On tour with Mexico’s rebel road show

Rick Mercier

Seven years after stunning the world with their daring uprising, a delegation of Zapatista rebels came out of hiding in the Lacandon Jungle and traveled to the concrete jungle of Mexico City to try to resolve the simmering conflict in Chiapas. 

Twenty-four Zapatista leaders, including the rebels’ spokesman and military strategist, Subcomandante Marcos, set out on a 12-state, 15-day road trip dubbed Zapatour” by the Mexican media. The rebels hoped to boost popular support for a bill before the Mexican Congress that would grant indigenous communities greater autonomy, fulfilling one of the preconditions they set for resuming peace talks with the government. 

The Zapatistas have always contended that they do not want to seize power, and that their ultimate goal is to disappear. A soldier, and I include myself, is an absurd and irrational man, because he has the capacity to resort to violence to persuade,” Marcos said in a television interview on March 10, the eve of the rebels’ triumphant entry into Mexico City, where they were greeted by 150,000 people in the capital’s massive central square. 

Talks between the rebels and government broke down in 1996 after former President Ernesto Zedillo refused to submit the indigenous rights bill to Congress for a vote. Zedillo’s recalcitrance outraged the Zapatistas because the bill had been crafted by a nonpartisan legislative committee to enshrine in the nation’s constitution an agreement on indigenous rights – known as the San Andres Accords – that the rebels and government negotiators had signed earlier in the year. 

With the election of Vicente Fox as president, many believe it’s time to break the deadlock between the Zapatistas and the government. This is a good moment to link the peace process with the political transformation to democracy,” says Miguel Alvarez, former general secretary of the National Mediation Commission, which helped the rebels and government reach their 1996 agreement. 

Fox, who submitted the indigenous rights bill to Congress immediately after his inauguration in December, arguably has been the biggest beneficiary of the rebel movement. Many observers acknowledge that the Zapatistas and their sympathizers throughout Mexico pressured Zedillo to back electoral reforms that enabled Fox to beat the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had held the presidency for 71 years. 

Many people, including Fox, have compared Zapatour to the big marches of the U.S. civil rights movement. Former San Diego high school teacher Peter Brown, who helped build a junior high school in Oventic, Chiapas, says the Zapatista rebellion is like having the civil rights movement alive and well, with Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown right next to Martin Luther King.” 

For Brown and the nearly 2,000 others who rode in the caravan, traveling with the rebels offered a chance to be part of an historic moment in Mexico. The significance of Zapatour could be understood not just by observing the size of the crowds at caravan stops (in all, nearly a quarter of a million people filled town squares to see and hear the rebel delegation at events held on their way to the capital), but also by listening to the stories of some of the individuals who attended the events. One older indigenous woman from Puebla state started walking from her mountain village at 3 a.m. to get to the town of Tehuacan in time to witness the late-morning arrival of the Zapatistas. An Amuzgo man from the Sierra Madre highlands in Guerrero state walked for nine days with 400 people to be on hand for the rebels’ arrival in Mexico City. 

In spite of the enthusiasm the rebels generated during Zapatour, proponents of the indigenous rights bill face an uphill battle in the Mexican Congress. Since the bill would amend the Mexican Constitution, it must be approved by a two-thirds vote, and so far most of Mexico’s political establishment has balked at the idea of granting self-determination to indigenous communities. 

Opponents say that establishing autonomous communities throughout the country could lead to the balkanization of Mexico. But the Zapatistas have insisted that they do not seek to break away. It’s not true that we want to separate from Mexico,” said the rebels’ Comandanta Susana at a tour stop on the outskirts of Mexico City. What we want is for them to recognize us as the indigenous people we are, but also as Mexicans.” 

Opponents also argue that autonomy would perpetuate the marginalization of women in indigenous communities. However, the bill explicitly mandates gender equality. Referring to this provision of the bill, Comandanta Yolanda said that Zapatista women want the law to be approved because it protects women. The participation of indigenous women will be in the Constitution.” 

A more accurate explanation for the opposition may be that autonomous indigenous communities would have more power to oversee – or block – efforts to exploit valuable natural resources in their territory. This is especially relevant to Chiapas, where, according to geological surveys, large oil and natural gas reserves lie underneath land inhabited by communities that have sided with the Zapatistas.

Given Fox’s strong pro-business beliefs, the Zapatistas remain skeptical about his commitment to a just peace. Marcos recently accused the president of wanting to fast-track a solution that would improve his popularity rating but not ensure the safety of Zapatista communities. At a caravan stop in Hidalgo state, Marcos said Fox wanted to turn the dove of peace into an advertising logo.” In another speech in Hidalgo, Marcos reminded the crowd that a group of pacifist indigenous people in the Chiapas highlands had signed an informal peace agreement with government-backed paramilitaries in 1997, only to be slaughtered two weeks later. Is this the peace you want?” he asked the crowd, which responded with a resounding no. 

The Zapatistas have reason to worry about what may lie ahead. Even if the indigenous rights bill passes and a peace deal is reached, local PRI strongmen, wealthy landowners, paramilitary groups and the military could all fight to prevent demilitarization and autonomy in Chiapas. 

And, as official figures suggest, the general poverty and isolation of Mexico’s indigenous people loom as problems even more difficult to overcome in the long run. According to recently released government data, more than half of the country’s indigenous children are malnourished. More than six in 10 indigenous adults are illiterate, compared with one in 10 adults nationally. And a mere 42 percent of indigenous homes have running water, compared with 84 percent of all homes in Mexico. In the indigenous areas of Chiapas, there is one doctor for every 25,000 residents, a situation comparable to Ghana or Cambodia. 

Yet, even with all the obstacles, some are optimistic that the Zapatistas and the government can achieve a just peace in Chiapas. The coming weeks will not be the last opportunity” for peace, Alvarez says. If the two sides do not find mutually acceptable conditions for an agreement this time around, he adds, they will keep looking for conditions and will try again.”

Rick Mercier is viewpoints editor of the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He can be reached at mercier@​freelancestar.​com.
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