The Seventh Rainbow: Hope from the Mountains of Southeast Mexico

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On January 3, a week before beginning a third round of negotiations with the Mexican government, the Zapatista Liberation Army convened a National Forum on Indigenous Rights. The locale, timing and cool weather of the forum recalled the first days of the new year, two years ago, when the Zapatistas burst onto the national and international scene with their armed occupation of San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas. An uneasy truce has held since February, 1995, the last time that the Mexican army tried and failed to defeat the Zapatistas militarily. In last year's negotiations, the government finally conceded that the agenda could expand beyond regional grievances. Now, the Zapatistas had poised themselves to entertain a national dialogue on peaceful reform of the archaic Mexican political system.

Some three hundred indigenous participants, speaking 24 native languages from over half the states of Mexico, including Oaxacan migrant workers from the United States, traveled to San Cristobal. Another 200 non-indigenous Mexican nationals and international observers came. On January 7, the plenary session reported the participants' conclusion from five days of workshops to the Zapatista leadership.

Opening the plenary, Commandante David invoked a theme of the forum, that a space was opened for the unheard voices of the nation. He thanked the participants for their wisdom. Then, a representative of the first working group began reading the first of six lengthy reports. After each report, everyone was given the chance to recommend revisions, deletions, new issues and new problems. The work of the plenary was not completed until the morning of January 9. The Call for Indigenous Autonomy

Indigenous autonomy emerged as a central theme. The forum called for autonomy in territories with majority indigenous population at community, municipal and regional levels. Autonomy included control over natural resources, judicial administration, internal security, agrarian system and internal conflict resolution, informed by the norms and customs of each indigenous group. Women participants clarified that traditional norms and customs decidedly did not include women's subordination.

Repeatedly, participants called for a return to the spirit of agrarian reform, consecrated in Article 27 of the 1917 Mexican Constitution, that recognized ejidos and communal land. The Salinas regime had gutted this constitutional provision to make Mexican land policy more NAFTA-friendly. Global free-market policies, known as "neoliberalismo" in Mexico, imposed by three successive U.S. educated, "technocratic" Mexican presidents, were roundly denounced. While numerous specific proposals were offered, the forum asked that the government convene a congress of delegates from the 56 recognized indigenous peoples to give concrete shape to the concept of autonomy. Marcos Addresses the Forum

The plenary session was suspended on the evening of the opening day, as Subcomandante Marcos appeared amidst Red Cross security, his first time out of hiding since the 1994 truce. Marcos' address to the gathering invoked the history of the seven rainbows, a Mayan origin myth. On a day of cold rain and flickering sun, the first gods, "who were not dictators then," and the Mayan ancestors set out to find the path to a better world. The gods and the ancestors agreed that seven was the number of skies, and that seven was the number of labors that the ancestors would have to complete. "So the first gods said that 7 times 7 they will walk...which reminds us that not everything comes in pairs and that there is always room for another."

Neither the gods nor the ancestors knew how long a path the numbers foretold. Then, a bridge of light, clouds and colors "began to paint itself." I crossed from the mountain to the valley, coming from nowhere, going nowhere, "a bridge for the good worlds to come and go, the new ones that we make for ourselves." The musicians brought out their instruments and the ancestors danced, for they now knew that the seven rainbows marked the path.

Marcos spoke of his rising, filled with anxiety, before dawn that day. Six rainbows appeared on Marcos' long route from the remote rain forest community where the gravel road commenced, named prophetically, "La Realidad" or "Reality." Entering San Cristobal, Marcos hoped for a seventh rainbow. Instead, the cold reminded him of the deaths two years ago from the uprising. The seventh rainbow, he concluded, was the gathering of colors and peoples there, making a bridge to renew the world.

After the plenary adjourned for the evening, Marcos held a midnight press conference. Reporters chided Macros about storytelling, as if he were competing for a Nobel Prize in Literature. He had not addressed, for instance, the conditions for disarmament. However, in La Realidad that morning, to symbolize his hope for peace and meet assurances for his safe passage, Marcos had laid down his arms, formally witnessed by Bishop Samuel Ruiz and other dignitaries who accompanied him. Towards Political Struggle as the Dirty War Continues

Marcos used the press conference to denounce the government's dirty war. Still held were 18 alleged Zapatista leaders and sympathizers, imprisoned since February of 1995 without evidence to support the charges. Marcos accused the government of bad faith, using the negotiations to buy time and to wear down Zapatista resistance, without seriously pursuing a peaceful solution to the rebellion. Marcos noted that on the very eve of renewing negotiations, immigration officials were tracking down foreign national observers at their hotels, interrogating them and expelling them from the country.

Marcos had elaborated Zapatista political strategy in his fourth declaration of the Lacandon rain forest, released a week earlier. That document called for the creation of a Zapatista political front to pressure the government and the party system, but disclaimed any interest in taking over state power, becoming a political party itself or offering candidates for elective office. Marcos' critics from the left disputed that the Zapatista movement could achieve revolution or even political reform without a strategy to take political power. However, the Zapatistas have consistently avoided Marxist-Leninist and social democratic models of political resistance. Instead, they seek to join what has become known as the civil society and to articulate, consistent with indigenous roots, a political dialogue on identity, community and autonomy. The enthusiasm, commitment and creativity of the forum participants suggests a strong popular response to the Zapatista message and methods. Extensive coverage of the even by the Mexican media reinforced its significance. As 1996 begins, the Zapatistas' call for a national political front, and for a congress of indigenous delegates to flesh out the concept of autonomy and constitutional reform, is a serious challenge to a crumbling authoritarian political system. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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