Fox in the hen-coop

Published : Dec 23, 2001 00:00 IST

Mexico gets a new President and Chiapas a new Governor but it is unlikely that they will take meaningful steps to meet the needs and aspirations of the Chiapan people.

IN the first week of December, Mexico inaugurated two new politicians - Vicente Fox Quesada as President and Pablo Salazar Mendiguchia as Governor of Chiapas. Both men represent the National Action Party (PAN), a conservative, rightist party formed in 19 29 that overcame the seven-decade-long entrenched rule of the neo-liberal Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The presidential election was not close, as Fox won over 40 per cent of the votes polled, Francisco Labastida (the anointed candidate of th e PRI) 30 per cent, and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas (the leader of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, the Left alliance) won just about 20 per cent. As he celebrated his victory before a massive crowd on July 2, Fox was met with the spontaneous cry, 'do not fail us'. Fox, a former executive of the Coca Cola company, responded: "I know I can count on all Mexicans and the Mexicans know that I will not fail them." At his inauguration as the Governor of Chiapas, Salazar (a former PRI member) said that he longe d for "no more bloodshed, particularly the blood of the innocent". "There is a new dawn in Chiapas," said Fox, with Salazar by his side. With change such as this comes some measure of hope, but it is unclear whether the 'new dawn' will befit the people o f Chiapas or of Mexico, and whether Fox (and Salazar) will want to change fundamentally the course of Mexican development.

Vicente Fox spent much of his campaign talking about the need for democracy and an end to corruption, but he also spoke relentlessly about the stalemate in the southern State of Chiapas where the inspiration for democracy lives. On January 1, 1994, just as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, masked Amerindians brought their tender fury into four towns of the provinces. They took control of the towns and distributed a notice that said, "we are the product of 500 years of str uggle" and, exhausted by the dictatorship, the people have "the inalienable right to alter or modify the form of their government". The first cry of these masked rebels was for democracy, and their organisation, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) committed itself to end the PRI domination. Never before had Mexico seen such an audacious act. Bill Weinberg, a journalist who has worked in the region for a long time, reports in his recent book that "analysts across the Mexican spectrum acknowl edged that the rebellion in this marginal state has been critical in the nation's tentative democratic opening" (Bill Weinberg, Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico, Verso, 2000). Fox has to address the woes of Chiapas, becaus e it is clear that his victory owes something to the popular disenchantment with the PRI's admin- istration of the State. But will the electoral changes alter the political and economic arrangements that produced the EZLN rebellion in the first place? Fo x is in the henhouse, but can he free the Chiapans?

The PRI tried to quell the EZLN by two acts, first through military and paramilitary force, and second through the negotiation of treaties that it did not keep. The EZLN did not rise to the military bait, and after its 1994 entrance it operated more as a social movement than as a guerilla army.

Content to hide in the Lacandon jungles, the EZLN itself kept out of the reach of the military, but for one brutal encounter in late 1997 when right-wing paramilitary troops butchered 43 Amerindians who openly sympathised with the EZLN (Frontline, February 6, 1998). Unable to enact a military solution, the government's Concord and Pacification Commission (COCOPA) met with the EZLN in 1996 to produce the San Andres Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture. The Accord called for a revision of Artic le 4 of the Mexican Constitution so that the state would be obliged to "recognise the right of Indian peoples to freely determine their own internal forms of social, economic, political and cultural organisation". A system of decentralised and parallel m unicipalities had been in existence since 1994, and the Accords asked for them to be made official. But the leaders in Mexico City saw this as secession and squashed the Accords.

Since the government had signed the Accords with the EZLN, the rebels refused to renegotiate again on the trail of broken treaties.

During the campaign, Fox said that he would solve the Chiapas problem in '15 minutes', and as he won the Presidency, he called for troops to be withdrawn to their barracks and roadblocks to be dismantled. President Fox sent a series of bills to the Mexic an Congress to grant limited autonomy to the Amerindians (they were far short, however, of the San Andres Accord). Governor Salazar ordered his Attorney-General to review the cases of incarcerated EZLN members. "Those who went to war," he said, "had no o ther options. Those who went were racked by hunger, authoritarianism and desperation and who thought that violence was the only way to open a space for justice for the poor. They are those who were tired of waiting." Salazar, who was the first president of the COCOPA commission during the San Andres negotiations, resigned when the PRI government reneged on the Accords. He was tacitly backed by the EZLN during these elections.The PAN government in Chiapas gained buoyancy by welcoming members of the lefti st PRD into its ranks. Peace in Chiapas seems to be on the horizon.

But there are also indications that such a sentiment is premature. As he won the Presidency, Fox reiterated his commitment to a solution and said that he hoped "there is the same will on their part (EZLN) to resolve this". However, the EZLN claims that t he basis for the future is in the autonomy promised to them in the San Andres Accord, and that there is no need to have another round of political negotiation. The Chiapas issue is not just about goodwill, for there are some deep-rooted problems that wil l not be solved by the PAN, whose own existence is predicated upon the suffering of the Amerindians.

Why did the Mexican elite (who now support Fox) disregard the San Andres Accords? Two issues come to mind: control over the extractable resources in Chiapas, and control over the border route into Guatemala. In an early communique, Subcomman-dante Marcos of the EZLN wrote: "Oil, electric energy, cattle, money, coffee, bananas, honey, corn, cocoa, tobacco, sugar, soy, melons, sorghum, mangos, tamari-nd, avocados, and Chiapan blood flows out through a 1,001 fangs sunk into the neck of southeastern Mexi-co . The dues that capitalism imposes on the southeast corner of the country ooze out, as they have since the beginning, mud and blood." President Fox has pledged to continue (and perhaps intensify) the neo-liberal prescriptions of NAFTA and of globalisatio n (which the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano called bobalisation, or the growth of idiocy). The bankers and industrialists who created President Fox will not countenance any change in the extraction of wealth from Chiapas since any genuine autonomy migh t put roadblocks to their exercise of 'free trade'. The EZLN represented not only a protest against a national government, but a rebellion against an international treaty. Anything short of a revocation of NAFTA and of globalisation will fail to produce a solution to the grief of the province.

Chiapas' new Interior Secretary, Emilio Zebadua, raised another point of contention at the inauguration of Governor Salazar. He said that the troop presence must be scaled down, but added, "we cannot create a total vacuum of security and order in the Sta te". The Guatemalan border has become a major transshipment point for narcotics traffic, and Zebadua noted that "the Zapatistas are going to have to address that issue". The Guatemalan-Mexican border area (mainly populated by Amer- indians) has been the hotbed for revolt for at least a century. It was the region from which Emiliano Zapata took his rebellion north in the 1910s, and it was the base for the Guatemalan Left in the 1970s and 1980s, especially the Ejercito Guerrillero de los Pobres. The issue before the Mexican elite is not the rebellions themselves, but who controls the border trade. The United States Drug Enforcement Agency calculates that the U.S.-Mexican cross-border drug trade is worth about $50 billion a year. PRI officials and section s of the Mexican financial elite have been indicted or are suspect in one part of this trade or another. Raul Salinas (brother of the former President) and Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo (the Mexican drug enforcement chief) are behind bars - examples of the int egration of narcotics into the world of Mexican power. In the last decade, the U.S. and its allies south of the Rio Grande have found in the Drug War a unique opportunity to maintain profits from the drug habit and to go after the Left. In Peru, Colombia , and now in southern Mexico, the spectre of drugs is used as a weapon by the U.S. and its allies against those who fight for social justice. It is unlikely that the Mexican elite will want to cede control over the drug routes to the anti-narcotics EZLN. After the election, Fox met former U.S. Ambassador James Jones who represents two firms implicated in the narco-money trail. A few days later, Fox took a vacation with Roberto Hernandez Ramirez, widely known as a narco-trafficker. By all indications, i t seems unlikely that Fox will cede the border to the EZLN. On the other hand, it is even more likely that he will join with people like Andres Pastrana of Colombia as agents of narco-imperialism.

In 1994, the EZLN made popular the slogan, "Ya Basta, Enough Already!" During his feverish campaign, Fox's slogan was "Basta, Enough!" Fox called for an end to PRI rule, enough to their domination of the legislative establishment. This has now come to pa ss. The EZLN slogan refers to much more than that, as it asks for an end to the history of exploitation, an end (already) to the conquest of the Amerindians. It is likely that Fox will open some doors on the political plane, but it is unlikely that his s ix-year term will meaningfully end the struggle of the Chiapan people.

Vijay Prashad is Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.

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