WHEN the Zapatista National Liberation Army took up arms against Mexico's
one-party dictatorship on New Year's Day, 1994, the ragged army of Maya Indians
made a preposterous pledge to march on Mexico City. Who would have guessed
"We've arrived," the charismatic Subcommander Marcos told the press as he
entered the nation's capital last weekend. "Here we are." They wore their
trademark ski masks but left their rifles at home in their jungle stronghold in
the poor southern state of Chiapas.
The fact that a delegation of 24 Zapatista commandantes has arrived at the
center of national power through political mobilization rather than armed
insurrection is a credit to the democratic transition in our neighbor and NAFTA
Ironically, the Zapatistas are increasingly portrayed in our media as a
moribund movement that has fallen short of its dreams, while Mexico's
democratic opening has been successfully exploited by President Vicente Fox and
the free-market right. But the Zapatista uprising did much to prompt that
opening-and Fox, despite his promises to deliver a peace deal, represents a
party that is intransigent on the rebels' demands for greater rights for
Mexico's 10 million Indians.
After rallying in the capital's central plaza on Sunday, the Zapatistas
want to address the Mexican congress in a bid to win approval of their peace
plan, which would change the constitution to recognize the "autonomy" of
Mexico's indigenous peoples. They have pledged to remain in the capital until
the accords are approved. Right now, they don't have the votes. The coming
political battle will highlight whether Mexico's new democracy offers anything
other than continued poverty and marginalization for the indigenous peoples.
The Zapatistas timed their 1994 uprising to coincide with NAFTA taking
effect and declared the treaty a "death sentence" for Mexico's Indians-who
stand to be forced from their traditional lands by the agro-export owners and
big developers. The 12 days of warfare in Chiapas, which followed the 1994
uprising, forever altered Mexico's political landscape. A large public outcry
called a halt to the government offensive-which largely targeted unarmed Maya
communities-and pressured both sides to negotiate. The talks have lurched
forward in fits and starts since then, with the rebels demanding both
guarantees of Indian rights and democracy for Mexico generally.
Before last summer's elections ended the Institutional Revolutionary
Party's rule, Chiapas was poised uneasily between war and peace. Despite
violent provocations, the Zapatistas continued to struggle peacefully. They did
not surrender their weapons and still faced the organized terror of the
PRI-loyalist paramilitary groups,such as Red Mask, which slaughtered 45 unarmed
Zapatista sympathizers at the hamlet of Acteal on Dec. 22, 1997. But in the
court of Mexican public opinion, the Zapatistas are overwhelmingly perceived as
occupying the moral high ground.
Vicente Fox, George W. Bush's favorite foreign leader, won election in part
by promising to end the Chiapas conflict "in 15 minutes" and has pledged to
support the peace plan-which the Zapatistas hashed out with congressional
negotiators five years ago. But many in Fox's own right-wing National Action
Party (PAN) bitterly oppose the Maya rebels.
Fox is shrewdly tilting away from his own party. But its pro-industry
agenda is inimical to the interests of Indian communities seeking to preserve
their traditional way of life. Even if Fox wins peace with the Zapatistas,
other, more radical armed rebel groups in the south may pick up the ball. And
the Pentagon and CIA have established closer links to the Mexican armed forces
since 1994, mostly under the guise of drug enforcement, and may assume a
growing counterinsurgency role.
One of the Mexican army officers who masterminded the strategy of grooming
unaccountable paramilitaries to terrorize Indians back into submission despite
the official truce in Chiapas was Gen. Renan Castillo,graduate of a
"psychological warfare" training program overseen by U.S. Army Green Berets at
Fort Bragg, N.C.
The newsmagazine Milenio recently published a leaked report on Chiapas
strategy drawn up by Mexican army brass in preparation for the incoming Fox
administration before his December inauguration. The secret report, "Plan
Chiapas 2000," urged Fox to use the media to portray Subcommander Marcos as a
narco kingpin, thereby creating the proper climate for a military offensive
against the Zapatistas. If the peace initiative fails, Fox may lean toward the
Fox's ambitious "Puebla-Panama Plan" would see a series of inter-oceanic
rail and highway links, oil and hydro development, industrial pods and
free-trade zones stretching from the Mexican state of Puebla to the Panama
Canal. The Zapatistas have decried the plan as a "counterinsurgency" measure
aimed at bringing the restive Indian communities of the Mexican south (and
Central America) under industrial control. If the Zapatistas' peace plan is
approved, the purveyors of such mega-scale projects may face a formidable
obstacle: uncooperative Indian communities with greater political control over
their traditional lands.
That's why Fox's own PAN, ensconced in the booming free-trade industrial
elite, has pledged to fight the peace plan. Given this reality, many wonder if
looking to the new president for peace with the Maya rebels isn't letting that
proverbial Fox guard the chicken coop.
Bill Weinberg is the author of "Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico."
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