The San Andrés Accords: Indians and the Soul

The San Andrés Accords: Indians and the Soul

The colonial period opened up a theological and social debate over whether or not American Indians had human souls. During the Cárdenas presidency [1934-40], national policy-makers insisted that Indians disappear in the common identity of "Mexican." The Zapatista uprising of January 1994 and the signing of the San Andrés Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture changed the terms of debate over whether Indians should have special rights or not. This persistent refusal to recognize their souls, their specific identity or their rights as peoples forms part of the same mindset: to deny members of society their "otherness," as different citizens.

Indigenous issues now stand at the center of the country's political agenda. The new Indian movement has redefined national debates on reshaping national identity, on policies to combat poverty, the transition to democracy, the nature of a new regime, and the relationship between morality and politics.

For four years the indigenous question has been publicly debated with an intensity, passion, and virulence unprecedented in Mexico's recent history. The debate has spawned both prejudices and idealizations. Ignorant and damaging pronouncements have emerged alongside the informed and thoughtful reflections. The debate on indigenous rights sometimes seems like a labyrinth of equivocations, from which there is no way out.

The General Context of the Negotiations

Twenty-five months after the Zapatista uprising, on February 16, 1996, the EZLN and the Mexican government signed the first substantive agreements on the road to peace. The agreements were the hard-won fruit of the first of five rounds of talks scheduled between the two sides to resolve the root causes of the insurrection. In the San Andrés Accords, the federal government responded to part of the Zapatistas' demands, those related to indigenous rights and culture.

The legal framework for the development of the negotiations had been laid down beforehand. On March 11, 1995, The "Law for Dialogue, Conciliation and Dignified Peace in Chiapas" was published in the Diario Oficial [official government bulletin]. From that date forward, this law became the legal framework for establishing the bases for conciliation and the formal mandate for establishing a dialogue designed to lead to a just, dignified, and lasting solution to the armed conflict that broke out on January 1 in Chiapas. Both sides recognized the need to deal with the causes of the conflict, to facilitate the political participation of the EZLN, to promote social well-being, and to propose guidelines for amnesty.

The round one negotiations lasted a little more than four months. They followed five months of talks between the EZLN and the federal government to establish the procedures and issues to be addressed in negotiations. San Andrés was important not only for its results, but also for the unprecedented way in which civil society participated in the peace process. The negotiations involved broad sectors of society, called national and international attention to indigenous issues and introduced new ways of doing politics.

Instead of negotiating strictly on the basis of their own demands, the Zapatistas invited civic leaders, academics and intellectuals to participate in the talks as advisors and guests. These individuals brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the discussions. Their diverse proposals sparked debates that served to refine and deepen understanding of the issues at hand.

The negotiations also generated an intense mobilization of Indian peoples throughout Mexico. In cities, communities and villages, forums and debates -- organized outside the sway of governmental institutions -- served to analyze indigenous issues. Often, the meetings combined denunciations of Indian peoples' living conditions with the formulation of historic demands and proposals for projects built on the foundation of a newly defined relationship between the State and Indian peoples. The breadth and depth of mobilization surrounding San Andrés was an unheard-of event in the recent political life of the nation.

The process culminated in the National Indigenous Forum, convened by the EZLN from January 3-8, 1996. Five hundred delegates from 178 indigenous organizations participated in the forum, including representatives of 32 Indian peoples. The most significant experiences of ethnic struggle throughout Mexico encountered a point of convergence and synthesis in the Forum. Here the possibility arose to develop a permanent structure and more complete programmatic platform for the nascent national movement.

The San Andrés Accords

The San Andrés Accords reflect a basic fact of politics in Mexico: The old pact between the State and Indian peoples has broken down and a new pact must be established based on new premises. The Accords are made up of four different documents: The first is a joint pronouncement of the need to establish a new pact between Indian peoples and the government, and what its fundamental characteristics should be; the second contains a series of joint proposals with national implications that the federal government and the EZLN are required to send to Congress; the third establishes a package of special reforms for Chiapas; and the fourth is a text signed by both parties that adds some points that were not originally incorporated.

The points negotiated with the government do not resolve all indigenous demands, but they do commit to resolve some of the most relevant. Among these are:

1) Recognition of Indian peoples in the Constitution, including their right to self-determination within the constitutional framework of autonomy.

2) Broader political representation and participation. The recognition of their economic, political, social and cultural rights, as collective rights.

3) A guarantee of full access to justice. Access to the legal system and recognition of indigenous normative systems. Respect for difference.

4) Promotion of the cultural manifestations of Indian peoples.

5) Promotion of their education and mining, respecting and building on traditional knowledge.

6) Increased production and employment opportunities. Protection of indigenous migrants.

Recognition of Indian peoples as social and historical subjects modifies the constitutive bases of Mexican society by adding the principle of indigenous peoples to the principle of citizenship. The exercise of autonomy of indigenous peoples implies the real transfer of faculties, functions and competencies that currently are the responsibility of other government agencies. These include three areas: political representation on the municipal and community level, the administration of justice, and administrative functions.

Internal political representation allows communities and municipalities to appoint their local authorities by means of mechanisms that differ from the electoral democracy practiced in the rest of the country, such as the cargo system and the community assembly. Political representation on the state and federal level would be practiced through the respective legislative bodies but enhanced by the creation of new electoral districts. The Accords recognize the community as a subject of public rights.

The legal system is reformed to permit the exercise of autonomy in applying indigenous normative systems to regulate and solve internal conflicts. The Accords also take into account the community and municipal levels and, in some cases, an association among them. Indigenous normative systems are usually oral and validated in general assemblies, relatively flexible and collectively applied (a mayor never judges alone). Far more than a bundle of beliefs, they constitute cohesive normative systems, whose coherence and efficacy have derived from years of historical and cultural practice.

The New Integrationism

"What if Indians exist?" Guillermo Bonfil, the anthro-pologist who began the process of rethinking indigenismo in Mexico, first put forth the question in 1979 in a challenge to the prevailing policy of assimilation. Twenty years later, the heirs of liberalism such as theorist Roger Bartra respond that indigenous cultures are barely "an aggregate of ethnic ruins that has remained after modernization destroyed and liquidated the best of indigenous traditions." Others are more cautious. "What if, in addition to existing, indigenous peoples want to continue to be Indians and demand their rights? Wouldn't they be placing themselves in the path of progress? Wouldn't they be demanding special privileges? Wouldn't they be eroding the very foundations of democracy by denying cultural homogeneity?" These questions are the forerunners of a crusade against the politics of identity, in the name of universalism, procedural democracy, tolerance, human rights in the abstract, and national solidarity.

In the past, the campaign of de-Indianization was disguised as a search for national unity. Today's universalism, espoused by those who oppose the recognition of indigenous rights, is a thin veil for a deep-seated fear of diversity. Behind the idea of an inevitable Mestizo future hides an aversion to recognizing the other as different, and the incapacity to understand the indigenous question not as a racial issue but as an issue of cultural difference. José Vasconcelos' myth of the "cosmic race" has been transformed into the fantasy of racial globalization. In short, the insistence on whitening the brown souls continues.

The San Andrés Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture demonstrate that Indian peoples exist, are alive, and demand their rights. The debate proves that the old and new forms of assimilation, albeit under the guise of nationalism or universalism, have not been eradicated. San Andrés -- both the document and the process -- is modern testimony to the fact that Indians are not merely "living relics" but political actors with a project for the future, cultures under attack but alive with an enormous vitality. No wonder the voices who seek to delegitimate the Accords today echo the arguments of the standard-bearers of nineteenth-century liberalism. They have been trying to pound a square peg in a round hole for over a century and they just cannot accept that the peg refuses to fit.

The Route to San Andrés

In San Andrés, funeral services were held for indigenismo. The Mexican government's policy of choice toward indigenous peoples finally died an indecorous death and the government had to recognize its theoretical void in its concept of the indigenous question and the failure of its policies in practice. Unfortunately, it's still stuck in the grieving phase.

Meanwhile a new current of thought has developed to replace indigenismo. Vigorous and profound, it emerges from years and years of resistance and reflections on what is propio y ajeno -- what is their own and what has been imposed over the years. Fed by a new school of highly educated indigenous intellectuals with strong ties to their communities, the formation of hundreds of local and regional grassroots organizations with authentic leadership, and the accumulated wisdom of indigenous struggles throughout Latin America, the movement has the capacity to heavily influence national politics and culture. Its leaders and thinkers, its organizational path, found a point of convergence in San Andrés such as never before. The agreements reached were not the result of negotiations between a handful of PRI officials and a guerrilla group and its advisors, but the product of a pact between the Mexican state represented by the federal government and a broad-based consensus achieved between representatives of Mexico's most significant indigenous movements, brought together by the EZLN.

San Andrés could have been an immense Tower of Babel, just another frustrated attempt at unity by the Mexican left. But it wasn't. There, an armed and clandestine movement converged with a peaceful, civic movement. There, leaders of organizations of all stripes -- ethno-political, economic/productive, agrarian, community leaders, human rights activists and researchers met and contributed not only to the peace process but to create a shared vision of a new Mexico. Where there was polemic, consensus emerged. The result was the broadest and most representative program for social change that the Mexican indigenous movement has ever achieved. Differences between groups within the indigenous movement continue to exist, but not to the point of impeding common action.

Those who responded to the Zapatista invitation and met in San Andrés were not looking to resolve particular problems of standard of living, land or production. They sought the recognition of fundamental rights, an objective that implies no less than a reformulation of the constitutive bases of the nation. In San Andrés a legislative process from the ground up took shape, citizens demanded to be the titleholders of their own rights. Behind the San Andrés negotiations is the recognition that Indian peoples lack political representation, and that the rules established to assure access to representation do not respect their cultural specificity.

San Andrés and Indigenous Organization

In a surprisingly short time, the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) has become the most broad-based and representative national indigenons organization in Mexico, and one of the most dynamic social forces on the political spectrum.

The CNI is made up of a wide range of communities, peoples and indigenous organizations. Some have participated in projects of national campesino coalition-building. Others have little previous experience in nation-wide organization. Some come from the agrarian struggle, others from ethno-political mobilizations, and still others from the ranks of economic/productive organizations. They have in common their independence from both the government and political parties.

Most of the indigenous leaders forged over the past decade in the heart of their communities and regions can be found actively participating, along with traditional community authorities, in the CNI. Their work came into public view when the Zapatista insurrection turned a spotlight on a movement that had been previously obscured by government abandon and lack of societal interest. Here also are the leaders who found their voice in the mobilizations around the commemoration of 500 years of indigenous resistance, held between 1989 and 1992. The convergence of many kinds of leaders from many levels of political representation, from the community to the regional, from traditional municipal cargo-holders to customary political mediators (usually indigenous professors and professionals), all assure that the Congress has broad representation and significant presence in the movement. At the same time, they come from diverse organizational cultures that have to learn to coexist, and that complicate building the internal cohesion required for an organization of this type.

The CNI is the organizational heir of the San Andrés dialogues on indigenous rights and culture. It arose from the EZLN's invitation to indigenous leaders to participate as its advisors and guests in the peace talks, from the National Indigenous Forum of January of 1996 and from the follow-up meetings to the Foram held after the Accords were signed with the federal government. It was born in the heat of national debate on indigenous issues, accelerated by the suspension of negotiations in September 1996 and the appearance of Commandante Ramona in Mexico City as a delegate of the EZLN in the founding Congress in October of the same year. The tight relationship that has developed between the indigenous movement and the Zapatista movement has been repeatedly reaffirmed. Juan Chávez, Purépecha leader who inaugurated the CNI's second assembly, portrayed the relationship: "the EZLN and the CNI are already a single force nationally. The armed word that was heard in January of 1994 is accepted by us, defended and respected based on the historic reason that the people have a supreme right to rebel. The EZLN represents today our demands that for centuries our peoples have seen denied by the governments. The CNI takes up these demands as its own..." Not for nothing the Congress has as its central point action to demand governmental compliance with the San Andrés Accords.

Innovations on a New Theme

The new Indian movement, whose aspirations and demands are reflected in the San Andrés Accords and the commitment of peoples and communities to put them in practice, has profound implications for the gestation of a new political model in the country, in how to confront globalization based on the logic of financial capital, and in how to define the future of the Nation-State. The French sociologist Alan Touraine points out; "there is a dividing line that must never be crossed- that which separates the recognition of the other from the obsession with identity...Identity and otherness are inseparable and in a universe dominated by the impersonal forces of financial markets, they must be defended simultaneously in order to avoid that the only effective resistance to its domination come from sectarian integrismos. Democratic multiculturalism is today the main objective of social change movements, just as industrial democracy was years ago. The problem cannot be reduced to tolerance or acceptance of limited particularisms, nor can it be confused with a cultural relativism charged with violence. In liberal countries its main force is to resist the globalization that serves the interests of the most powerful, and in authoritarian countries it is at the service of the laity and minority rights." Luis Villoro writes: "The real reform of the State is to reform the project of the nation. We must reinvent the nation we want."

Beyond what the immediate future brings, San AndrOs marks a crossroads in the definition of the future of a country in dispute. The debate could get lost in the many paths of the labyrinth of equivocations, a light could appear at the end of the tunnel -- Mexico still has not found a viable path for building a nation of diversity. In defining the immediate destination, San AndrOs will be, in any case, an obligatory point of reference.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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