Mexican indigenous rights referendum a big success

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Mexican indigenous rights referendum a big success

By Peter Gellert

MEXICO CITY — On March 21, almost 3 million Mexicans participated in a makeshift referendum on indigenous rights called by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN).

The turnout was more than twice as large as a previous referendum held in 1996, reflecting better organisation and a more balanced geographical distribution of support for the rebel cause. In 1996, the vast majority of votes were cast in the EZLN stronghold of Chiapas and in Mexico City.

The referendum also introduced two new features into Mexican politics: allowing those over the age of 12 to participate; and organising Mexican communities abroad to vote, a keenly felt demand among the 12% of the country's population that resides in the United States. Polling stations for the referendum were installed in 156 foreign cities. More than 30,000, mostly in the US, voted.

The referendum was a tactical gamble by the EZLN, conscious of the need to move the stalled peace process forward in the face of the government's strategy of wearing down Zapatista communities and public opinion with military moves designed to reverse rebel gains and terrorise the civilian population.

In organising the referendum, some 1500 brigades or organising committees were established, involving more than 20,000 activists. More than 60,000 were involved in activities on the day of the voting, mainly poll watching — a huge mobilisation of active support for the Zapatista cause.

The most impressive aspect of the referendum was the EZLN's decision to send 5000 of its members — 50% of them women — from Chiapas to municipalities throughout Mexico. Thousands of activities were organised with them in the week preceding the vote, putting the Chiapas issue back on the front burner in Mexican political life.

In my district in Mexico City, in less than one week, 40 different outreach activities were organised for the 10 visiting Zapatistas, ranging from meetings with neighbourhood groups and trade unionists to discussions with different sectors of civil society.

The presence of thousands of Chiapas Indians, in native dress and sporting black ski masks, provided many comical moments and unique photo opportunities. These included a rally on the US border with Zapatistas having one foot in each country, a soccer match in Mexico City against former first-division professionals, mixing with bikini-clad sunbathers in Acapulco, a dialogue with punk youth and a meeting with business leaders in the posh Industrialists Club in Mexico City.

Of particular importance for the rebel cause were the contacts established with other indigenous communities, particularly in Oaxaca, Veracruz, Mexico City and northern Mexico.

The Zapatista presence coincided with struggles at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the country's most important higher learning institution, against increased tuition fees. Masked Zapatista Indians took part in the 150,000-strong demonstration on March 18 against the partial privatisation of the country's electrical industry, led by the combative Mexican Electrical Workers Union. The Zapatistas were enthusiastically received by the protesting trade unionists.

In response to this activity over a four-month period and the open presence of masked Zapatista rebels throughout the country, the government, the mass media and sections of the Catholic Church hierarchy orchestrated a huge campaign against the EZLN in general and the referendum in particular.

The tone was set by interior minister Francisco Labastida, who attacked the initiative for being one-sided and claimed its result was a foregone conclusion. The government reportedly pressured TV and radio stations to downplay or ignore the referendum.

The referendum campaign had to contend with government surveillance and repression in seven states (and minor incidents in others), including intimidation from right-wing paramilitary groups, the army and the local units of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which forced voting to be cancelled in several rural municipalities.

The results of the four questions (on the place of the Indian peoples in Mexican society, indigenous rights in the constitution, acceptance of the San Andres peace accords and demilitarisation of Chiapas) were no surprise. The referendum was an official EZLN activity — although backed by civil society and left-of-centre opposition parties such as Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas' Party of the Democratic Revolution — and those participating tended to be supporters of the rebel cause (only 2% voted no on the questions). The turnout was widely viewed as a barometer of Zapatista support and the EZLN's mobilising ability.

EZLN leaders hailed the referendum as a call for peace in Chiapas and an advance for the rebel cause. The Interior Ministry, while rejecting the political or numerical importance of the results, said it reflected the government's climate of tolerance in allowing members of an armed organisation to travel freely around the country.

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