By Peter Gellert
and Rosendo Mendoza
MEXICO CITY — In a desperate measure to shore up much-needed support for his crisis-ridden government, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo announced a major offensive on February 9 against the Chiapas rebels of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN).
The pretext for breaking off the cease-fire with the EZLN was the supposed discovery of EZLN safe-houses and "arsenals" (actually involving a total of one AK-47, two pistols and a few small explosives) that "proved" the Zapatistas were preparing to launch military attacks.
In his televised press conference, Zedillo provided evidence as to the alleged identity of popular EZLN leader "Subcomandante Marcos" and in announcing arrest warrants for the rebel leadership, hinted triumphantly that Marcos would be detained within hours.
The move was calculated to distract popular discontent from the deteriorating economic crisis provoked by a catastrophic devaluation of the Mexican peso. Since December 20 the country's currency has lost half its value. A massive propaganda offensive on TV and in the media sought to portray the Chiapas rebels as criminals bent on the violent destruction of the country.
Zedillo also aimed to project the image of a strong government firmly on the road to establishing peace and stability in order to calm foreign and domestic investors, who are pulling their money out of the Mexican stock exchange, further sinking the peso.
While the army had little trouble penetrating rebel-held territory and some EZLN activists were detained (and tortured to obtain bogus confessions), the operation has been widely viewed in the Mexican press and public opinion as a failure.
Domestic and foreign human rights organisations such as Amnesty International reported widespread human rights violations in the region following army occupation. Troops raided homes, the offices of social organisations and even churches in their largely futile search for EZLN supporters and weapons.
But the rebels beat a quick retreat to the Lacandona rainforest (together with entire Indian peasant communities), Marcos remains at large and continues as the EZLN's main public leader, and public pressure has forced the government to call off the offensive, at least temporarily.
Within a week of Zedillo's announcement, three mass demonstrations, each involving more than 100,000 marchers, were held in Mexico City, the largest Chiapas-related protests in a year. Unlike the demonstrations following the initial EZLN uprising in January 1994, the latest protests are explicitly pro-Zapatista and far more radical than any such actions in recent years. Protests have been held throughout the country, including in Chiapas.
The demonstrations were called by the National Democratic Convention (CND) and its state affiliates. The CND was formed in August at the EZLN's initiative and unites a broad range of neighbourhood, peasant, student and political organisations, including far-left parties such as the Revolutionary Workers Party, Mexican section of the Fourth International, which plays an important role in the CND leadership.
The left-of-centre Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and its main leader, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, have played a major role in the protests. The PRD pulled out of the National Political Reform Accord promoted by the Zedillo government following the government offensive.
The decision to sign the accord had been widely criticised in PRD ranks for giving the government unnecessary manoeuvring room when it was at its weakest while gaining few concrete concessions in return. While some leaders of the PRD, including titular party head Porfirio Munoz Ledo, have expressed fear of provoking the Mexican army and therefore favour limiting protests, the latest Chiapas events have radicalised many PRD members and sympathisers.
The lesson has not been lost on political circles. "Many of those who last week demanded that the president take strong measures on Chiapas are now expressing fear of what might happen", warned a front-page editorial in the February 14 edition of the pro-government financial daily El Economista. "The markets are surprised by the sympathy that Marcos inspires. Until last week, in [financial circles] it was believed that strong measures in Chiapas would win broad public support ... It hasn't happened that way."
Protests were also held throughout the world at Mexican embassies, while the closely followed international press, including the New York Times, weighed in against a military solution, further increasing the Mexican government's isolation.
A major weakness of the protests, however, has been the absence of the organised labour movement. The Mexican Workers' Confederation, affiliated to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), has not only accepted a 7% wage ceiling, while annualised inflation so far this year is running at about 70%, but has even proposed that workers donate a day's pay to help the government pay off foreign investors holding treasury bonds.
Many workers admire the EZLN and Marcos for their ability to put the PRI government against the wall, for calling attention to the plight of the indigenous communities and for their reputation for honesty (in a country where corruption among political leaders is endemic). But organised labour as such has remained on the sidelines.
As a show of alleged willingness to establish peace, Chiapas Governor Eduardo Robledo, elected amid charges of voter fraud in the August 21 election, asked for a leave of absence (in reality, his resignation) on February 14. Getting rid of Robledo had been a key demand of the EZLN.
The PRI governor called for both the alternative people's government "in rebellion", headed by Amado Avendaso and backed by the EZLN and dozens of local town councils, as well as Catholic bishop, human rights activist, liberation theology exponent and peace negotiator Samuel Ruiz to also resign and for the EZLN to lay down their arms. There were no takers.
The government's perceived weakness further exacerbated the already precarious financial markets. Despite initial business support, within days the leading indicator on the Mexican stock exchange was falling. Two weeks later, the Price and Quotations Index was down by about 14% to 1830.47 points, the lowest level in almost two years.
Zedillo has tried to cover his political retreat with an amnesty offer for the rebels if they put down their arms and calls for a renewed dialogue. The EZLN and broad sectors of public opinion have responded that any dialogue is conditional upon army withdrawal to its February 9 positions and that an eventual amnesty accord would flow from an overall political settlement to the Chiapas conflict, not an EZLN surrender.
The events have greatly exacerbated divisions in the powerful Catholic Church, with Samuel Ruiz the object of attacks by Chiapas growers and businessmen and conservative priests accusing him of being in league with the EZLN and demanding his resignation. Chiapas Indian peasants back the bishop. The Mexican Ecumenical Council, the highest church body, is giving lukewarm support to Ruiz, while criticising demonstrations in support of the activist bishop.
What is still to be determined is how the Chiapas uprising will intersect with the current economic crisis and the Mexican government's slavish acceptance of US financial dictates to obtain a US$20 billion loan.
Many Mexicans even think Zedillo's days are numbered. A popular joke making the rounds is, "What do Zedillo and Easter have in common? They both will fall in March or April."
International finance capital is clearly concerned. Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot paints the following scenario in the February 24 edition of main US financial daily: "The harsh conditions of this week's $20 billion rescue probably mean a nasty recession in Mexico, one that will have American fingerprints on it. The economic distress will produce political unrest, perhaps toppling new President Ernesto Zedillo. A renewed, populist anti-Americanism is all too possible."
The Mexican ruling class's dream of entering the First World on the coat-tails of the North American Free Trade Agreement has been smashed to pieces under the blows of the Chiapas armed uprising and the impending recession. The events of the past few weeks have been a powerful reminder of the semi-colonial, dependent character of Mexican capitalism.