Apr 23, 2001
On March 11, two dozen representatives of the Mexican rebel army of EZLN, also known as the Zapatistas, were greeted by an estimated 150,000 people in Mexico City. This huge, enthusiastic rally was the culmination of a two-week motorcade from the southern state of Chiapas to the capital.
Seven years ago, on January 1, 1994, the Zapatistas surprised the Mexican government as well as the international mass media when they took over several towns in Chiapas. Since then, the activities of the Zapatistas have aimed at drawing attention to the unbearable conditions faced by indigenous people in Chiapas.
Those conditions are extremely oppressive indeed, even though Chiapas is quite rich in natural resources. The state produces considerable amounts of oil and natural gas, for example, and provides 20% of Mexico's energy, while only four% of the country's population lives in Chiapas. Yet, as many as 67% of the homes in Chiapas have no access to electricity. Furthermore, 58% of the homes lack running water and 67% lack sewage.
The state is also rich in agricultural products. For example, 35% of the coffee produced in Mexico comes from Chiapas, and more than half of that coffee is exported to the U.S. and Europe. The statistics are similar for other crops, such as cocoa, bananas, corn and honey, to name a few, as well as cattle.
The workers and poor in Chiapas, especially indigenous people who make up roughly one-third of the state's four million people, see practically no benefit from the wealth produced in the state. A very large part of the population in Chiapas suffers from malnutrition –over 50% overall, and 80% in the highlands and forests where most of the indigenous people live. One-third of the municipalities have no access to paved roads, and almost half the population of Chiapas has no access to medical services. The state has only one clinic per 5000 people and one doctor per 2000 people, one-fifth and one-half of the Mexican average, respectively. The literacy rate in the state is 69%, compared to 87% nationwide; more than half of the schools don't offer an education beyond the third grade.
These statistics are from seven years ago, when the Zapatistas started their rebellion. But certainly nothing has changed for the workers and poor in Chiapas since then, especially given the response of the Mexican government to the uprising. The president at that time, Carlos Salinas, immediately sent 70,000 troops to Chiapas to effectively put the entire state under siege. His successor, Ernesto Zedillo, continued the repression which directly targeted the indigenous population. Death squads started to attack civilians and drive them from their towns and villages.
In February, 1996, Zapatistas and the government reached an agreement which would grant the indigenous communities of Chiapas some political and cultural autonomy. This so-called San Andres Accord, however, has remained a dead-letter on paper; it has not even been voted on by the Mexican congress since 1996. Instead, the Mexican government has continued to keep Chiapas under siege and isolated from the rest of Mexico.
In December, 1997, a right-wing paramilitary group, aided by the army, massacred 45 indigenous people, mostly women and children, in a village which was known as pro-Zapatista.
Since the election of Vicente Fox as president last year, there has been a certain change in government rhetoric. Eager to get elected, Fox basically promised everything to everybody during his campaign, including a resolution of the Chiapas conflict. After taking office, Fox made a few gestures towards the rebels. He freed 80 pro-Zapatista prisoners and closed seven army bases near rebel strongholds in Chiapas. He also told the Zapatistas it would be safe for them to come to Mexico City and talk with the authorities. Fox also allowed the Zapatista leaders to address the Mexican congress, which they did on March 28 before heading back to Chiapas. With all these gestures, Fox is apparently trying to diffuse the momentum of the rebel movement in Chiapas.
It remains to be seen what will be next. The Zapatistas demand that the San Andres agreement be legalized by the congress. Even if the Mexican congress ends up passing such a law, however, control over land and natural resources is not a question that can be resolved by laws or by agreements signed by politicians. Those who today control the land and resources in Chiapas, Mexico control them everywhere else through their control of the economy. And they have never once, anywhere, given up their power and control without a fight.
The huge Mexico City rally of March 11 shows that the guerrilla movement in Chiapas finds an echo in the population, including the working class in the cities. That's certainly not surprising. Today, two out of three Mexicans are unemployed or underemployed, and two out of five Mexicans live below the poverty line with less than two dollars per day –while Mexico claims as many billionaires as Germany and Japan. And things are certainly not getting any better. It hasn't taken Fox, the former head of Coca Cola in Mexico, long to renege on his campaign promises towards the working class. One of his first acts as president was to lay off one% of the government employees. He also announced a new tax on food and medicine, and he proposed to open up the state-run electric and oil companies to private, especially foreign, investment –which, if it happens, will undoubtedly lead to more layoffs.
Like the poverty and repression in Chiapas, these attacks, and the worsening of the conditions for all Mexican workers and poor, can be stopped only by a massive mobilization, especially since behind these attacks there are not only Mexican capitalists but big international, especially U.S., corporations and banks.
In the meantime, after their well-publicized trip to Mexico City, the Zapatistas are back to their remote hideout in the jungles of Chiapas. They may have aroused sympathy in the population, perhaps even hope for change, but the necessary task of organizing a big fight, especially in the centers of economic and political power –that is, in the cities –still stands in front of the Mexican workers and poor.