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Chiapas: The Indians’ Prophet

Rebellion in Chiapas: An Historical Reader

by John Womack Jr.
New Press, 372 pp., $17.95 (paper)

Marcos: La genial impostura

by Bertrand De la Grange, by Maité Rico
Mexico City: Editorial Aguilar, 472 pp., 104 pesos

Religión, política y guerrilla en Las Cañadas de la Selva Lacandona

by Maria del Carmen Legorreta Díaz
Mexico City: Editorial Cal y arena, 333 pp., 91 pesos


Four days after the Zapatista uprising on New Year’s Day 1994 in the impoverished state of Chiapas, a reporter interviewed one of its peasant soldiers, a prisoner of the Mexican army, and asked why he was fighting. “I want there to be democracy, no more inequality,” he said. “I am looking for a life worth living, liberation, just like God says.” John Womack Jr. uses these words as the epigraph to his book Rebellion in Chiapas: An Historical Reader.

The speaker was José Pérez Méndez, a Mayan peasant like all the common soldiers of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (the EZLN), and his statement conveys much of the impetus of the rebellion, whose leaders were not Mayan chiapanecos but urban university graduates, like Subcomandante Marcos himself. They had been planning the uprising for ten years, with the original intention of establishing a guerrilla foco (center) in Chiapas, in territory under their control, from which they hoped a revolution could spread. But the rebellion became something quite different: an event and a movement that could go nowhere militarily but have received extraordinary national and international attention. Now, more than five years later, the eventual fate of Zapatismo is still uncertain, and Mexico will enter the year 2000 with the as yet unresolved problem of, in the words of the Mexican intellectual Gabriel Zaid, “the first postmodern guerrilla war.”

The Zapatista soldier José Pérez Méndez had good reason to want democracy. For the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which has governed Mexico uninterruptedly for seventy years, the “backward” state of Chiapas was a secure reserve of votes in national elections, giving the PRI, on average, 97 percent of the ballots. The “electoral victory” was engineered through efficient methods of fraud: vote buying, false ballots substituted for the real thing in areas where the government party felt threatened, and strong pressure from powerful local interests to “vote the right way.” The machinery of the corporate state had links with all levels of power in Chiapas, from the Indian caciques, or political bosses, of small villages and communities all the way up to the dominant class—the owners of the coffee plantations and the cattle ranches, the lumber barons operating in the tropical forests, and other financial interests.

Pérez Méndez was one of many thousands protesting against the extreme social inequality in Chiapas. The state has immense natural resources. As of 1994 it was the primary producer of coffee, cattle, and cacao in Mexico, third in hydroelectric power, fourth in natural gas resources. And yet of its population of 3.7 million as of 1994 (of which 27 percent are Indian, divided among four major groups of ethnic Mayans), 50 percent were undernourished, 75 percent earned less than the Mexican minimum wage (then defined as 1,500 US dollars per year), and 56 percent were illiterate. In Los Altos (“The Heights”) and the Lacandón Forest—centers of Zapatismo—the conditions were even worse, intensified by a population density of seventy-six inhabitants per square kilometer, almost double that of the rest of the state. And in these regions, close to 80 percent of the population is Indian.

Perhaps the greatest justification for Pérez Méndez’s militancy lies in the daily affront to his dignity (Womack’s “a life worth living” is a translation of una vida digna, which can also be rendered as “a life with dignity”). Mexico is a country which for four centuries has undergone the most successful process of ethnic and cultural mixing in the Americas, but the ancient region of the Mayan civilization in Mexico, comprising primarily Chiapas and Yucatan, has been an exception from the very beginning. Racial discrimination, exploitation, and servitude have flourished through the centuries in its haciendas and cities. And they have bred ferocious ethnic wars.

The continued presence of the Zapatista movement may not have lessened the economic inequalities of Chiapas (recent studies are not available), but there is no doubt that it has given the image of Indians (about 10 percent of the total population of Mexico) greater dignity, and brought their problems to the center of national attention. The shock of the Zapatista uprising of 1994 surely helped to intensify the demand for democratic change in the country. Faced with the threat that Mexicans might again be drawn to revolutionary action as they have been in the past, the people who hold power in Mexico, particularly the PRI, for the very first time, opened up a real possibility of democratic electoral competition. At the same time, the political left, represented by the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD)—a coalition of various forces including socialists, former Communists, and dissident defectors from the PRI—could cleanly distance itself from the idea of armed revolution (strongly favored by some sectors of the left since the late 1960s) and take clearer form as a social-democratic party contending politically for power.

The Zapatistas themselves, however, have shown an ambivalent, sometimes hostile, attitude toward electoral democracy, and this has had disastrous results. In the municipal elections of 1995, for instance, they instructed their followers not to take part in the voting, which both proved damaging to the PRD, the party that had shown the most respect for them, and also helped the PRI win elections they might otherwise have lost. In that same year, the Zapatistas chose not to respect the outcome of a citizens’ referendum conducted nationwide by sympathetic groups in which 1.5 million voters asked them to disarm and join the political process. Again, in 1997, they discouraged their followers from voting in the midterm elections, once more delivering many municipalities to the PRI. On the other hand, the Zapatistas have actively promoted the spontaneous establishment of “independent municipalities,” taking over villages controlled by the PRI. This has led to violence on both sides.

In his introduction to Rebellion in Chiapas, a collection of thirty-two documents ranging from colonial arguments and pronouncements dating from the sixteenth century to the latest EZLN communiqués from the jungle, John Womack Jr. explores the complicated, and sometimes paradoxical, unfolding of the Zapatista movement. He credits the government of President Carlos Salinas for its considerable investment in Chiapas before the rebellion, and for having rapidly decreed a cease-fire after the initial outbreak, instead of moving on to crush the movement, an option strongly favored by some of his advisers. Womack shows less sympathy for the policies of the present government of Ernesto Zedillo, whom he blames for delaying, and ultimately blocking, a solution to the conflict, even though both parties signed the agreement of San Andrés in 1996, which called for the withdrawal of most of the Mexican army stationed in Chiapas and the disarming of the Zapatistas.

Womack says (and he is partly right) that Zedillo did not carry out the accords because he felt that a continuing military presence and the mere passage of time would erode the will and the prestige of the Zapatistas. It is also true, and not discussed by Womack, that the provision advocating autonomy for Indian ethnic communities and their “uses and customs” ran into widespread opposition within the government, which feared that if power within the communities were to fall completely into the hands of local Indian leaders and come to serve the prejudices of majorities unused to tolerating dissident opinions, local autonomy would not only “subvert the political order” but also cause real harm to individual rights.

With 40,000 government troops still deployed in the regions involved in the Zapatista uprising, Chiapas is today engaged in a frozen war. But another, more sporadic, civil war continues, on a smaller scale, a war within the Indian population itself, between the Zapatistas’ supporters and their opponents. Some of their opponents are paramilitary groups linked directly to the PRI or to powerful local bosses. But others have political disagreements with the Zapatistas or reflect old resentments or newly inflamed family land disputes.

On December 22, 1997, in the tiny settlement of Acteal, one of these villages divided between factions, an appalling massacre took place. Forty-five defenseless people (twenty-one women, fifteen children, and nine men) were murdered. The dead were all members of Las Abejas, “The Bees,” a citizens’ organization sponsored by the diocese of San Cristóbal and sympathetic to the Zapatistas. The victims were praying at a local shrine when the killers launched their attacks. Two explanations for the slaughter have been offered. According to a communiqué issued by Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista army, it was a clear case of “ethnocide,” of “a state-sponsored crime…approved by the federal and local governments,” as part of the ongoing “low intensity war” against the Indians of Chiapas. The assassins were described as “paramilitary” groups directly armed by the state.

The official government report admits a “limited complicity” of “local police forces” but claims that the crime was committed by other Indians, supporters of the PRI who were bitterly opposed to the local pro-Zapatistas because they had created an “autonomous municipality” in the zone and had taken over its major resource, a bank of sand and gravel used as filler for road construction. The government report describes a civil war, a wave of looting and robberies, violent assaults, killings, and acts of revenge committed by both sides. It sketches a fierce conflict not so different from a number of ancient feuds among the Indians, where the communal system of values can show its negative side in the rejection of dissent, leading frequently to expulsions or even attempts to exterminate the dissenters.

Both versions convey much of the truth. Local government officials, not only the local police, shared far more responsibility for the crime than they admitted. The killers were allowed to organize and arm themselves despite warnings about what they might do. They were paramilitaries, but not federally sponsored gunmen. Like their victims, they were local Indians, working for a political boss connected to the PRI who was seeking revenge for the death of one of his sons in a recent encounter. On December 14, the boss, Jacinto Arias Cruz, former PRI mayor of the town of Chenalhó, was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison for organizing the massacre. Twenty-three of the killers were convicted with him. In the polarized situation of present-day Chiapas, the possibility of similar massacres continues to be very real.

Womack’s collection offers English-speaking readers the opportunity to demystify the conflict by introducing a broad historical perspective. And it corrects an overemphasis on the charismatic Subcomandante Marcos by also concentrating on a person whose work in Chiapas preceded Marcos by twenty-five years, Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Without an understanding of Samuel Ruiz’s long years of evangelical labor, the Zapatista rebellion cannot be adequately comprehended or evaluated. Using sources in the original Spanish, including some of the documents that Womack translates as well as other books and articles and a number of interviews I conducted in Chiapas, I have come to a somewhat different view of Ruiz’s work, though Womack and I agree on the vital importance of the religious factor to what has happened, and is happening, in Chiapas.

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