Quiet revolution with worldwide appeal

Homage to Chiapas
December 15, 2000

Reading through the annals of Mexican history, you could be forgiven for believing that Mexican Indians have a cultural disposition towards rebellion and conflict. This, however, would trivialise their circumstances and degrade these proud and resilient people. In Homage to Chiapas , Bill Weinberg takes us on an emotive journey through the historical background that has resulted in the present state of conflict affecting large parts of Mexico. The author, an award-winning North American journalist, has wide-ranging experience and a thorough understanding of indigenous struggles in Mexico and Central America.

Contrary to popular belief, the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN) did not trigger indigenous revolutionary movements across Mexico in 1994. The EZLN is, in fact, one of the latest in a long line of attempts to change the marginalisation of Mexico's indigenous communities. It was this alienation, among other factors, that 90 years ago led Emiliano Zapata (after whom the EZLN takes its name) to take up arms and begin the Mexican revolution in 1910. Zapata became the champion of agrarianism. Fighting under the slogan, " Tierra y Libertad " (Land and Freedom), he had an ideology with one simple principle, that he who works the land should own it. The issue has not been resolved today. Indigenous and agrarian conflicts in Mexico are nothing new.

What is new is the international interest in this conflict. The Zapatistas have supporters throughout the world. Why this is so is open to debate. Some believe that it is because Chiapas is the best platform to launch an offensive against the threats of globalisation and neo-liberalism. Others are more cynical and believe that many foreign governments are trying to get a piece of the action, hoping to benefit eventually from whatever outcome there will be in the area. For Chiapas, says Weinberg, is paradoxically the richest and the poorest state in Mexico. It is the richest in hydroelectric power and mineral resources, including oil, but it has negligible infrastructure and its vulnerable population suffers from a chronic lack of access to education and health - factors that have forced the Maya inhabitants, in the case of the Zapatistas, to take up arms.

As Subcomandante Marcos, the public face of the movement, declared quite recently:"The door was not opened when we knocked; we had to kick it and burn it down simply to start talking." But the Zapatistas are quite unique among revolutionary movements. Weinberg explains that violent struggle is not part of their agenda. Instead, they have diffused their grievances and aims throughout the world via the worldwide web. They have organised cultural events, such as conferences, concerts and even football matches. Most of these are held in the jungle and are attended by thousands of people. In the same way that Zapata was a guerrilla fighter who never directly engaged the federal army, the EZLN avoids direct confrontation too. Instead, it launches social and cultural offensives.

A couple of years ago, on a rainy night and under somewhat bizarre circumstances, I befriended a military policeman who had deserted the federal army only days before. We met in the highland town of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, stage for the unforgettable night of January 1 1994, when hundreds of masked men and women took over the town and proclaimed the birth of the EZLN. I asked the man if he thought the Maya had a point. He said that they had, adding that they had been "screwed too many times by those at the top". After talking for several hours, I asked him the likely outcome of a direct armed confrontation between the army and the Zapatistas. "They (the Zapatistas) wouldn't stand a chance," he said with a strange twist of satisfaction. "We have Montes Azules (the rebel area) surrounded; we know where they have their training camps, their supply routes, their weapons dumps, we know everything about them, including where Marcos is - we know that too!" In that case, why had the army not crushed the movement? "That's because (former) President Zedillo is a wise man and is waiting for the right time," he said. I asked when that time would arrive. "Who knows?" he replied.

Weinberg's book answers some of the questions that the deserter could not. The army could certainly have attacked by now. Military sales to Mexico by the United States and other governments jumped from $4.2 million (Pounds 2.9 million) in 1996 to $28 million in 1997. This was besides outright donations by the Pentagon and at least $12 million in sales by private US arms companies. Mexico is, therefore, the third largest purchaser of arms in Latin America, behind Colombia and Venezuela. A peculiar situation for a country that has a policy of non-intervention written into its constitution.

The stand-off with the Zapatistas has persisted for more than five years. Despite the escalating militarisation and a virtual state of siege, they have not been goaded into using their guns and handing over the moral high ground to the government. Thus the army, although ever present and intimidating, is still bound by certain restraints. So, far from Zedillo's wisdom, it has been the political cunning of the Zapatistas that has kept the level of bloodshed mercifully low. Nevertheless, in Chiapas, more than 12,000 people have been displaced by paramilitary violence since 1994.

The book does not make the Zapatistas the entire focus of the study. Weinberg places them in the larger political and social context, not only of Mexico but also of Mexican-American relations. The author demonstrates that what happens at the northern border, especially since the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), has consequences that reverberate in the forests of the Mexican southeast.

Some remarkable research by Weinberg on the conditions of remote Indian communities in the drug-producing northern states of Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa exposes the farce that is the anti-drug war on both sides of the border. His figures illustrate the point. Some 200 grams of amapola (opium), the yearly yield from a small patch, nets the Indian grower 1,600 pesos (Pounds 117). Mota (cannabis) fetches 200 pesos a kilo; a small patch produces between 15 and 20 kilos a year. It is not much, but it is more profitable than growing maize, beans and squash. This is how Indians must survive in the narco-economy. Meanwhile, their land is degraded by erosion from deforestation, or stolen by corrupt civil servants and landowners. US anti-drug aid to Mexico, including helicopters and equipment, amounts to $100 million annually. As a Tarahumara Indian suggested to Weinberg, if this money were given to the affected Indians, the drug problem would be eradicated altogether.

The helicopters given by the Americans are, of course, being used in the south, where the guerrillas have emerged. According to the Mexican government's information, the northern Chihuahua-Durango-Sinaloa triangle has 24,000 hectares involved in drug production, while the five central and southern states, Jalisco, Michoacan, Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas, have only 8,000 hectares producing drugs. Yet, as the author points out, there are three times as many police and army helicopters assigned to these latter states. In southern Mexico, "the anti-drug war disguises counter-insurgency".

Meanwhile, up on the northern border in the age of Nafta, visions of 2,000-mile walls along the border are a favourite dream of US Republicans, along with the notion that the illegal immigrants from down south are the cause of the economic pains of Nafta. In reality, of course, Weinberg notes, it is industrial and manufacturing jobs that head south under the Nafta regime, with corporations eager to pay wages in the forever-devaluing Mexican peso. The migrants crossing the Rio Bravo into the US, "end up washing plates or picking oranges in pesticide-drenched plantations. Federal sanctions against employers for hiring illegal workers drive wages to pitifully low levels. This dirt-cheap labour floats California's economy."

Weinberg goes further on the subject of Nafta. In 1997, the US chamber of commerce called the first three years of the treaty "a huge success". The chamber's director, David Hirschmann, said: "Clearly, the silver lining in Mexico's darkest hour has been the free trade agreement." This "silver lining" has cost 2 million jobs in Mexico, eliminated 28,000 small businesses and driven 8 million Mexicans into poverty.

On December 1, Mexico got a new president, Vicente Fox, a former chief executive of Coca-Cola in Mexico. For the first time since the 1920s, the opposition party has taken power. Most Mexicans feel hope and anxiety in equal measures. Fox has the unenviable task of trying to find a positive solution to the stand-off in the south of the country, while dealing with the US-led drive for globalisation. The Zapatistas are anathema to the globalisers, and vice versa. (In the first few days of his presidency, Fox has already begun to withdraw the army from Chiapas. Maybe the situation is really starting to improve.)

Homage to Chiapas is hard to put down. It is written with uncommon clarity, but without trivialising the complexity of the problem. The historical background is well informed and relevant. The link between the effects of Nafta and the popular movements in the south is expressed eloquently and clearly. The first-hand accounts of Weinberg's interviewees are moving testimony of a perilous present and an uncertain future. This study will interest all those who care about the consequences of globalisation, not only among the indigenous groups of the Americas, but among disempowered people everywhere.

Alan G. Robinson is an archaeologist born in Mexico who divides his time between Mexico and Britain.

Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico

Author - Bill Weinberg
ISBN - 1 85984 719 6
Publisher - Verso
Price - £20.00
Pages - 456

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