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By Erica Rodd

When Mexican President Vicente Fox said last Tuesday that the Zapatista movement in the province of Chiapas was “practically a thing of the past,” international media outlets accused him of being out of touch with his country’s problems.

While it is widely agreed that violence in the region is down, Bernardino Ramos, the deputy chair of the Commission of Concord and Pacification, a non-partisan government watchdog in the region, told the Inter Press Service News Agency that Fox’s comments could make a meaningful resolution more difficult.

“There is still a very fragile armed peace (in Chiapas)… and Fox has now closed off the possibility of reactivating the talks with his unfortunate remarks.”

History of Oppression

The poverty and inequality inflicted upon the indigenous people began more than400 years ago when the Spanish took over the already advanced Aztec civilization. Because the indigenous people were concentrated in one area, it was easier to see them as a labour source.

“There is much more of an incentive to exploit them, plunder them, oppress them and physically eliminate them for that reason,” says Judith Ann Teichman, a Mexican Politics professor at the University of Toronto. “If you go to Mexico today, most Mexicans you will meet are mestizo, or mixed-blood people. A tiny proportion is pure European, and the bottom part of the population, about 20 to 40 per cent, depending on how you measure it, is indigenous. So the Indigenous aspect of Mexico is an enormous aspect of what Mexico is.”

The Zapatistas, a band of armed indigenous rebels in Chiapas, rose up against government oppression and took over parts of Chiapas in a violent uprising in 1994. Since then the Zapatistas have been a thorn in the side of the national government in Mexico City.

Fox’s infamous quote

When Vicente Fox was elected in 1999 he infamously promised to fix the problems in Chiapas “in 15 minutes.” He wanted to improve human rights and democracy. But it quickly became apparent that Fox’s 15-minute plan was an utter failure. The plan was to bring in international investments and create a private enterprise, but it met with immediate resistance from NGOs on the grounds that bringing in foreign investment would defame all the indigenous cultures in the south.

Since then, Fox has had no more ideas on addressing the social deficit in Chiapas, and the inequality between the south and the rest of Mexico has been increasing. In fact, there is still an atmosphere of violence between Mexico’s indigenous people and the numerous paramilitary groups that are active in Chiapas.

Teichman was in Chiapas in 2000 and observed this violence for herself.

“I was there with an electoral observation team, and we interviewed all sorts of indigenous communities and spoke to the elders of these communities, and it was very clear to me that these were communities that were absolutely terrorized, and that were going to go and vote [in the election that saw Fox become president] despite the very real dangers of not coming back after they did so.”

In Toronto, a Chiapas ex-patriot spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of what could happen to his remaining family in Chiapas. He confirmed the the inequality and atmosphere of fear that Teichman spoke of. “When I was at school as a kid, I was aware that some of my [indigenous] classmates had to work,” the man said. “They were only six years old.”

Despite being part of the middle class, he empathized with indigenous people and derided government tactics. “The government is trying to break apart Indian communities by giving everything to one community, and nothing to the other [that supports the Zapatistas]…it’s a game of manipulation,” he said.

Beyond such tactics of division, the man said that the National Centre of Investigation and Security, CISEN, a body roughly the equivalent of CSIS in Canada, is trying to infiltrate the Zapatistas and destroy them from the inside. “CISEN is like a fascist regime,” he said.

He added that even going on record at a university newspaper could be picked up by CISEN, and cause problems for his family. Against such formidable forces as CISEN, it is a wonder to many that such a relatively small band of indigenous people have managed to survive.

Marcos as leader

A large part the endurance of the Zapatistas must be attributed to the movement’s leader: Subcomandante Marcos. Marcos’s image-ski-mask, smoking pipe, and over the shoulder shotgun shell holster-are tailor-made for hungry media cameras.

Although little is known about him, it is said that he was a peaceful academic before he came to Chiapas and started living amongst the indigenous people. But once there he realized something had to be done. Throughout the Zapatista revolt, Marcos’s manipulation of the media has helped to ensure both his, and the Zapatista’s, survival.

“He’s very, very good at it,” says Teichman. “That’s why the Zapatistas have been as successful as they have; that’s why the government hasn’t been able to go in and get rid of them.”

Marcos’s influence on the international media is too great for the Mexican government to be able to go in and obliterate him. But the government, which owns parts of the Mexican media, is playing its own media game.

“There have been utterances of attempting to link the Zapatistas with the drug trade,” says Teichman. “That tells you how the government is trying to deal with them in the media.”

Despite accusations of dirty play on the part of the government, the first secretary for multi-lateral political affairs at the Mexican Embassy in Ottawa, Carlos Obrador, said that the government’s policy is to maintain an open dialogue with the Zapatistas and that his government is trying to attain an agreement in a peaceful manner.

“We do not need people with the gun, we need people with new ideas to form an inclusive society,” Obrador says.

As a sign of this desire for inclusion, Obrador points out that Fox’s government does not consider Subcomandante Marcos a terrorist. A considerable point given the post-9/11 climate in which many governments are quick to label national insurgents as terrorists. “He is a social fighter. The changes he is fighting for are valid. They are needed,” Obrador said.

He admits that the indigenous community in Chiapas had been neglected for a long time. Obrador and other observers hope that the current lack of violent clashes in Chiapas will eventually yield fertile ground on which a lasting peace can be established.

Until then the government is choosing its words carefully.

“The political will is there (to resolve the conflict),” Obrador says. “It would be different if no political will was there to resolve things in a peaceful manner.”

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