The Power of the Powerless: Update from Chiapas


On the eve of the first anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and, simultane-ously, the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico is confronting the collapse of the neoliberal economy pieced together by President Salinas de Gortari. The measures he took-privatization of industries, "reform" of the agrarian law that was the cornestone of the 1917 Constitution, the liberalization of trade confirmed in NAFTA-all seemed to ensure the restructuring of the economy in accord with the neoliberal model. On New Year's morning of 1994, when the agreement was to go into effect, the uprising of indigenous people in Chiapas shook the fragile structure that was to launch Mexico as an emergent financial marker, posing an alternative approach to neoliberalism that has resounded throughout the world.

On this first anniversary of that uprising, we can assess the economic program that precipitated it, the plight of rural cultivators, and the steps being made to negotiate peace with justice and to restructure the economy with people's needs at the core.

Paradoxically, the process of integration in world markets gives power to those marginalized by the global economy. In the events that shook the global financial system, we can see the resounding effects of the indigenous movement known as the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN). Investment markets in the U.S. fell 10% from February to July 1994. Events in Mexico, the latest nation to join the global financial circle, certainly contributed to the downturn. On January 3 shortly after the Zapatista uprising, Mexican stocks lost over three points of the Dow Jones. Added to this was the negative reaction to the assassination in March 1994 of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the presidential candidate of Mexico's Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI), which signaled to investors the political instability of Mexico. Alerted by this first reaction, the Mexican government ordered the immediate closing of Mexican security markets and accepted a six billion dollar credit from the U.S. Treasury and international banks that prevented an even greater disruption of the markets.

The good news for investors following the August 1994 elections, when political observers interpreted the reelection of PRI candidates as a vote against change, as a vote against change, soon turned to ashes by the end of the year. Protest grew against the moves to stabilize the peso by the newly elected President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, and a rising tide of citizens objected to the inauguration of the PRI candidate for governor of Chiapas, Eduardo Robledo Rincón. As the dimensions of the crisis, measured in the flight of capital and the lack of reserves, came to light, the new president publicly announced the need to devalue the peso. The Dow Jones lost 6.06 points in a drop attributed to the situation in Mexico. From Christmas eve to New Year's eve, ten billion dolares left the country according to German Gonzalez Quintero, president of the Confederation of National Chambers of Commerce (Concanaco), leaving national enterprises without dollars to cover their foreign obligations. Financial analysts envisioned an inflationary future in Mexico, given the instability of the peso and the lack of reserves.

Ever since the withdrawal of the EZLN into the eastern lowland, tropical forest area in January 1994, the territory they control has been cordoned off by army posts that have been reinforced from 12,000 soldiers (detailed there immediately after the uprising) to more than double that number after the August 21 elections, and reaching 60,000 when tensions rose in December 1994. Despite their isolation, the rebels are having a fundamental impact on the political process not only in their country, but in the global system. The doubling of national troops in Chiapas did not increase the confidence of world markets, particularly when Xapatistas made an appearance in more towns outside the zone of conflict. In total, 38 pueblos aligned with them. Zapatistas became more insistent in their demands for settlement of the conflict as the movement of the army increased tensions in the state and even the world arena.

Their high visibility is due both to the popular support for the Zapatistas within their country and the world-wide coverage of the uprising and its aftermath. The charisma of their spokesperson, subcomandante Marcos, accounts for some of their appeal. However, much of the audience they have won lies in the extraordinary force of their communiques from the Selva addressed to the people of Mexico, the peoples and governments of the world, and the national and international press.

The cadence of their speech and the imagery of their language reflect Mayan poetics even in translation. Their repeated references to what the heart says reflects a belief that true language-batzil k'op - issues from the heart. Their diviners-curers gain access to the language of the heart of patients by means of "pulsing" them. This is done by holding one's thumb over the throbbing pulse in the wrist of the patient while the curer utters provocative questions. When the pulse leaps, the curer who listens and feels-the verb, awayi, is the same for both actions - knows where the problem lies. This dialogue resonates among the poor of Mexico and the world audience it is reaching.

The communiqué from the Indigenous Clandestine Revolutionary Committee of the Zapata National Liberation Army of February 26, 1994 expresses their purpose in words that echo this ceremonial language, as translated by Ronald Nigh:

Our path was always that the will of the many be in the hearts of the men and women who command. The will of the majority was the path on which he who commands should walk. If he separates his step from the path of the will of the people, the heart who commands should be changed for another who obeys. Thus was born our strength in the jungle, he who leads obeys if he is true, and he who follows leads through the common heart of true men and women. Another word came from afar so that this government was named and this work gave the name of `democracy' to our way that was from before words traveled.

This and other communiques issuing from the jungle shortly after the uprising made it clear that this was indeed an indigenous uprising at a time when the government and some Mexican intellectuals like Octavio Paz were asserting that they were inspired by foreign revolutionaries.

As Rudolfo Stavenhagen, a renown anthropologist and development critic said, the violent, two-week confrontation was not an end in itself, but a political message coded in the only language that entrenched power understands. Once the attention of the nation and the world was turned to Chiapas, interpreted differently by global financial markets, political analysts, and the people without faces, those without voices" in Marcos' words, commanded power that kept 60,000 armed troops at bay as the EZIN and Citizens Commission headed by Amado Avendano tried to negotiate solutions to the problems the Zapatistas had signaled.

Consequences of the `94 Uprising

The immediate response by the Salinas government was positive. After thousands of Mexicans surged into the Zocalo in Mexico City, demanding that there be no massacre of the rebels and that the government address their demands, Salinas withdrew the troops from combat and declared a cease fire. He removed the former governor of Chiapas, Patricinio Gonzalez Garrido, from office as government minister in Mexico City and appointed a new governor in Chipas to replace the interim governor, Elmar Setzer Marseille. He appointed a "Commission of Peace and Reconciliation" to negotiate grievances, headed by the populist former mayor of Mexico City, Manuel Camacho Solis, with Bishop Samuel Ruiz as mediator.

The delegation of fifteen Zapatistas arrived in San Cristobal de Las Casas on March 8 for the meetings of the Commission for Peace and Reconciliation. This was much to the consternation of a group of "autenticos coletos," the self-appointed descendants of conqueros in San Cristobal, who tried to prevent the use of the cathedral as the locale for the discussions and who called for the exile of the Bishop for his role in presiding over the peace talks. Supporting the peace talks was a civil society group who maintained a twenty-four hour vigil around the cathedral in order to prevent attacks on the negotiators.

Demands of the Zapatistas 1) Autonomy of indigenous villages with the right to use their own language in schools, public contracts, courts, and the media. As one step in the democratization of government and the recognition of plural ethnic groups, the Zapatistas proposed a decentralization of the government at every level. The aim was to overcome "presidentialism" as well as the control by the Distrito Federal over the entire country with a redistricting of electoral districts that would conform to the reality of the constituencies. From the very beginning of the talks, subcomandante Marcos made it clear that the Zapatistas were not demanding a racially representative leadership. This in itself does not ensure responsiveness to the interest of indigenous people, as five hundred years of caciquismo proved. Rather, the desire was to have representatives who fulfilled the will of the people, rescuing democracy from the cooptation of it by false leaders. 2) Redistribution of large land holdings to the small holding villages and government support for those who work the land, including agricultural machinery, fertilizers, insecticides, credit, technical aid, improved seeds, and cattle. Assurance of just prices for crops is a prerequisite for commercial production in the international market, since Mexican farmers now face competition from subsidized U.S. products. 3) Support for housing, health, education, recreation, communication and other necessities. The Zapatistas demand services equivalent to those accorded to other communities and towns throughout the republic such as electricity, potable water, sewage, roads, telephone communication, recreational centers and sports.

The negotiations in San Cristobal in March received favorable attention from President Salinas, who agreed publicly that in the drive for modernization he had given insufficient attention to the needs of the people. The climate of conciliation was broken with the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI candidate for president chosen, as way customary, by the incumbent. To many it seemed clear that the ruling government itself may have been involved in the deed, and the question of a wider conspiracy involving more than the accused, who has been jailed and indicted, has not been resolved. On the anniversary of his death, further investigation implicated the entire security operation of the scene of his assassination, and the "intellectual author" has not yet been implicated. Colosio had already begun to distance himself from the more extreme free market reforms of Salinas just before his untimely death.

Further negotiations were on hold as civil protest took over the unsolved problems of land, social justice and welfare. Confrontations between campesinos and cattlemen, land invasions, further expulsions from indigenous towns for political and religious motives, the takeover of town halls to censure corrupt mayors and officials, strikes, attacks on immigration offices, the rape of three women by soldiers in Altamirano, and a general increase in crimes marked the tense situation in Chiapas throughout the spring of 1994.

Then in a dramatic move, the EZLN declared that they would hold a National Democratic Convention August 7 to 9, two weeks before the national elections on August 21. The convergence of over six thousand representatives of the press, intellectuals, and indigenous and mestizo leaders of grassroots movements throughout the hemisphere in San Cristobal de Las Casas was an historic feat, since this had been the site of ladino control over the indigenous frontier for five hundred years. Their task was to set an agenda for the return to democracy. Declaring that democracy would necessitate more than a change in leadership every six years, in which the incumbent chose his successor and the people were not part of any decisions made, the delegates called for a national referendum to draw up a new political pact, with public accountability of corrupt, with public accountability of corrupt officials, autonomy for indigenous communities, and political representation for regional organizations that had been denied by neoliberal reforms, and put at the center of democratic reform the commitment to ensuring food, as well as liberty, for all.

The Zapatista convention represents the first pluralistic movement of the revolutionary left. What does pluralism mean in the new world order? The delegates to the fifth table of the Convention in San Cristobal attended by the Independent Front of Indian Pueblos (Frente Independiente de Pueblos Indios, FIPI) and the Committee of Support and Defense for the Rights of Indians (Comite de Apoyo y Defensa a los Derechos Indios, CADDAC) were quite specific in elaborating what they considered should be a complete chapter of the new constitution. First, they would eradicate the "mestiozcracia integracionista" vision of the 1917 constitution. This has been at the root of most "indigenista" - pro-Indian-policies, dedicated to incorporating Indigenes into mestizodominated culture. It is an ideology which, in the mystification of the roots of preconquest civilization, coopts the indigenous past as legitimization for the Mexican nation. One having deprived the indigenous people of their heritage, they proceed to justify the new forms of exploitation in which Indians have been held thrall ever since the "institutionalization" of the 1917 constitution on the basis of shared blood.

In place of a state-party alliance, in which the PRI uses the resources of the state to elect its officials, and once in office, proceeds to buy the allegiance of "dependent" constituents with state giveaways, the delegates to the convention proposed a multicultural state, incorporating a new vision of federalism. Indigenous pueblos would be part of the nation and the state, with territorial autonomy, free control of funds and economic resources within their territories, and self-determination in the development programs within their limits.

Clearly this new concept of federalism would not be acceptable in a country where eminent domain of the state, operating through state-owned enterprises such as PEMEX, has created some of the richest men in the nation, and where the sale of other state-owned enterprises such as PEMEX, has created some of the richest men in the nation, and where the sale of other state-owned enterprises under Salinas has catapulted at least two Mexican financiers into the Forbes list of the wealthiest men in the world. Particularly vulnerable are the lands in the environs of the Zapatistas and along the Mexican-Guatemalan border where oil discoveries and multiplying each day. Should indigenous people gain control over development initiatives within their midst, neither the old development initiatives of the PRI that were streamlined in the more efficient and less corrupt public works program, Programa Nacional de Solidarida, fostered by Salinas, nor the associations of indigenous and private enterprises proposed in the "reform" of the Article 27 Land Reform Act could enter in and block self-determination. Their demand that indigenous languages should be officially recognized would weaken the control over cultural institutions that have promoted the domination of Indians. The insistence that a portion of the returns for the hydroelectric power generated in the state, which now produces 52% of the power used in the nation, and for oil that has been discovered, is the most threatening of the demands of the indigenous movement.

On the second day of the convention, the delegates set off in a caravan of over a hundred buses, vans and improvised vehicles to a jungle area without electricity, piped water, or public meeting places. Even as the caravan began its crawl over rocky roads, some of the constructed just after the conflict began, the conventional political process seemed suspended and a new imagined community was in birth. The vision of a new world order in which popular classes set their priorities was put into action in the following days. On the first evening a jungle storm (with the high winds and torrential rains that result from the deforestation in the area) lifted up and flattened the enormous tent that was supposed to shelter the convention. Following this dramatic event, the Zapatista leaders introduced the National Liberation Army. Men and women with uniforms and rifles of a sort, were followed by youths in motley clothing with handkerchiefs tied over their faces, some with wooden rifles. Beyond that were ranked hundreds of women wearing the flowered print dresses and aprons that are their uniform, carrying babies in shawls, and sometimes accompanied by their children. Without any words the message was clear - this was not a guerilla army, it was a people's uprising. (The paradox of revolutionaries wearing aprons was even more forcefully brought home to one City College-CUNY students who said that she could not gain admission for herself and a photo-journalist to the Zapatista territory on Mother's Day since the women did not want to have to wear their face masks during the celebration.)

Participants in the social movements that eddied around the Zapatista uprising found the elections on August 21 an anticlimax to the energy and enthusiasm generated during the convention, although they seemed to assuage anxieties in international stock markets. However, subsequent events lessened the confidence of investors. The assassination in November of Ruiz Massieu, a man known to be opposed to the drug cartel who was appointed to ensure democratic processes in government, and the forced devaluation of the peso which ushered in the new president, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, shook up stock markets throughout the hemisphere. As the peso went from two-thirds to half its value, the new government discovered that its reserves were far less than predicted.

Growing political discontent on the southern border was echoed throughout the country as more evidence of fraud in the elections came to light. Uncounted ballots were discovered in many communities; campesinos in Chiapas were clamoring for the procampo money promised in exchange for their vote; and Marcos refused to negotiate privately with the new President. The councilors of the National Democratic Convention and the candidate they support, Amando Avandaño, along with the EZLN and the PRD, rejected the election of Eduardo Robledo Rincón as governor of the state of Chiapas. When Robledo was inaugurated on December 8, 1994 in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Amado Avendaño set up a parallel Gobierno de Transción en Rebeldia (Transition Government in Rebellion) in offices borrowed from the Instituto Nacional Indigenista in San Cristobal. There he held audience with the indigenous people and poor campesinos who had never had access to a governor in the past.

The cathedral became the official site for formulating peace moves as Bishop Samuel Ruiz sat in his armchair in the Purissima Chapel on the second week of his hunger strike begun on December 20. Renamed the Cathedral of Peace, supporters joined the hunger strike, sleeping on cots at night and receiving visitors from the indigenous villages. Posters announced the support delegations of women's groups, campesino groups, student groups (Convención Nacional Estudiantil), and populist groups (Asamblea Estatal del Pueblo Chiapaneco). All of these groups added strength to the citizen's group the Comisión Nacional de Intermediación (Conai) and congressional representatives from the Comisión de Dialogo y Conciliación del Congreso de la Unión, building up for the national dialogue.

In the communiqué marking the first anniversary of the uprising, subcoandante insurgente Marcos addressed the weekly news journal Proceso, the newspapers El Financier, and La Jornada, and the San Cristobal de las Casas Tiempo expressing surprise that the supreme government blamed the Zapatistas for the devaluation of the new peso. He promised to make a campaign to raise the emotion of risk and uncertainty and move people to buy new pesos. He complained about the constant buzzing of helicopters, planes and tanks as well as the incursion of dogs that government troops had sent in to hunt the Zapatistas. But then he added a kind of allegory quoting "el viejo Antonio" who accompanied him in his nocturnal rounds, and it is clear that the Zapatistas drew strength from such discourse:

The true language is born together with the first gods, those who made the world. From the first word, for the first fire, other true words were formed and from these they were degrained, like corn kernels in the hands of the campesino other words. Three were the first words, three thousand times three were born another three, and from these others they filled the world with words. There was a great stone where all those who were born in the world were walking in all paths of the first gods. With all that tramping above it, the stone became very smooth, like a mirror. Against this mirror the first gods blew into the air the first three words. The mirror did not withdraw the same words that it received, but rather returned three other times three different words. The gods spent the time this way, throwing the words at the mirror in order that more come out until they were bored.

When they set another mirror in front of the first and tripled the reflected words, the true language was born from the mirrors. The old man's narration goes on to define the three first words: justice: not to punish but to give back to each what s/he deserves, and that is what the mirror gives back; liberty: not that each does what s/he wants, but chooses whatever road that the mirror wants to encounter to arrive at the true word; democracy: not that all think the same, but that all thoughts or the majority of thoughts seek and arrive at a good agreement.

At this moment, the Zapatistas are encircled by increased military forces, their supplies for medicines, basic necessities, and access to market for their cash goods cut off. In order to move the peace process, Bishop Samuel Ruiz declared that he was on a hunger strike just before Chistmas. As he meditated and prayed for peace in the Chapel of Virgin Purissima in the Cathedral, delegations of indigenous people came to visit. On December 27 musicians and dancers from Oxchuc, dressed in their brightly handloomed garments, engaged him in a dance to the faint, almost insect-like buzz of homemade harp, guitar, and gourd rattle. The images of the thirteen male and thirteen female dancers with the Bishop in their midst flittering in the light of thirteen candles in the cavernous recess of the cathedral were a vision of how one might settle discordant social relations in this postmodern world. But this vision was not fulfilled. Ignoring the petitions for peace, President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon ordered the Prosecutor General's office to issue an arrest for "Marcos" whose "true identity" was established as Rafael Sebastian Guillen. On February 9, the Procuraduria General de la Republica backed by 60,000 troops invaded the territory controlled by the insurgents in an undeclared war, causing the people to flee into the mountains where they are suffering from hunger, thirst and dysentry.

Significance of the Uprising for the World

The allegory of the mirror reflects the process of the movement for peace with justice in Chiapas. The convention and its aftermath demonstrated the potential for multicultural democracy in the economic changes affecting the nation, releasing messages that became the rallying cry for alternative economic and political programs. Far from posing an isolationist revitalization movement wherein indigenous people are enjoined to look backward for their inspiration and close the doors to international exchange, the delegates are making alliances with poor rural workers of other indigenous language groups and those who have lost distinctive cultural characteristics. Aware that their poverty stems from marginalization of indigenous people as a group, they seek vindication of the rights gained in the 1910 revolution from which they have been excluded. They have always lived with differences, which they tolerate and in turn expect to be able to express. They are the best prepared to live in a post-modern world where multiple modes of thought and action are the most effective defense system for survival.

The messages of the Zapatistas and those who support the democratic movement resound throughout the world. Zapatistas are like many of the cultivators and wage workers in export processing zones throughout the world, from Guatemala to East Timor, seeking democracy as they try to balance their subsistence needs with entry into cash crops or wage work in international markets. The new trade agreements have further marginalized them as their own nations have withdrawn the supports once offered by populist governments and abandoned them to the vicissitudes of free trade. They are realists in that they know they cannot return to the isolation in which they once lived, and their demands are modest. But in taking their stand, they are projecting a new vision of what democracy might be: coexistence, with their own language and customs, functioning along with others whose differences they have always respected, and entering into decisions that affect their lives. They do not want to seize power for themselves, but rather to ensure democratic processes in the selection of leaders. They chose to bear arms only to draw attention to the daily violence they face in their lives, and they seek a peace that promises justice and dignity.

A hidden benefit of global integration is the opening up of local protests against growing inequalities to a global audience. This of course depends on a conscientious press whose reports are made available to a wide audience. It also depends upon data collection agencies inspired by human rights concerns. The conjuncture of these two conditions made the Chiapas uprising available to a wide reading public throughout the world. The press is still a more open medium than television for the dissemination of what is considered controversial news, and the world press did an extraordinary job in the early months of the uprising. So prevalent was their presence in the relatively low-paced city of San Cristobal that they were called the "Third Army," a presence abhorred by the "coletos autenticos" but embraced by the Zapatistas and the increasingly organized civil society who recognized that retaliation against the rebels was dependent on the world attention paid to the uprising.

If 1994 will be assessed as the year in which free trade was embraced throughout the world, it will also be known as a time when capital markets responded negatively to those governments that allowed social discontent to reach the boiling point of uprisings. Fear of falling stock markets may yet become the most powerful force backing redistributive measures to ensure a favorable climate for investment. With Wall Street monitoring the uprising in Chiapas, the entry of EZLN forces in 38 towns on December 19 lent power to their demands for negotiating peace with the new government of Zedilla. Within 24 hours, the economic cabinet devalued the peso 15% exposing the country and the world to the weaknesses of Mexico's export oriented economy and the bankruptcy of the neoliberal model. Without firing a shot, their mission was accomplished: as the EZLN troops withdrew like a phantasm back into the jungle, they had reinforced their position as they waited for the expected resumption of negotiations. It left speculators wondering whether "El sub Marcos" might have had privileged information from Wall Street in order to have maximized their position in global stock exchanges. Especially given the fact that EZLN is positioned precisely where the richest oil wells are being discovered in Chiapas, Tabasco and Veracruz, the words and movements will have resounding implications for the world financial interests.

As the depth of the economic crises was revealed, the attempt by the secretary of Hacienda, Jaime Serra Puche and others in the government to blame the EZLN for the devaluation of the peso and the collapse of the export economy was unmasked. Criticism of Salinas' neoliberal regime increased; inside sources indicated that Zedillo urged President Salinas to modify the exchange rate and activate the credit lines contracted one day after the death of Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta. His failure to do so is suggested in Papantla Bishop Alamilla Arteaga's accusation that he deliberately his the mounting crisis in order to gain entry into the World Organization of Commerce. Financial experts began to question the chimerical structure of Mexico's economy. The Wall Street Exchange lowered the value of Mexican debt at a time when the prices of all the Latin-American debts were being raised. Academic critics such as Raul Hinojosa, University of California professor of political economy and visiting scholar of the Interamerican Bank of Development, criticized the failure of NAFTA to take into account migration and the flight of capital along with commercial exchanges which were central to the agreement. Many began to question the neoliberal model that had led to the crisis.

The Zapatistas, with the help of international observers and human rights agencies, the citizens linked to the Convención Nacional Democratica seeking democratic paths to peace, the hunger strikers supporting the Bishop, and the international press that has brought their message to a world audience, have allowed us to imagine a new world order with social justice at its core.

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