratic action, for a new theory of democracy in Mexico. The EZLN in Chiapas has fought for attention and recognition of social problems, such as the racist dispossession of indigenous peoples and various day-to-day human rights violations. The network of EZLN activity flour ishes in the villages and towns of the province, providing social services long since abandoned by the state. At the same time, the EZLN has created autonomous spaces, places where self-government, economic democracy and development, are practised withou t governmental (or corporate) participation. The mobilisations, marches and press releases of the EZLN are aimed principally at getting the government out of the way. And despite immense federal troop pressure and coercion by armed brigands of landlords, the EZLN has succeeded in preventing the annihilation of these spaces. In many ways, even if the EZLN appears as a guerilla army, it is truly a force for the reconstruction of society.

The EZLN and the CNI press for the constitutional recognition of the rights of the indigenous people. This has been the main demand of the EZLN since its entry into Mexican politics. To some people this may appear to be a rather strange, legalistic deman d for a revolutionary organisation. But the EZLN asserts that it only wants to create and strengthen the forces of civil society, to enlarge public debate and to enhance the institutions of Mexican democracy. The Party of the Institutionalised Revolution (PRI), which ruled Mexico for eight decades, feared that the EZLN's demands would signal the end of its monopoly. Now President Fox, the credit for whose electoral victory in July can be partially claimed by the EZLN, fears that an enhanced civil societ y will mean the loss of power not just of a monopoly party but of the monopoly classes in Mexican society. The PRI represented those classes, but its defeat has not meant their defeat. The ruling class in Mexico switched its allegiance to Fox's PAN, and it is now up to Fox to protect its hold on the social and economic order. Thus the simple demand from the EZLN is decidedly revolutionary.

Indeed, this is perhaps why it appeals to the CNI. Frustrated for years by the authoritarian yoke, the indigenous populations now turn to the strategy of the EZLN. The connection between the Congress and the EZLN illustrates the national scope of the str uggle. The Congress has now pledged to create autonomous municipalities in indigenous communities across Mexico, based on the Zapatista model. All speeches by EZLN and Congress representatives during the Zapatour named each and every indigenous nation an d identified the EZLN and the Congress together as voices for the indigenous people throughout Mexico. The attempt to create a movement of the indigenous of Mexico, and of all those opposed to authoritarianism, offered a powerful challenge in the "hour o f the Fox".

Will the EZLN succeed? The Zapatour has energised Mexican politics, perhaps for the first time since the decline of the Mexican Left after October 1968 (and despite its brief revival during the 1986 student mobilisation and the 1990 presidential campaign of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas' Party of the Democratic Revolution). The rich and the middle class received a shot in the arm in the victory of Fox. If some among them expected the EZLN to take a shot from the army, they were disappointed. From the beginning, F ox has been unable to oppose the EZLN publicly, mainly because it has galvanised the poor (as illustrated during the Zapatour). The EZLN is making reasonable, minimal demands and has out-organised, out-manoeuvred, and out-talked the government at every t urn. The government can only stall, concede as little as possible, as slowly as possible, and hope that the support for the EZLN wanes with time. The EZLN for its part seems aware of the government's strategy, and is not worried.

Subcomandante Marcos: ''We have arrived.''-CLASSOS PRESS/GAMMA

"Up there they say that you are here to watch in morbid fascination, to hear, without listening to anything," Subcomandante Marcos told the Indigenous National Congress on March 11. "They say we are few, that we are weak. That we are nothing more than a photograph, an anecdote, a spectacle, a perishable product whose expiry date is close at hand. Up there they say that you will leave us alone. That we shall return alone and empty. Up there they say that forgetting is defeat, and they want to wait for yo u to forget and to fail and to be defeated. They know up there, but they do not want to say it: there will be no more forgetting and defeat shall not be the crown for the colour of the earth," Marcos said.

As the Zapatour rode into Mexico City, it ensured that the EZLN's message would not be forgotten, that it would indeed spread across Mexico. In the "hour of the Fox" all eyes turn to the government to see what its move will be.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based volunteer and writer for ZNet/Z Magazine, an alternative magazine based in the United States. Vijay Prashad is Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.

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