Misery in Chiapas

The recent “red alert” and new political declaration by the rebel Zapatista army brought the impoverished and harshly divided southern Mexican state of Chiapas briefly into the news. Then, just as quickly, it disappeared. In the flurry of coverage, Chris Kraul of the LA Times July 2 gloated that many peasants are leaving the Zapatista zones, “to escape the rebels’ puritanical ideology, communal land policy, militarism and prohibition of government services.” He claimed peasants’ children receive no education or healthcare in the rebel zones because of the bar on government aid, apparently ignorant of the fact that the Zapatistas run their own schools and clinics with aid from NGOs. Kraul quotes Pablo Romo of Chiapas’ Fray Bartolome Center for Human Rights: “Since 2002 there has been a huge increase of people from Chiapas who have left for the United States. There is a tension created by unfulfilled promises.” But Kraul nearly explicitly blames the rebels for these unfulfilled promises, rather than the government which has failed to follow through on its committment to peace accords—a perspective Romo would certainly disagree with.

Life is certainly difficult in many of the Zapatista villages. AP reported July 6 that nine are dead after eating poisonous mushrooms in the Chiapas Highland village of Polho, with 11 more hospitalized. The mushrooms began sprouting with the onset of the rainy season, and several impoverished families harvested them for soup. The article did not note that Polho, a Zapatista stronghold, is swollen with refugees from the 1997 Acteal massacre. Forced from their lands by anti-Zapatista paramilitaries, the refugees face harsh poverty in the overcrowded village with inadequate access to land to grow food. They are largely dependent on inadequate aid from the Red Cross and other NGOs.

Trying to capitalize on the Zapatistas’ new move towards a political startegy, Luis H. Alvarez, President Vicente Fox’s official pointman for the long-moribund Chiapas peace process, is in the state agin, having visited Monte Libano and other villages on the edge of the rebels’ main jungle stronghold, the Lacandon Selva. (APRO news agency, July 5) But in late May, when he showed up un-announced at the jungle village of Guadalupe Tepeyac, he was surrounded by masked Zapatista militants and forced to leave. The report of the incident came from workers at the hospital at the village, which had been built in 1993 just before the Zapatista uprising as part of the government’s pre-NAFTA public relations push. The workers held a press conference in the central Chiapas city of San Cristobal de Las Casas to protest that the hospital had been abandoned by the government. Guadalupe Tepeyac had been the Zapatistas’ unofficial capital, and they had kept the hospital going as best they could with aid from NGOs, before they were routed from the village in a government offensive in February 1995. Now the village is in government hands (although Zapatista sympathizers apparently maintain a presence there when the army isn’t around), and the hospital lies empty. (EFE, May 27)

See our last post on Chiapas.