Reuters: Zapatista demands “forgotten”?

This Reuters story that ran in the Washington Post June 19 (online at Chiapas95) is typical of the hegemonic mainstream media line (north of the border, at least) that the Zapatistas have shot their wad and are forgotten. (Amazing that we periodically have to be reminded like this that they are forgotten.) Cynically, the piece mentions nothing about the conflict over San Salvador Atenco or the labor unrest in Oaxaca—struggles which have assumed center stage in Mexico, and have been thoroughly integrated into the demands and mobilizations of the Zapatistas’ national tour, the “Other Campaign.” Contrary to this story’s implication, the Zapatistas’ “demands” were never just about indigenous autonomy. That was but the first of several “dialogue tables” planned in the long-stalled peace process. The government’s intransigence in approving these first accords (on indigenous autonomy), meant that the subsequent “tables”—on agrarian reform, education, labor and general democratic rights—have languished for nearly ten years now. Nor were the accords on indigenous autonomy only about Chiapas state—they were meant to apply throughout Mexico. The piece does, however, raise the important point that, while the Zapatistas now occupy the public eye in Mexico City, their stronghold of southern, impoverished Chiapas has been paradoxically forgotten—even as violence escalates there.

Mexico forgets Zapatista demands at election

by Frank Jack Daniel

ACTEAL, Mexico – On the election campaign trail for elections six years ago, Mexico’s President Vicente Fox famously said he would resolve the Zapatista rebel Indian conflict in “15 minutes.”

That never happened and now, as another presidential vote looms, ending a military and political deadlock in the southern state of Chiapas barely figures on the national agenda.

Tens of thousands of soldiers are still stationed near the rebel strongholds that dot the highlands and jungles of Chiapas, where on January 1, 1994, the Zapatistas briefly overran several towns to put an end to centuries of discrimination.

Before the fighting ended a few days later, 150 people were killed. Peace agreements were reached in 1996, but were never fully implemented — leaving the rebels and their supporters angry and suspicious, although they stuck to a promise not to pick up their guns again.

“We were cheated then, and now we’re not even talked about,” said Agustin Vasquez, 39, a Tzotzil Indian who heads a group of villages sympathetic to the Zapatista cause, but which remain committed to non-violence.

Mexico’s 13 million Indians tend to be the poorest people in the country, with high rates of illiteracy and malnutrition. That, and skewed land distribution in Chiapas, were major factors leading to the 1994 revolt.

Marcos, the Zapatistas’ pipe-smoking, ski-masked leader and for years the Indians’ loudest voice, left his jungle hideout in January this year on a national tour he calls “the other campaign.” He says he wants an alliance between the indigenous movement and other groups considered excluded from mainstream Mexican politics but is not taking part in the election.

Some analysts say his shift to broader issues has allowed the Indians’ fight for rights in Chiapas to drift even further off the political landscape.

“This is a very racist society,” said author and political analyst Carlos Monsivais, “With the Zapatistas concentrating on their other campaign, indigenous demands have been abandoned.”

Fox told Reuters in 1998 he would “smoke a peace pipe” with Marcos and said reaching an agreement with the rebels “should not take more than 15 minutes.”

Despite the president’s failure to make that a reality, few people believe the guerrillas will take up arms again.

But in the Chiapas hills, where Zapatista villages, painted with bright rebel murals, are closed to outsiders, many Indians feel let down and may not vote in the July 2 election.


“They come and take photos with (us) and then say the poor support them,” said Elena Vasquez, dressed in traditional purple and red embroidered clothing, in the village of Acteal, part of which is a rebel stronghold.

“It’s just to manipulate the poor — they never help us once they are in office,” she said at a gathering of 500 mainly Tzotzil Indians in the non-rebel part of the village, where some 45 Catholic peasants were massacred in a chapel by right-wing paramilitaries in 1997 — the worst single act of violence in the conflict.

Despite her mistrust of mainstream politicians, Vasquez said she may yet support leftist presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leading contender.

The main demand of the rebels, and of the wider indigenous movement, is for self-determination — including official recognition of Indian traditional authorities and control over natural resources on their lands.

Some observers believe there may be significant oil reserves under lowland areas of Chiapas.

In 2001, thousands of rebels and their supporters triumphantly marched to Mexico City, but found a promised legal reform to grant Indians more self-determination had been watered down in Congress. The Zapatistas have since refused to talk to the government, withdrawing to their villages to unilaterally implement the planned reform.

Felipe Arizmendi, bishop of the Indian-dominated San Cristobal de las Casas diocese, said there was no sign of any talks soon. “If there was a willingness to say, ‘OK, the agreements were not totally met, but let’s talk to see how we can move forward,”‘ there would be hope, he said.

“But right now there is no such possibility.”

More government money has flowed into Chiapas since the uprising thrust the plight of the Indians into the national spotlight, bringing electricity, piped water and roads to isolated villages.

Ironically, autonomous Zapatista strongholds have least benefited from this spending as they reject government help.

Many villages sympathetic to the Zapatistas say most government money has been channeled to anti-rebel villages.

For Arizmendi, the main achievement of the uprising was to make the Indians aware of their rights and defend their culture and traditions, while reminding Mexico that they exist.

“If they don’t pay more attention to the indigenous population the danger is that we lose the enormous richness in their cultures,” he said, citing a surge in immigration to Mexican cities and the United States as a particular danger.

See our last posts on the Zapatista tour and on Chiapas.

  1. More on Chiapas
    This June 20 report from Catholic News Service makes similar points, minus the usual condescension. Via Chiapas95:

    Catholic Church leaders: Mexican indigenous are forgotten

    by Jill Replogle

    ACTEAL, Mexico – As Mexico prepares to elect a new president July 2, the problems for indigenous people in Chiapas state seem to be forgotten amid other issues, said a Mexican bishop.

    “The indigenous issue has been diluted in the other fundamental issue, the economy,” said Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquival of San Cristobal de las Casas, in th Chiapas highlands.

    But only eight years ago, days before Christmas 1997, 45 men, women and children were massacred by paramilitary forces in Acteal, a tiny village in the southern Mexican highlands. The survivors still live sandwiched between the community that spawned the killers and a rebel group, the Zapatista National Liberation Army, that blames the government for failing to stop the massacre.

    Dozens of civilians have been convicted for participating in the slaughter, and some low-ranking government officials have been jailed for failing to prevent it. But locals say little else has changed in their lives, regardless of government promises to bring peace and development to one of Mexico’s poorest areas.

    And the government’s neglect for the ongoing conflict in Chiapas could keep indigenous people away from the polls, some have said.

    “There aren’t many advantages (to voting),” said Augustin Vasquez Ruiz, president of the civic organization, Las Abejas or “The Bees.”

    “We’ve never received any benefits from the government,” he said.

    Disillusionment with the Mexican government, combined with the economic and physical difficulties of getting to polling stations in the rainy season, is likely to produce low voter turnout among the Chiapas indigenous population, said Miguel Angel Garcia, general coordinator of Maderas del Pueblo, a Chiapas-based organization that works with indigenous communities. Garcia predicted a voter turnout as low as 30 percent.

    On the campaign trail in 2000, Mexican President Vicente Fox said he could resolve in 15 minutes the conflicts in Chiapas, which were brought to the world’s attention in 1994 when the Zapatista rebel group seized a highland town for several days.

    The rebels demand the constitutional recognition of indigenous people’s right to self-governance and control over their natural resources. Peace negotiations in 1996 resulted in a set of government and rebel commitments known as the San Andres accords.

    But as Fox comes to the end of his term, observers in Chiapas say progress has been minimal.

    “Development has come in droplets but the people’s level of poverty is the same,” said Jesuit Father Pedro Arriaga, who heads a parish near Acteal.

    The Mexican government’s own statistics show little progress on expanding basic services to indigenous people in Chiapas. Less than 34 percent of indigenous households in Chiapas have running water, according to a 2005 report from the Mexican government’s National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Communities. This is only a slight improvement from 2000, when 30 percent had running water, according to the report.

    The average time it takes an indigenous person in Chiapas to get to the nearest highway actually increased from 2000 to 2004, the report said.

    Some observers say the Zapatista rebels are equally responsible for the isolation of Chiapas indigenous communities. After the legislators refused to pass a Zapatista-backed indigenous rights law in 2001, the rebels cut off all ties with the government and retreated from the public until last year.

    When presidential hopefuls launched their respective campaigns, the rebels launched their so-called “Other Campaign,” which seeks to convince millions of poor Mexicans to abandon political parties and politicians, and to form a more bottom-up model of politics and government. The rebels have also called for people to boycott this year’s elections.

    Bishop Arizmendi said there is still a long way to go toward real peace and development for the area’s indigenous people, and added that new threats to indigenous culture have emerged, like increased migration to urban areas or to the United States.

    “Mexico could lose a lot if it doesn’t pay more attention to the
    indigenous issue,” said the bishop.

  2. reuters

    thanks for the commentary. Sorry if the story came across as dismissing the Zapatistas. It was meant to be a criticism of the political parties, while recognizing that with their principal voice taking on wider issues, indigenous demands do not occupy the place in national discourse that they did momentarily, thanks to the uprising, at the turn of the century.

    I think it is hard to argue that indigenous demands for autonomy etc are being taken as seriously bu mainstream politicians as they were in 1990.

    1. 1990?
      We assume you mean 2000. There was no Mexican presidential race in 1990, and indigenous autonomy certainly wasn’t a national issue back then, four years before the Chiapas revolt.

      Yes, the Mexican political elites tried to paper over the indigenous question with the gutted San Andres Accords in 2001, and all three parties have largely abandoned the issue (although less so the PRD). But the Zapatistas have not, nor have the rebel campesinos of Atenco, or the striking teachers of Oaxaca. And I’m sure you will agree, these forces have been making themselves felt in Mexican politics in recent weeks.