WORLD

A CRY FROM THE PEOPLE

The Chiapas revolt shatters Mexico's slick new image

January 24 1994
WORLD

A CRY FROM THE PEOPLE

The Chiapas revolt shatters Mexico's slick new image

January 24 1994

A CRY FROM THE PEOPLE

WORLD

The Chiapas revolt shatters Mexico's slick new image

On the serpentine mountain road that climbs northeast from the 16th-century southern Mexican tourist town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, only 125 km from the Guatemalan border, the vistas are the stuff of travel agents’ dreams. Steep pine forests drop to gorges of awesome beauty, where Maya villages stud the riverbanks with adobe huts painted bright pink, purple and turquoise. Carved out of the mountainsides, their tiny cornfields cling tenaciously to the rock of Chiapas, Mexico’s most southern—and desperately poor—state. But last week, 12 days after a rebel peasant army shattered the new year’s calm of San Cristóbal—seizing it and three other towns in a violent protest against official corruption and the newly implemented North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—the highway was still littered with the relics of Latin America’s latest guerrilla war.

On the outskirts of San Cristóbal, where barefoot Indian women scrubbed laundry in an open ditch running past their cinderblock shanties, the jittery Mexican defence forces had set up a makeshift command centre at a Pemex filling station. Alongside the fuel pumps, dozens of boy soldiers brandishing .30-calibre automatic rifles sat crammed into the backs of army flatbed trucks, awaiting the guerrillas’ next move down from their mountain caves.

ASSIGNMENT

MARCI MCDONALD IN CHIAPAS

Only minutes up the road, past a series of army checkpoints, the charred shell of a local bus still hunkered, blocking one lane—a monument to the zeal of the Mexican air force, whose bombing sprees have been blamed for hundreds of civilian deaths. And a blood-stained van abandoned on the nearby asphalt had raised further questions about the military’s tactics in quelling the insurgents.

After San Cristobal’s feisty Bishop Samuel Ruiz accused the defence forces of attacking and torturing unarmed peasants, dozens of interna-

tional human rights activists—including two Canadian delegations, one led by United Church moderator Stan McKay, the other by Assembly of First Nations’ Chief Ovide Mercredi—descended on Chiapas to investigate the charges. At first, the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari cut off access to the vast wilderness combat zone. Then, late last week, after two days of calm, authorities finally reopened the battle-scarred road to the market town of Ocosingo—hoping to demonstrate that they had the crisis in hand.

But as a car carrying a Maclean’s reporter dodged giant pines and boulders that the guerrillas had dragged across the highway, that claim seemed increasingly in doubt.

Darkness had enveloped the highlands only minutes above Ocosingo when, just ahead, a coffee grower’s red pickup truck screeched to a halt at a roadblock of rocks. As he climbed out to clear away the rubble, a voice wafted out of the blackness, warning him to turn back.

“This was not the voice of the army,” shivered the straw-hatted coffee grower, who asked for anonymity as he scrambled to tie a Tshirt to his radio antenna as a makeshift white flag. “I don’t know who it was, but I know that the army is nowhere around here.”

At week’s end, while Mexico’s state-dominated press trumpeted the government’s claim to have routed the rebels, Salinas’s own actions seemed to beg the question of just which side was dictating the rules of the game. One by one, he moved to meet the guerrillas’ demands. Declaring a unilateral ceasefire, he named Bishop Ruiz, a liberation theologian whom the government had fingered as an instigator of the uprising only a week earlier, to the official negotiating committee. And

shuffling his cabinet, he replaced Interior Minister Patrocinio González Garrido, a former governor of Chiapas who is among the most hated men in the state. For years, Indians near the Mayan ruins of Palenque, where he owns huge tracts of ranchland, have accused him of looking the other way while fellow ranchers wage campaigns of harassment, including beatings, to drive them off their ancestral lands.

Ironically, Gonzalez’s iron rule in Chiapas had helped win him his post overseeing next July’s presidential elections to succeed Salinas. But his ouster has altered the face of that campaign. Overnight, the rebels’ call for clean elections focused an unwelcome international spotlight on the 65-year-old single-party rule of Salinas’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which many Mexicans believe won the 1988 vote by fraud.

Equally important, the crisis has transformed Salinas’s leading critic, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, from a lacklustre contender who could barely fill an auditorium into a challenger who led a crowd of 20,000 through the streets of Mexico City last week in a protest march against government brutality in Chiapas.

Waving placards reading “All of Mexico is Chiapas” and “Mexico First World—Ha, Ha, Ha!,” the demonstrators shook the government by adding mainstream weight to the guerrillas’ battle cry. Together, they have shattered the myth of a slick, modernized Mexico—an image cultivated by the government with the help of the U.S. public relations giant Burson-Marsteller, which collected some $7.7 million in fees and expenses to promote Mexico’s cause in NAFTA talks since 1990.

The rebels, a mysterious ragtag band calling themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army—after Emilio Zapata, the hero of the 1910 Revolution who defended peasants’ rights to wrench land from the rich—have drawn worldwide attention to the bleak underbelly of Mexico’s vaunted economic miracle. During Salinas’s pre-NAFTA privatization binge, nearly two dozen well-connected families amassed huge

assets buying up 80 per cent of previously state-owned companies. Meanwhile, in Chiapas and other obscure corners of the country, nearly half the population continues to scratch out a subsistence-level existence. Living in cinderblock hovels with dirt floors and no running water, many are racked by disease and unable to send their children to schools that are many kilometres distant.

Among a surprising number of Mexicans, there seems almost a sense of relief that the widening chasm between rich and poor has finally been exposed. “Chiapas is only one symbol of a whole country where the poor are getting poorer,” said Bishop Raoul Vera of neighboring Juárez, a delegate to the Catholic reconciliation commission on the crisis. “Everything is in question with this crisis—the conscience of the nation as a whole.”

At an emergency meeting of 700 peasant farmers in a coffee warehouse outside San Cristóbal last week, some speakers referred to the Zapatistas with thinly veiled gratitude. After decades of neglect, Salinas’s government had suddenly dispatched three of its top officials to the warehouse to address their concerns. As Antonio Hernandez Cruz, secretary general of an indigenous growers’ organization, pointed out: “We may not share the guerrillas’ methods, but we admit that they expressed the sentiments of the people. That’s why so many took up guns to fight with them.”

Among the crowd was Antonio Perez Gomez, an Indian farmer who had walked for six hours from Ocosingo to attend the meeting. But after listening to the smoothly tailored federal officials, he remained skeptical. “For 16 years, I’ve been living on the same mountainside and nothing has changed,” he said. Added Sebastian Lopez, who tills barely enough coffee, com and beans on his meagre plot near Ocosingo to feed and clothe his wife and six children: “We’ve been asking for a school for five years. But we’ve never gotten anything from the government until now.” Although the Zapatistas launched their fusillade on the day that NAFTA came into effect, branding it a “death sentence” on the indigenous people—and warning that international agribusiness would gobble up small ancestral plots—to Perez and Lopez, NAFTA is just another mysterious government acronym. That was hardly true for the dozens of officials who descended last week on San Cristóbal to dismiss any suggestion of a link between the uprising and NAFTA. In fact, as government spin doctors fanned out across the tiled courtyard of the Diego de Mazariegos Hotel—site of an impromptu media centre complete with free long-distance telephones—San Cristóbal began to acquire a surreal air.

Drawn by the presence of hundreds of reporters, an assorted cast of what one reporter termed “the usual suspects” dropped in to opine before the cameras and tape recorders. Former U.S. presidential candidate Jerry Brown tagged along with a California human rights delegation. And Ramsay Clark, onetime attorney general under U.S. president Jimmy Carter, showed up to hail the Zapatista uprising as “a cry from the indigenous people—a shot heard around the world.”

The irony of that sudden explosion of international attention was not lost on Bishop Ruiz, who has spent 34 years fighting the suddenly fash-

ionable battle of Chiapas. When he arrived in 1960 at the canary-colored cathedral of San Cristóbal, he found the local Indians, descendants of once-proud Maya who raised great pyramids in the jungles to the east, so scorned by the local Latinos that they were not even allowed on the sidewalks when they brought their com and weavings to town. After years of opposition from the state and federal governments for tending to their legal and physical woes, he faced an even graver threat last fall when the papal nuncio in Mexico City, apparently bowing to government pressure, denounced him for activities unbecoming to his office. And when the uprising began, federal officials were quick to brand him the chief architect of the guerrilla movement. “He’s used to that,” shrugged his assistant, Father Gonzalo Ituarte. “For 34 years, he’s been blamed for everything, so what’s new?”

What was new last week was that, standing in the Diego de Mazariegos courtyard beside Salinas’s hand-picked crisis counsellor, Manuel Camacho Solis, the portly outcast bishop suddenly found himself the darling of a government that realized that the rebels would not negotiate with anyone else. “Don Samuel,” as he is fondly known by his parishioners, did not let the irony pass unnoted. “I feel,” he twinkled behind his horn-rims, “like one of my congregation who remarked after a sermon, ‘I am disoriented by your disorientation.’ ”

Bustling about town, declining requests for interviews and meetings with human rights activists, the bishop clearly saw the Chiapas negotiations as the opportunity not simply to mediate with the mountain rebels, but as the opening he has been waiting for—an opportunity, as Ituarte put it, to “find the real solution to all the radical problems down here: land, housing and justice, justice, justice.”

It was a sense of urgency not lost on Ovide Mercredi, who flew into San Cristóbal late last week with a delegation from Montreal’s Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development. “The loss of credibility internationally is a major fear of the Mexican government,” he said. “But as soon as that disappears, will the treatment of the indigenous people change?” For Mercredi, the voyage to Chiapas was also a chance to show Canadians that, before pointing the finger at Mexico, they should examine their own treatment of natives. “They’re very quick to condemn violence. But for the Canadian people to call for justice in Mexico, they have to call for it at home.”

As he spoke, one of Don Samuel’s charges, a poncho-clad medicine man, was lighting dozens of candles laid out in a geometric pattern on the floor of a darkened stone church in the nearby village of Chamula. In a moving blend of Catholic and Mayan practices, he knelt between rows of dolls in glass cases, each dressed in an elaborate costume signifying a favorite saint, and began the ritual chanting believed necessary for the answering of prayers. “For peace, for Don Samuel,” he said, throwing incense on the flames and taking a periodic swig of Pepsi-Cola—whose bubbles, he explained, would drive the evil spirits away. □