Issue 172 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

When protest rises

Women rebels: a matter of life and death
Women rebels: a matter of life and death

The uprising by the Zapatista National Liberation Army in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas on 1 January seemed to catch almost everyone by surprise. After all, with 1994 came the start of a new era in Mexican history through its entry into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and Canada. The money was supposed to come rolling in even faster than it has during the past six years of President Carlos Salinas' free market policies.

But the middle class intellectuals, the politicians and the wealthy landowners have failed to see the obvious. They have been too busy spending Mexico's oil wealth and the income from the huge sale of state industries on trips to Miami and the latest in electronic gadgetry. But to anyone who bothers to look it is obvious that things have hardly changed in states such as Chiapas since the Spanish conquest.

Indigenous peasants continue to eke a living from tiny plots of land halfway up steep mountain sides. They continue to suffer discrimination and human rights abuses at the hands of rich landowners, or caciques, who all have brothers, uncles and cousins filling the seats of power at local and national level and act more or less with impunity. Local police forces are little more than private security firms for the local boss and much of the money sent from abroad or from Mexico City to alleviate poverty ends up in the pockets of the already rich.

The resentment among the passive peasants of Chiapas has been building up for years. Some rebels, who take their group's name from Emiliano Zapata--a hero of the 1910 Mexican revolution--said they had been training for up to ten years in the remote mountains which border Guatemala.

Their rustic life, tending their pigs and donkeys, selling produce at picturesque markets and wearing colourful traditional clothes, brings tourists to the area in their thousands. But the main city in the region, San Cristobal de las Casas, is populated mostly by mestizos--those of mixed Indian and European blood--or ageing hippies from the United States and Europe who run vegetarian restaurants. The Indians are reduced to haggling with the tourists, whose cameras are worth a year's wage, over the price of artefacts which it has taken them days to make.

Almost 60 percent of the population of Chiapas earn less than the minimum wage in Mexico--a paltry US$10 a day. Rates of unemployment, illiteracy and child mortality are among the worst in Mexico. The World Bank's latest report says that 60 percent of Mexico's wealth is concentrated in the hands of 20 percent of the population.

To make matters worse the Mexican government, as part of its efforts to boost NAFTA in the United States, is withdrawing support for corn and coffee--both major crops in Chiapas. The rebels called NAFTA a death sentence for the Indian people.

The government has insisted that these poor peasants could not possibly understand the intricacies of an international trade agreement and must have been influenced by outside forces. Guerrilla movements from Guatemala, El Salvador and Peru have all been mentioned. Whether the government's claim is true is still not clear but it is quite obvious that these 'poor peasant farmers' understand perfectly well what is for them a matter of life and death.

The Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes wrote,

The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as PRI, has been in power in Mexico continuously for more than 60 years. It buys votes, it organises fraudulent elections, it threatens and jails the opposition and sometimes it kills. The system suits the local landowners, the local politicians and the local police force. Salinas has introduced a clever scheme known as the Solidarity programme in which government ministers, and sometimes the president himself, will fly into opposition strongholds to shake hands, kiss babies and leave behind vast sums of money for new schools, drainage systems or housing. The government calls it a scheme to alleviate poverty, others call it a way to buy votes.

It is hard to see the opposition triumphing in this August's elections. The government, now it has joined the international elite with NAFTA, has promised political change. Even if it means what it says, change would not suit the local landowners who are quite happy with the way things are and it is not clear how much influence Mexico City politicians have over the regions. Support for the Zapatista rebels has emerged in other parts of Mexico. There have been small demonstrations, and graffiti praising the rebels has appeared on walls throughout the country. Bombs have gone off in Mexico City and the tourist hotspot, Acapulco.

The Mexican government will be keen to contain the crisis in Chiapas and limit the damage to its international image. But poverty and discrimination are suffered throughout Mexico. The Zapatista uprising has certainly warned those wealthy 20 percent about the growing discontent. Whether they heed that warning and ensure that some of the country's vast wealth is shared out is, however, extremely unlikely.
Daniel Ricca


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