Return to Porfirismo

In 1876, Porfirio Diaz opened Mexico to international investment, inaugurating decades of growing inequality. Recalling that era, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari is now turning to an export-oriented economy to solve the country's pressing internal problems. He has backed the Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada and accepted the conditions of the International Monetary Fund for participation in the global economy: repayment of Mexico's $100 billion debt. The middle and lower classes will bear the cost.

Just as "Porfirismo" aimed to help Mexico's elites by protecting them from control by the church, state, or communities, so the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI), the dominant party since Porfirismo was overturned in 1910, envisions a "liberalized economy" freed from restraint. This policy threatens indigenous peoples in ejidos - communally held land - and it would eliminate state-subsidized credit and crop-distribution agencies that have ensured some security to the country's small farmers.

Indeed, the view from Mexico's frontier with Guatemala corrects heady visions in Mexico City or on the U.S. border. In southernmost Chiapas, perhaps the most underdeveloped region of Mexico, indigenous people constitute more than half the population. Only about 50 percent of the people in Chiapas are literate compared with 85 percent in all Mexico, the infant mortality rate is 500 per 1,000 live births compared with 50 in Mexico as a whole, and enormous disparities in wealth reflect a heritage of neglect.

Liberalization policies trap the indigenous communities of Chiapas between two opposing movements. The first seeks to reinvent what anthropologist Eric Wolf has called the "closed corporate community" by demanding consensus among Indians. Thus, "traditional" Indian leaders expel dissidents and seize their assets, as the exploitation of poor campesinos is no longer confined to ladinos (non-Indians).

The second movement envisions a position for Indians in the new economic enterprises and the political space opened up by political space opened up by political parties and religious groups that challenge the rule of a monolithic party and church. Many indigenous people have turned to the rightwing National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional) or the Revolutionary Democractic Party (Partido Revolucionario Democratico) led by Cuahtemoc C rdenas, who wants to recall the goals of the revolution.

A third movement, however, is also emerging. In Chiapas and elsewhere, organized groups are seeking solutions that fit neither category. Part of an awakening collective identity among many distinct indigenous cultures, they challenge the monopoly of the PRI and the consolidation of class interests.

LAND SEIZURES AND DISLOCATIONS

As Mexico's population grows and the land open for farming shrinks, the government has responded to indigenous claims in two ways: by providing weak support, at best, to the campesinos and by directing them to new colonies, where they come into conflict with competing claimants. Both responses are of concern to the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Committee on Human rights. Based in Chiapas, the committee has been supported by the local bishop to counter political and economic repression.

The first case illustrates the traditional pattern of rural mobilization that toppled Porfirio Diaz. In Venustiano Carranza township, named after the hero who called for free elections to end the rule of Diaz, indigenous campesinos have struggled for control of lands promised by colonial and Mexican governments since 1767. That year, peasants acquired about 900,000 acres out of over 4 million promised. In 1825, four years after Mexico won independence from Spain, they were unsuccessful in claiming the balance and later lost their best property during the Porfiriato.

Since the Mexican Revolution in campesinos have been caught in the snare of government cooptation, with promises of land but little action. In 1965, they received 124,000 acres, but cattlemen led by the Castellanos and Orantes families invaded the area. As of 1974, only 12,000 acres had been distributed. A decade later, the Organization of Campesinos Emiliano Zapata (OCEZ), which coordinates responses to political repression, invaded the disputed land. The government retaliated by sending in 1,000 troops; over a dozen men were killed.

In February 1991, 500 public-security police, along with municipal and military police headed by members of the Orantes family, evicted 46 families from "Los Alpes," land that had been granted to the ejido "Salvador Urbina" in 1972. The members of the community were jailed for days - weeks, in some cases - and one woman gave birth in the jail. In a 19896 invasion of the settlement by Orantes, the government had actually sided with the peasants, but this time the troops supported the landowners. The campesinos took back the land in January 1992, and tensions are high.

The government undermines indigenous interests in other ways as well. According to Robert Martinez, a student in a 1990 National Science Foundation Project in Chiapas, the government split Venustiano Carranza by allocating the same lands to different groups. As a result, some campesinos have resorted to aggression against other poor villages. For example, in July 1991, say the campesinos of Rio America in Las Margaritas, the ejidatarios of Los Bambues of Altamira arrived armed, beating up opponent, raping women, robbing, and killing cattle. The case remains in limbo at a crucial time in the harvesting cycle.

Government actions on behalf of powerful interest provoked OCEZ to take up a vigil at the cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas in 1991. The campesinos also seized the town hall to try to force the governor to address the group, but he failed to show up. In a July forum in Chiapa de Corzo, OCEZ leaders criticized the "politics of modernization" - that is, the liberalization policies of the PRI - that have led to repression.

COLONIZING IN THE LACANDON FOREST

In the second area of concern to the Fray Bartolome Committee, Mexico has answered peasant claims for land by establishing colonies in the Lancandon jungle. Indigenous people - including Choles, Zoques, Nahuas, Chinantecos, Tojolobales, Tzeltales, and Tzotziles, along with Mestizos and Ladinos - have settled where only Lacandones had lived.

The in-migrants, who have lived in their own distinct communities for over 500 years, are becoming part of homogenized colonies. They fight for survival, competing for limited land and rudimentary medical and educational facilities. Moreover, environmentalists contest their presence, charging them with destroying the forest. According to official figures, only 2.5 million acres remain of some 40 million a decade ago, with 1 million acres destroyed each year.

Confronted by government corruption, an emerging peasant organization is striving to overcome the divisiveness of the distinct languages and customs brought together in the colonies. The case of wood theft in the Marquez de Comillas colony in Ocosingo reveals the convoluted forces taking shape, as well as the degree to which the state and municipalities answer peaceful protest with massive force.

On July 13, 1991, 150 men, women, and children began marching to Mexico City to complain about government seizure of wood cut on ejido lands. Under a recent conservation law that makes it illegal to sell, but not cut, wood, government agents had seized the wood. About 700 police attacked the caravan with tear gas and beatings. Eighteen women and eight children were stripped of their clothes and held in jail for over 24 hours; some 100 men were jailed for over a week. Guards didn't allow the Fray Bartolome Committee to deliver food to the prisoners. The police tried to force one leader to warn the marchers to desist, but, speaking in Tzeltal, he urged them to maintain their positions. A foruitous meeting in Guadalajara of a United Nations group led to a declaration in behalf of the campensinos and their release.

Despite the violent reaction to the march, the peasants organized a second one in August in Palenque, declaring one in August in Palenque, declaring that promises made by authorities following the Guadalajera conference were unfulfilled.

THE FICTION OF CORPORATE COMMUNITIES

The determination of the peasants to stand up for their rights illustrates the ability of many distinct indigenous groups to come together. Such campesino organizing signifies a movement away from ethnic politics as liberalization accentuates class divisions within indigenous societies.

Ever since the Spanish Crown established its control in the Americas, communal lands have provided an identity for indigenous groups in "closed corporate communities." But in the context of increasing wealth disparities among the indigenous, this ideology has come to serve more powerful elites - caciques - who call themselves traditionals.

This class division is nowhere better expressed than in San Juan Chamula, where traditional leaders wield economic power over 80,000 Chamultecos; the caciques justify expelling Indians from the community by claiming the victims are not following customs. Indeed, converts to Protestantism are the main targets, but also affected are Catholics who have challenged the leaders. Since expulsions began in 1964, over 12,000 Indians have lost their land, their houses have been burned or seized, and their crops usurped. Following Chamula's lead, expulsions have occurred in Zinacantan, Mitontic, Amatenango del Valle, Chenalho, and Chalchihuitan. The Fray Bartolome Committee reports that over 15,000 of the expelled Chamulans are living in the cinturon de miseria (belt of misery) in San Cristobal de las Casas. Zinacantecans, Amatenangueros, and Chamulans have also grouped in towns such as Betania, 20 miles from San Cristobal.

Organized resistance to the caciques began in 1982 when Protestants formed the Committee for the Defense of the Threatened, Persecuted, and Expelled of Chamula, which was followed by the interdenominational Organization of the Indians of the Chiapas Highlands (ORIACH). These groups defend Indians against the state, large landowners, and other Indians. The expelled Chamulans have denounced the elites, and declared in 1982 that "the truth is that the caciques want to have total control of our people, above all of the parajes, [rural hamlets] in order to continue making money with their businesses; alcohol, candles, beer, soft drinks, money lending, and fines."

Despite ORIACH's appeals on behalf of the expelled, neither the local nor the federal government is willing to help those who have lost their lands. The reciprocity between national leaders and the local elites, who assure electoral successes for the PRI, mitigates any action. Most expulsions occurred either the year before or within months after elections. The state and federal agents failed to react against expulsions in townships where the ruling caciques delivered the vote to the PRI.

Nevertheless, relocated villagers in San Cristobal consider themselves Chamulans. In their urban settlement. there are sheep corrals and sweat purification baths. Traditional clothing is still worn - and even woven - by the women among the exiles, who continue to speak Tzotzil, although economic hardship forces many to adopt ladino dress. They and their children are learning Spanish as they spend up to 14 hours a day in the plaza and nearby streets selling wrist bands, belts, and other items. Released from the control of a patriarchal family, the women are the prey of men who rob and rape them.

San Cristobal has become a center for socializing the second generation of the expelled. Children beg from tourists, shine shoes, and watch television through the windows of stores. Besides poor nutrition and inadequate health care, the most serious problem for children is that few attend school. If jobs are to materialize in the new economy, education is essential. Otherwise, they will have lost their traditions without gaining new opportunities.

THE GREATER THREAT

What is happening in Chiapas is occurring throughout Mexico. The government is withdrawing from education, welfare, and medical-subsidy programs, while armed force backs up unpopular measures.

The assault on communally held land, reminiscent of the Porfiriato period, continues to undermine the productive base of the country. Comparisons forced off the land have limited access to wage labor. Their increasing dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides makes them vulnerable to market fluctuations, both as sellers and buyers. Migration to jungle colonies is not backed by enough government support to make it a viabe alternative for many. As the country loses the subsistence base in regions like the Chiapas highlands, Mexico becomes more dependent on imported foods.

Yet events in Chiapas represent an even greater threat to the future of Mexico. The region is one of Mexico's last retreats of semisubsistence farmers drawing upon communal resources to preserve traditional ways. As rural dwellers are forced to depend on wage work and migrate from their villages, these communities lose the ability to maintain themselves and a way of life that has invigorated the nation for 500 years.

In the end, fluctuations in the market economy leave these people, like those who preceded them to the city, exposed to cyclical crises and despair. Meanwhile, the last reserves of tropical forest in the Lacandon jungle give way to the chain saws of lumber interests and cattle ranchers. The impact on climate will become one more reminder of the global integration that traps these people.

THE CENTRAL AMERICAN EXILES

Its Mayan history makes Chiapas closer to Guatemala culturally than to the rest of Mexico. An artificial border was defined 20 years after independence from Spain, when Chiapanecos voted to be part of Mexico. During the Mexican Revolution of 1910, many Chiapanecos fled to Guatemala, and now the flow has reversed as military rule and poverty drive many indigenous people in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua from their homelands.

Two streams of migration enter southern Mexico. The first, from Nicaragua, began in 1978 during the reign of Anastasio Somoza and continued with the contra war in the 1980s. The second starts in Guatemala, where a genocidal war peaked in 1982 and militarization has continued since then. Besides political exiles, temporary migrants come for the coffee harvest in Soconusco.

To reinforce its border control, Mexico has built military installations in Rancho Nuevo near Tonala and San Cristobal de Las Casas. Besides immigration, the government is concerned with the smuggling of narcotics, precious woods, and basic products. As a result, immigration agents, federal and state police, the state highway patrol, the army, marines, and narcotic agents all harass the migrants.

Refugees who stay in Mexico live in official and unofficial camps. Many die from poor water supplies, minimal health care, and inadequate food. The most prevalent diseases are tuberculosis, amebic dysentery, worms, and malaria. Medicine is in short supply, although Mexico has tried to provide vaccinations and DDT spray.

In early 1991, June Nash visited "El Porvenir," an encampment of upright plank houses with metal roofs and a large church. A decade earlier, almost 600 peasants had come from Huehuetenango, Guatemala, and about 50 children have been born in the camp.

Asked why they came into exile, a spokesperson said:

There was an organized group of people in the south who were demanding a better life for indigenous people. The army said we were guerrillas, but we are not all organized in that movement. It was an excuse to kill us. About three or four hundred people were killed in our villages.

When the army arrived in 1982, they rounded up people - men, women, and children - in a building and threw gasoline and bombs on it, burning all of them alive. This was in the village of Nenton is San Francisco. Another 450 or 460 people in Ixcan were burned in a church while they'd were celebrating a mass. It was for this reason that all of us went into exile. We left our land, our houses, and our crops and cattle.

The men reported that all the Quiche villages in San Marcos township in Guatemala were under military rule, enduring attacks that often ended in massacres.

The exiles want to return home but have set a number of preconditions, including the right to free organization and movement, respect for human rights, and accompaniment by an international escort. Talks on these points were delayed in mid-1991 after Guatemala's vice-president repudiated an accord signed by his delegates the previous year.

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