Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

5 April 2001 Edition

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A daughter of Zapata in Congress


The Zapatista National Liberation Army finally entered the Mexican Congress last Wednesday - but left again after only a few hours. By the weekend, the Zapatistas were back on the road to their headquarters in the Lacandon Rainforest, declaring that they had achieved what they had come to do.

They had been on the road since 24 February, staging huge rallies on their route through states such as Oaxaca, Morelos, Veracruz, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo, Queretaro and Michoacan, finally reaching the main square of Mexico City. An estimated 200,000 people came out to greet them on their arrival in the capital.

The Zapatour - as it was quickly dubbed by hacks around the world - took the Mexican and international media by storm. Although the rebels undertook to travel unarmed, their faces were hidden behind balaclavas, which US journalists insisted on calling ski-masks. This was no party of well-heeled winter holiday-makers however, but the entire Command of the Zapatista movement. Particular attention was paid to the presence of the hugely charismatic Subcomandante Marcos among the convoy, but in fact all 23 commanders were on board the bus to Mexico City.

This was an incredibly high risk adventure on which to embark, and there were constant threats of assassination, even before the convoy got on the road. The International Red Cross decided not to get involved, and security was eventually provided by the Tuttibianchi movement from Italy - or ``White Monkeys'' as Mexican television called them.

The political scene has changed rapidly since the old Institutional Revolutionary Party lost power at the end of last year, ending a 71-year stint in office. New president Vicente Fox had talked of resolving the conflict ``in 15 minutes'', so the Zapatistas decided to call his bluff and ask him to put his money where his mouth was. Three conditions for re-entering dialogue were stipulated at a press conference held in the jungle village of La Realidad (Reality) only hours after Fox took power.

The first was for the Cocopa Bill on Indigenous Rights and Culture to be presented to Congress in its entirety, and to be passed and implemented into the Mexican Constitution and into Federal as well as State laws. This would effectively create continuity with the San Andres talks held in a small mountain village in Chiapas between 1995-'96 in the aftermath of the government's hugely unpopular offensive, launched on 9 February 1995. Although the Mexican Army regained military control of most of the conflict zone, the cost to the government in PR terms was enormous, since they were seen to be provoking a civil war on national territory.

A semblance of dialogue was therefore necessary, and so a joint parliamentary commission (the Cocopa) was formed to co-ordinate negotiations with the rebels. Round One of the negotiations was to be on indigenous rights and culture, and the government hoped to restrict change to the peoples of the semi-feudal state of Chiapas, arguing that the EZLN did not speak for anyone else. In the end, the Zapatistas won out by calling in indigenous representatives from right around the country, and negotiating on what had already been agreed beforehand with them.

What resulted from these talks was a compromise agreement aimed at guaranteeing autonomy to Mexico's indigenous peoples, based on six working groups tackling the issues of: Community and Autonomy; Justice; Political Participation and Representation; Women; Communications Media; and Culture. The parliamentary commission came up with a Bill that was accepted by the Zapatistas but ignored by the government, which led to the breakdown in the peace talks.

The new president, Vicente Fox, also attempted to sweep aside the negotiating process, by calling on Subcomandante Marcos to meet up with him and iron out the problem over a coffee.

Last Wednesday, however, it was Comandanta Esther - an indigenous woman whose skin is a good deal darker than is normally seen in the chambers of Congress - who addressed the assembled deputies first. Attacking the absent deputies of the conservative Party of National Action as racists who did not know how to listen to what the Mexican people were saying, she spoke powerfully in favour of indigenous autonomy. Esther reminded the Congress that it was the representatives (Comandantes) of the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee to whom they were speaking, rather than Marcos, who is subordinate to them in his role as commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces.

In a powerful gesture that referred to the Zapatistas' second condition for dialogue (partial demilitarisation of the conflict zone), Esther took advantage of the podium to order Marcos not to occupy any military positions vacated by the federal army and to ensure that all members of the civil population have their rights respected, regardless of political allegiance.

Esther's intervention was highly significant for two reasons. Ever since the 1994 Uprising caught them on the hop, Mexico's upper classes had dismissed the Zapatistas as a bunch of innocent Indians who had been duped and led astray by the wiles of foreigners and university-trained Marxists. They regularly ranted against the ``Red Bishop'', Samuel Ruiz, who had perverted the loyalty of the formerly contented populace, and hundreds of foreign observers were either deported or ordered to leave Mexico. Televisa - a powerful station owned by the business elite - sent in helicopters to report on human rights camps full of bearded Europeans brandishing AK-47s. There was no footage to accompany these claims, only the assumption that a horde of barely-educated indigenous people were obviously incapable of organising such a successful rebellion, notable for both its military as well as its propaganda successes.

Secondly, certain sectors were using women's oppression in the indigenous communities as an excuse for the rejection of autonomy and of the bill on indigenous rights and culture. Esther's advocacy of the bill made this position difficult, if not untenable. In fact, the Zapatista women's movement has probably made more gains in the last seven years than have women in mainstream society, although it should be recognised that they are coming from a more extreme position of powerlessness and that their progress owes little or nothing to their male counterparts. What Esther pointed out was that real improvement could only come if indigenous women were allowed to struggle within their own culture.

The Zapatistas' third condition for re-entering talks was the release of all political prisoners. In conversation with this journalist, prisoners' representative Abelardo Mendez pointed to the fact that although there have already been a great deal of releases, these were people who had been charged under Chiapas State laws. When Pablo Salazar took power as the new governor he undertook to free these prisoners, and so far he had kept his word. The men left inside (there are currently eleven) are Federal prisoners and their continuing incarceration points to a lack of political will on the part of President Fox.

Mendez - who was himself imprisoned as a Zapatista sympathiser - also points to the improvements that will ensue when indigenous justice becomes the norm. Many of the ``ordinary'' convicts are indigenous people who cannot afford to pay small fines, or who were tried through the medium of Spanish, a language many of them cannot understand. This is not to say that they are all innocent, but trial by their own people would result in a fairer resolution of the problem, he believes.

If the three conditions are met by Congress and by President Fox, the way will then be clear for further talks and an eventual end to the conflict in the South-East. The San Andres talks were intended to have progressed to issues that affected the whole of the Mexican people rather than just the indigenous, including Democracy and Justice; Welfare and Development; and Women's Rights. Future talks will likely take a similar path. With a new right-wing regime in power, this debate will be essential for the future of Mexico.

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