Zapatista Prospects in a Changed Environment

1994, from the depths of the jungle an ill-equipped army of indigenous farmers storms the state capital of Chiapas, Mexico demanding reform and a shift from neo-liberalist policy.  2002, fast-forward nearly nine years to present and the struggle of this rag-tag guerilla army continues, only the global and national environment has changed.  With dramatic internal and external shifts, the hope of a resolution favoring these rebels representing the impoverished communities of southern Mexico has faded. 

     As Mexico tested the perilous waters of neo-liberalism, a group of revolutionary farm workers, calling themselves Zapatistas, after the legendary leader of the Mexican Revolution, prepared themselves to strike out against the injustices of the Mexican government.  On New Years Day 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement was to be announced, they took control of the state capital of Chiapas sending a stark cry across the nation against forces of globalization.  Their message resonated  throughout the world, finding broad national and foreign support.  The Zapatistas, under the leadership of the masked Subcomandante Marcos, positioned themselves so as to unveil the hidden side of Mexico to the world and force Mexico to face its harsh reality.  Mexican leaders had worked diligently to create a guise of modernity, a picturesque vision of Mexico ready to be displayed on the world scene.  As these leaders struggled to shed Mexico’s third world status, attempting to hide the impoverished, neglected, and largely indigenous populations from public view, they further suppressed those in need of the most attention.  The Zapatistas’ reality check for Mexico sent ripples throughout the nation, weighing heavily on the nation’s conscience. Their eyes were opened to the truth that indigenous peoples are not merely Mexico’s ancestors, a part of the past, but their compatriots, their “paisanos,” and represent ten percent of the current population.(Boudreaux)

     The Zapatistas were able to utilize their growing worldwide popularity to enter into negotiations with the Mexican government.  After only a few months, they were able to put down their weapons.  In 1996 they were able to negotiate a cease-fire agreement with then President Ernesto Zedillo.  The agreement included a negotiated proposal for certain protections for indigenous communities.  However, the proposal titled, the San Andres Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture, failed to be implemented as legislation.  The revolutionary group endured the constant lip-service of the leadership and held firmly to its demands for the implementation of an indigenous rights law.  The government made no moves to introduce legislation and the two groups remained at a prolonged deadlock in negotiations.  Hope for the end to this stalemate and the successful implementation of the San Andres Accords was greatly bolstered by a dramatic change in the Mexican political scene.  The incumbent party had controlled the Mexican government for the greater part of the century, using voter fraud and bribery to maintain its stranglehold of the Mexican political scene.  However, with the aid of significant foreign surveillance, the ruling PRI party’s 71 year reign was ended and Vicente Fox of the PAN party was elected president.  Vicente Fox came into office representing a new direction for Mexico and the promise of tremendous change.  He guaranteed to make the indigenous communities of Mexico a priority and immediately address the demands of the Zapatistas.  As this initial honeymoon stage of Fox’s presidency has ended, the disillusionment has begun for many Indians, and hopes of a peaceful and positive resolution for the Zapatista Rebellion appear unlikely.

     The election of Fox and the dramatic shift in leadership of Mexico, while initially creating a great deal of hope for a positive end to the rebellion, has actually worked counter-intuitively, weakening the movement’s support.  Some of the Zapatista movement’s appeal had been its confrontation of a notoriously corrupt Mexican government.  The Zapatista Rebellion represented a formidable people’s movement that was finally holding Mexico accountable for the injustices of the elite.  The Zapatistas challenged the continued dominance of this Mexican elite and instilled in the public a vision of a more equitable and democratic society.  However, with the arrival of Vicente Fox and an end to the dominance of the PRI, who many saw as the very essence of this Mexican corruption and elitist domination, the public need for a champion against governmental abuses was lessened.  Without the greatest perpetrator, the PRI, having control of the presidency there was seemingly less to fear in the way misrepresentation.  The rhetoric of Vicente Fox provided the Mexican people with a vision of a changed Mexico working to build an equitable society.  This lofty vision of Mexico in many ways has displaced the Zapatistas’ similarly lofty vision or at least made it less vital to the general public.  Fox’s inherent legitimacy as a president has afforded him a public trust that no recent president has had, enabling him to supplant the Zapatistas as the provider of justice and voice against corruption. 

     Fox has not only been able to fill a capacity in which the Zapatistas served, but he has also been able to lessen the Zapatistas cry for government action in providing indigenous rights without substantially changing the governmental structures or policies. 

The San Andres Accords, which had received little attention from the government since their proposal in 1996 and were seemingly shelved, saw a revival with the election of Fox in 2000.  Upon his arrival, the Zapatistas made it clear to the new president that there would be no negotiations without the passage of the San Andres Accords.  Fox immediately readdressed the issue of creating legislation to legally recognize indigenous populations within the Mexican Constitution.  In 2001, the Law on Indian Rights and Culture was passed by Congress and passed by a majority of Mexico’s 31 States.  However, the law did not pass as originally constructed by the Zapatistas.  A number of amendments were made to the original accords greatly weakening the law and putting into question whether it would have any de facto effect.  The legislators and state governments lauded the passage of the law as a huge step in creating a more equitable Mexico and reason to bring the conflict to an end. In many politicians view the passage of into law of the Indian rights bill left the Zapatistas with “no excuse but to sit down to peace talks.”(Boudreaux)  On the flip side, the rebels saw the gutted indigenous rights law as a slap in the face, leaving them no option but to break off contact with the government.   

The passed Law on Indian Rights and Culture denies the native communities autonomy eliminating self-rule, which had been the thrust of the original proposal.  The Zapatistas responded to the implementation of this law by immediately seeking to overturn it in court.  Charging that they were uninformed of the amendments to the bill that limited Indian self-rule, they brought their case before the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the law was “both constitutional and properly approved,” and could not be overturned.  Eight of the eleven judges also held that the court had no jurisdiction in hearing the challenge of the indigenous communities.  The law now embraced by Congress, a majority of the states, and given legitimacy by the Supreme Court enabled Fox’s administration to claim a tangible change towards addressing Zapatista concerns and providing for a peaceful resolution.  This type of concessionary law may have the affect of appeasing those who are not direct stakeholders in the matter.  For a Mexican citizen, who has seen little done to protect civil liberties or further civil rights, the passage of even this gutted law may seem like a sign of positive progress and sincere effort on the part of their president.  This law may even have the effect of painting the Zapatistas in an unfavorable light for breaking off contact with the government when they had agreed that passage of the Indian rights legislation would ensure their presence at the negotiating table.  In this way, the new Law on Indian Rights and Culture could serve to lessen the tenacity of and even shift away support.

     Even more threatening to a positive and peaceful resolution of the Zapatista Rebellion than the appeasement of the populace, is the sentiment the passage of the law creates within the Indian communities.  The Zapatistas have taken their cause to both Congress and the state legislatures.  In March 2001, Subcomandante Marcos led a 16-day caravan across southern Mexico to lobby for the legislation on indigenous rights.  Again, Zapatistas made their presence felt making a dramatic appearance in Congress as it was undergoing discussions on the bill.  Despite their efforts working within the framework of society, they saw their initial proposal gutted and passed by congress and a majority of states.  The Zapatistas continued to work within the framework by taking their protests to the Supreme Court where their plea to overturn the law was emphatically denied.  The Zapatistas have found neither Mexico’s legislature nor judiciary to be working for them, leaving nowhere else to turn within the government.  These defeats will increase sentiment that Mexico is still a country in which conventional mediums to address community needs are insufficient, making a return to arms of the rebels a definite possibility.  Moreover, events such as the Atenco protests in which farmers flaunted machetes in successfully preventing development of a new airport on their lands, have presented the taking of arms as a much more effective mode of change

                                                                                                                                           As national changes seem to have weakened the viability of the Zapatista Rebellion, internal decisions also seem to have lessened support and limited public awareness of developments in their struggle.  The Zapatistas have largely isolated themselves from the public.  Following their trip to the capital Mexico City to lobby for the passage of the Indian rights legislation, they have set up ranch communes on seized land.  The Zapatistas have rejected all government services, “including teachers, doctors, electricity connections, and water.”(Lloyd)  The rejection of government services has caused significant rifts within the indigenous community causing some to leave the army.  One Mayan farmer conveys these growing rifts stating, “We were in the Zapatista Army too.  But we saw it was no good.”(Gomez) 

The Zapatistas have also limited the scope of their interactions to only matters that pertain to securing the indigenous right to self-determination.  Opportunities, such as a recent forum of organizers and activists against globalization, to broaden the cause have largely been ignored, as Subcomandante Marcos seems to have adopted a fairly narrow focus.  By not utilizing opportunities to exercise their power as a political organization the pertinence of the Zapatista movement seems to have faded.  There are many political arenas in which the Zapatistas could work to broaden their presence and become a leader championing the movement against globalization. 

     Moreover, the decision to focus almost solely on the issue of indigenous rights represents a shift from the much broader reform rhetoric of the Zapatistas during the early stages of their uprising.  The decision to portray the movement as a rebellion for indigenous rights may have been spurred by the fact that many human rights groups around the world were taking note of the nearly all Indian make-up of the guerilla army.  At the time, it was in the Zapatistas best interest to capitalize on the human rights sentiment for the indigenous communities of southern Mexico.  However, despite the fact that many have spoken out in support of the rebellion from this human rights perspective that almost inherently surfaces from an indigenous rights movement, this has allowed for an absurd yet present counter-argument.  Many see indigenous societal practices to be in conflict with current notions of human rights, presenting a slight impediment in pursuing the indigenous rights angle.  Some characteristics of indigenous communities, such as the criminal policy of “guilty until proven innocent” have been condemned as contradictory to human rights tenets.(Collier)  As a result, members of human rights groups, who have been one of the major supporters of the Zapatista movement since its beginnings, have called for the necessity of certain restrictions on Indian self-rule and need for conformity with the standard conceptions of human rights.

     Another major cause of concern for the Zapatistas is the continued external pressures it faces to give in to the forces of “modernization.”  Unfortunately for the Zaptistas, the United States seems to be vehemently pushing globalization throughout the Americas.  The Bush administration has a vision of for the extension of NAFTA throughout the Americas.  The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) “would lock the US into a free trade agreement with 33 countries of the Americas.”(Witness for Peace)  The only exception to the agreement would be Cuba and a negotiated agreement is being pushed for passage and could take effect as early as 2003.  This global climate in which the US has not only failed to recognize the injustices spurred by NAFTA but is hoping to duplicate it throughout, does not bode well for the Zapatistas.  The tremendous influence that the United States has on Mexico and the strong relationship between Bush and Fox seems to say that if Bush sees the rebels as an impediment to his free trade agenda than so to will Fox. 

     Foremost among plans to modernize Mexico is Plan Puebla-Panama(PPP).  The Plan stretching from southern Mexico, through Central America, to Panama would connect the regions through significant infrastructure such as roads, canals, ports, hydroelectric dams, oil development, and electric grids.  It would create a significant number of low paying jobs in some of the areas most impoverished regions by setting up maquilas(factories that are often considered sweat shops) all the way along this development.  This plan would figure in the FTAA as it would provide a crucial connection between these regions, allowing the US and Mexico to be better able to take advantage of the resources of Central America.  External pressure has contributed to the Mexican governments fervent desire to create this type of infrastructure and has left indigenous communities in southern Mexico with little say in deciding the type of development that would best suit their needs.  In Short, “these development plans take into account the economic interests of the transnational companies and the United States, but not those of the communities that live in these areas, that development initiatives should be benefit.”(Witness for Peace)  With these plans comes the threat of indigenous communities being pulled away from their way of life to work undesirable maquila jobs.  Moreover, development in this region would open it up to private interests and probably allow for a great amount foreign control, which would undermine the indigenous communities calls for self-rule.  If Fox is actually going to pursue development of this scale in this region of Mexico, it would eliminate the possibility of Indian autonomy in the area.  One could venture to say, as a journalist the Mexican newspaper La Jornada has already done, that PPP is “counter-insurgency strategy with a friendlier face” targeted against the Zapatista Rebels.(Fazio)  Developmental pressures coupled with a war on terrorism that has the effect, whether direct or indirect, of de-legitimizing all insurgent groups makes for a global environment that is unlikely to foster a picturesque resolution their rebellion.

     Nine year’s after the Zapatistas first burst on the national scene, there remains a great deal of uncertainty for their cause.  Hope for a storybook end to the struggle came and rapidly went with the election of Vicente Fox.   The Zapatistas are now faced with the problem of adapting to a new internal and external environment.  For a group that has endured nine long years of confrontation, it is always a challenge to remain in the public eye and maintain support and cohesion.  While internal changes and decisions have in recent moments seemed to weaken the rebel cause, these changes and decisions at one time or another seemed crucial to garnering support and promoting a focused and cohesive group.  The true problems seemed to be caused by a changed external environment.  The revolutionary status that was inherent in the election of Vicente Fox has lessened the power behind many of the Zapatistas criticisms of the government.  It seems the Zapatistas must go about unveiling the injustices of Mexican society once again. The absence of a sincere and whole-hearted effort to address the issues put forward by the Zapatistas has heightened the possibility of violent conflict.  This being said, it becomes crucial for the Zapatistas to expose the Mexican governments façade, as well as the inequities developmental plans would cause in order to garner the type of resurgence in public and global support that could provide the necessary pressure to bring about a favorable outcome.  Considering how much is at stake for both the Zapatistas and Vicente Fox, as well as the international (mainly US) pressure Fox is facing, the prospect of a positive and peaceful resolution currently appears as a near impossibility.  




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