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 and 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…

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