Update on the Zapatistas
|December 31, 2003||Posted by Staff under The Progress Report|
Zapatistas — Hard to Categorize
Autonomy a key test for Mexican rebels 10 years on
We don’t hear much about the Zapatistas in Mexico. That is because they are not easy to dismiss — they are not communists, not capitalists, not drug sellers, not any of the easy categories that the mainstream media like to deal with. Instead, the Zapatistas have created a category of their own.
Here are some excerpts from a recent Reuters news service article.
by Elizabeth Fullerton
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 bulb.
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 obeys.”
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 badly 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.
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.
However, targeted government handouts are corrupting communities and luring rebel sympathisers away. “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 Chiapas.
On the hopful side, 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.
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