Zapatistas Go Back to the Grassroots (Two Stories)
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Zapatistas go back to the grassroots to start again
Ten years after their uprising, the Chiapas rebels are
feeling the chill of neglect
by Jo Tuckman in Morelia
Saturday December 27, 2003
Through a door under a painted rainbow Zapatistas sit in an
office with a computer, a couple of manual typewriters, a
satellite phone and not much else.
"We are satisfied and proud to be working against the
system," says José Luis Hernández, spokesman for the "junta
of good government" recently established in his village of
Mayan peasants. "We are creating a new culture."
A decade after its brief but bloody uprising the largely
indigenous Zapatista Army of National Liberation, led by the
mestizo (mixed race) Subcomandante Marcos, is still talking big.
The difference is that far fewer people are listening.
The rebellion began on New Year's Day 1994, shaking Mexico
to its core and catapulting Marcos and his ragtag army on to
the world stage.
Their rhetoric against centuries of racism and neglect, the
implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement
(Nafta), which was launched he same day, and the party that
had governed Mexico since 1929 struck many chords.
The fighting lasted 12 days, killed a few hundred and turned
the Zapatistas into an international symbol of indigenous
struggle and the fledgling anti-globalisation movement. It
made Marcos the most romanticised Latin American
revolutionary since Ché Guevara.
Ten years on the Zapatistas have been largely forgotten in a
world caught up in more pressing battles, and even in Mexico
Marcos's communiques barely make the newspapers.
President Vicente Fox, whose election in July 2000 brought
democratic government to Mexico, can largely ignore the
conflict. The Zapatistas have little to show for the years
After their initial success putting indigenous demands on
Mexico's political agenda, they have failed to secure the
legal reforms to answer them. Many indigenous villagers
sympathetic to the Zapatistas still live in the abject
poverty that prompted the rebellion, banned by the
leadership from using the schools, clinics and other
development projects lavished on Chiapas state after the
Free trade has continued marching forward, leaving Mexico's
poor farmers floundering in its wake.
But the Zapatistas show no sign of giving up. Their
challenge is to prove that they can not merely survive but
make Mexicans and the world heed their message.
"The movement is tired. It has lasted for too long in
difficult conditions," said Jan de Vos, the Belgian
historian and anthropologist who has written extensively on
"Let's see if Marcos still has enough imagination to give it
Marcos, a former university lecturer who says he set off to
make revolution with a copy of Don Quixote under his arm,
has a much-lauded strategic eye. It was he who timed the
uprising to coincide with the launch of Nafta, and who
reinvented the Zapatistas as an indigenous movement after
recognising that their original rhetoric of socialist
revolution was falling flat.
Now he and other rebel leaders seek to rejuvenate the
movement by forcing forward the vision of indigenous
autonomy, with or without the acquiescence of the authorities.
The strategy was launched in August with the creation of
five regional governments, called juntas, also designed to
tighten the leadership's hold over far-flung Zapatista
communities and rein in control of international donations.
At the junta in Morelia Mr Hernández explains how Zapatista
He says there is no need for jails because lawbreakers are
"persuaded" to "understand" their crimes, and that there is
no resentment at the lack of resources, since Zapatistas
know their "dignity" is worth more than any government
Seven masked comandantes sit silently by: there to provide
guidance to the new civilian authorities.
The Zapatistas' peaceful image has been tainted by cases of
non-conformist families being hounded out of rebel
communities, but their war is still far less associated with
violence than most other armed rebellions. So much so that
the Chiapas conflict has always verged on the surreal.
Never more so than in early 2001 when Marcos and the rest of
the high command mounted a rock star-style tour of Mexico,
designed to rally support for the peace accord signed in
1996 by the previous government and then forgotten in favour
of a huge military deployment, support for anti-rebel
paramilitaries, and lavish spending in indigenous areas.
The collapse of the 71-year-old regime in 2000 raised hopes
for a return to the peace process, but it was not to be.
Parliament eventually passed a watered-down version of the
reform, angering the Zapatistas, who pronounced Mr Fox no
better than the regime he had replaced.
Neither side has set out to rekindle the violence, but
neither is looking for peace.
25 Dec 2003 02:04:00 GMT
FEATURE-Autonomy a key test for Mexican rebels 10 years on
By Elizabeth Fullerton
OVENTIC, Mexico, (Reuters) -- Ten years ago, Mexico's 13
million Indians lived in silent resignation to their
poverty, ignored by the majority of Mexicans and trapped in
a historical stereotype as dumb servants.
Then on January 1, 1994, Zapatista rebels in the southern
state of Chiapas declared war on the federal government in
the name of Indian rights, the same day as Mexico supposedly
joined the first world as the North American Free Trade
Agreement with the United States and Canada went into effect.
A decade later, Mexico's Indians still live in abject
conditions, often with no running water or electricity; they
have the country's highest illiteracy and child mortality
rates. But many feel they have at least discovered a voice.
"Due to the armed uprising, men, women and children have
become more aware of their situation, learned what we live,
what we suffer," said a rebel in the Chiapas town of
Oventic, one of eight masked Tzotzil Indian rebels who
received reporters in a basic wooden hut under a naked light
Although open warfare has not been seen since the initial
uprising, bloody clashes between rebel sympathisers and
paramilitary groups continue and many Chiapas towns are
riven by bitter political and religious differences.
The Mexican government has in effect ceded control of many
towns in the state, and dozens of Zapatista-controlled
villages have refused to accept government aid.
One of the rebels' biggest achievements is the formation of
self-governing communities like Oventic, whose success is
viewed as key to the Zapatistas' survival given the impasse
in peace talks with the government.
Oventic, shrouded in heavy mountain mist, represents a
barebones version of an indigenous utopia.
Indian history is taught in Tzotzil tongue in Oventic's
secondary school and Indian health workers treat residents
in the local clinic, which desperately needs medicine and
has no doctors.
The school has no heating and closes in freezing
temperatures, but both facilities underscore the efforts of
rebel communities to become self-sufficient.
In August, the Zapatistas announced the creation of five
"committees of good government" to rule over some 30
autonomous communities not recognised by the federal government.
Outside Oventic, a sign declares, "You are in Zapatista
rebel territory. Here the people command and the government
Inside, colourful murals of Mexican revolutionary peasant
champion Emiliano Zapata and Zapatista military leader
Subcomandante Marcos adorn public buildings.
President Vicente Fox's election victory in 2000, ending
seven decades of one-party rule, briefly kindled hope of a
resolution to the conflict by withdrawing some troops from
sensitive zones and freeing Zapatista prisoners.
The Zapatistas then marched to the capital and addressed
Congress, urging legislators to approve a bill recognising
the Indians' constitutional right to govern themselves, as
agreed with the previous government.
But Congress passed a diluted version of the reform, the
rebels' most important condition for resuming peace talks.
Hopes for peace receded.
Michael Chamberlin, an activist with the Capise rights group
in Chiapas, said the reform granted Indians a few benefits
but no rights.
"The issue isn't a house, a school, a clinic. It's having
access to this level of decision-making on education,
health, development, which are fundamentally political
conditions," he said.
The Zapatistas, who have female commanders, also preached
greater equality for long-downtrodden Indian women.
"We as women are participating in every area. Now we are
taken into account," said a masked woman on the Oventic
committee. However, women's rights workers say that in the
home, Indian women remain subordinate and domestic violence
is a problem.
The main challenge now for the Zapatistas is to show that
self-determination can work, and Indian communities in other
regions are proposing similar projects.
But with the rebellion no longer a hot issue, charity aid is
drying up as emergencies arise worldwide.
Rights workers say the autonomy project is also threatened
by government handouts and higher infrastructure spending
which are dividing communities and luring rebel sympathisers
"These divisions are taking strength away from the
Zapatistas. It's a very well planned counter-insurgency
policy," said Mercedes Olivera, a women's rights activist in
Xochitl Galvez, the government's top Indian affairs officer,
said recently that she hoped to renew debate on a new Indian
rights reform in Congress next year and resume dialogue with
the rebels in 2005.
In Oventic, the Zapatistas were dismissive.
"There are no signs right now" of government will to talk,
they said. "We're going to keep advancing, advancing. We're
not going to ask them if they like it or not."
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