Chiapas: the end of 'the end of history'Australian MIKE LEACH visited Mexico and Chiapas earlier this year. He reports on the ongoing struggle. A crowd of 500 Mexican protesters faces the federal army in the remote tropical jungle of southern Chiapas. The protesters are chanting for "Peace, with Justice and Dignity" and demand entry into the valley of Aguascalientes.
Military trucks and soldiers block the road which leads to a large wooden meeting place and library incongruously located deep in the Lacandona forest, a few kilometres from the Guatemalan border. Mexico City is over 1000 kilometres away, but the confrontation makes the front page of the national anti-government newspaper.
Fifteen months beforehand, on New Year's Day 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) occupied San Cristobal and other towns in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The armed uprising of indigenous peasants against a racist regime also signalled the organisation of agricultural workers against neo-liberal economic policies.
The rebellion coincided with the implementation of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), the latest triumph of US imperialism in Central America. The agreement abolished Article 27 of the Mexican constitution, which limited the concentration of land ownership, providing some minimal protection for Mexican campesinos. NAFTA also threatens to flood Mexico with cheap US corn imports, which will destroy the majority of communities which rely on the marginal returns from their crop for survival.
The EZLN occupation of major towns was followed by the expropriation of huge estates in the region. The EZLN struck a decisive blow against the New Right ideological fantasy of "the end of history", a development which has deeply worried US investors in the region.
For over a year, campesinos collectively farmed the occupied land in southern Chiapas. In August last year the EZLN hosted the first National Democratic Convention, deep in the mountains of Chiapas in the valley of Aguascalientes.
Approximately 6000 Mexicans from pro-democratic and progressive groups attended, including opposition party activists, trade unionists and church leaders. The Zapatistas succeeded in providing a focal point for pro-democratic forces throughout Mexico, now broadly unified under the title of Sociedad Civil.
Opposition to the regime of President Zedillo and NAFTA is enormous and mobilising constantly throughout Mexico. The central square of Mexico City is in a state of permanent occupation by protesters, many of whom marched from Chiapas earlier this year. Massive anti-government rallies occur on a weekly basis, attracting up to 100,000 people in support of the EZLN.
At one march I was impressed by the degree of solidarity among anti-PRI forces as striking public transport unions combined forces with the pro-democracy movement in an enormous demonstration which surrounded the presidential palace. Even the state-run Anthropology Museum bears a large sign, erected by staff, calling for the overthrow of the government.
The opposition has clearly cast a serious question mark over the ability of the PRI to deliver stability and profits to US corporations. In January Chase Manhattan Bank urged the Mexican government to eliminate the Zapatistas in order to restore investor confidence. This was an unofficial condition of the huge loans provided recently to prop up the regime. Wall Street was baying for the blood of the Zapatistas and their supporters.
On February 9, the Mexican army invaded and occupied the regions controlled by the Zapatistas. The army crushed the Zapatistas' revolutionary enclave with aerial bombardments, torture, murder of civilians and forcible evictions. The EZLN retreated to the Lacandona jungle bordering Guatemala, and Chiapas has been delivered back to the powerful coalition of racist landlords and security forces which has dominated the continent for 500 years.
I witnessed the results of this invasion in late March as a participant in one of the regular caravans to Chiapas organised by the Sociedad Civil to distribute aid and continue the dialogue initiated by the first National Democratic Convention.
The caravan was rapturously received by huge demonstrations of support for the Zapatistas' struggle as it headed south toward Chiapas, with anti-government rallies and marches in Puebla, Veracruz and Comalcalco. Once in Chiapas, however, the caravan was met by the silence and reserve of a population under the gun of the army and politically divided. Chiapas is governed by a brutal alliance between the ruling party, PRI, the landlords and foreign capital.
Almost immediately our bus convoy was fired upon and robbed at gunpoint by the private army of the landlords, the Guardia Blanca. Human rights workers in the region complained of similar routine intimidation by security forces, mild in comparison to the retaliation of the landlords against campesinos who squatted the land under the protection of the EZLN. Political murders and disappearances are reported regularly.
Crossing into the areas held by the Zapatistas only six weeks earlier confirmed the account of the invasion in EZLN communiqués. Vacant villages, sacked by the army, dotted the roadside. The campesinos fled as the army invaded, strafing villages from the air and tearing down hectares of forest to secure the only road south.
In an attempt to divide the communities, some villages had been partially reoccupied by relocated campesinos from outside Chiapas, brought in by the government.
The retribution of the security forces has been savage. The army currently occupies the indigenous villages of southern Chiapas as the Mayan communities slowly return from their mountain refuges to find their houses sacked, their food supplies and agricultural equipment stolen and their livestock shot by soldiers. Most communities in the region are teetering on the brink of starvation.
Rivers and wells surrounding the erstwhile EZLN headquarters of Guadalupe Tepayac have been poisoned. Other villages are blockaded to prevent the planting of crops crucial to the survival of the Mayan population.
Guadalupe Tepayac is entirely vacant save for the army in campesinos' homes. We saw ransacked and burned houses, half packed bags and food left on tables — testimony to the panic which must have accompanied the exodus of the villagers. Residents of San Jose told us that their only source of water, a hose to an underground well, had been sabotaged by the army as it swept through in search of the EZLN. They are now unable to plant their maize crops.
One of the important functions of the caravans is to reconvene the National Democratic Forum and maintain pressure on the PRI at a national level. The potent symbol of pro-democratic unity, the meeting place built by the EZLN in Aguascalientes, has been destroyed and is currently occupied by the army. The attempt to enter the site was forcibly blocked, resulting in a spontaneous demonstration outside the military encampment. The later pictures in the progressive daily La Journada were a powerful image of civil protest in a police state.
Eventually the dialogue was convened in Guadalupe Tepayac, as soldiers patrolled the backblocks of the town and watched from foxholes on the surrounding hillsides. Numerous strategies and proposals for continuing the broader struggles against the PRI and NAFTA were discussed, though clearly the prime importance of the dialogue was in the physical presence of anti-PRI forces in the occupied areas.
The struggle fuelled by the EZLN continues. The recent US loan package has not rescued the economy, and political instability is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Sub-comandante Marcos, in hiding with the EZLN, has become a folk hero and remains an enormously powerful presence in Mexican politics through his regular communiqués to opposition newspapers. On the international implications of the Zapatista uprising, Marcos has the final say:
"People are going to question not only the whole economic and political project of this country, but the ascendancy of neo-liberalism in all of Latin America ... I know this because when we rose up against the government we began to receive displays of solidarity and sympathy not only from Mexicans, but from indigenous people in Chile, Argentina, Canada, the United States and Central America. They told us that the uprising represents something they wanted to say, and now they had found the words to say it, each in his or her respective country. I believe the fallacious notion of the end of history has finally been destroyed."
[Thanks to Pamela Baldauf for some references used in this article. Anyone wishing to participate in or otherwise support the regular aid caravans to Chiapas, or the Mexican Civil Society, may contact Flora Guerrero, International Network Coordinator, Sociedad Civil, corre Apto. 5-21 Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico. Fax 527 315 1974.]