Mexico's New President Vicente Fox and the Zapatistas
I was talking to a Mexican friend who voted for Vicente Fox in the July elections, and told her I was a Zapatista supporter. She was appalled. "You're not Mexican, you don't know what's going on there. You can't know from spending a few months there. I'm from there and the decisions made by the government affect me and my family. And I'm against the Zapatistas."
"Okay fine," I said. "Now give me a real reason."
Why did I support them, she asked. She didn't know where to begin with her opposition, so that would be easier.
I thought of asking her if I should limit my concern of other people's suffering to my family. I thought of telling her about NAFTA, and neoliberal economics and globalization which turns poor farmers into landless labourers; about government-sponsored paramilitary and military violence and the theft of resources from poor Mexicans to rich North American corporations, about racism and indignities. But we were friends, and this was no lecture. So I said: "Because I support people when they assert their rights against oppressive governments-- in Mexico and anywhere else."
She warned me that I didn't understand what was really happening. Those poor indigenous people were being manipulated. They were pawns in a power game of outside agitators who came along and sold them a story about how they could have a better life if they rebelled.
I didn't buy it. But it gave me pause.
I didn't buy it because it's the same line every defender of authority ever provided when authority's victims assert their dignity. It's a kind of thinking that says: 'I'm all for the poor and oppressed, but opposed to any specific thing they might do to resist'. So yes the racism and dispossession and poverty suffered by indigenous people are appalling. But when they resist, they're always being 'manipulated', they're always 'going about it the wrong way', it's always 'counterproductive'. Yes the violence of the paramilitaries are atrocious-- but no, that doesn't mean people should defend themselves.
I didn't buy it because I don't believe that the careful, patient, organized, clever, eloquent resistance of the zapatistas is the response of a manipulated people.
But why did it give me pause?
Because it made me question my credentials. What claim does a privileged person living in North America have to support a rebellion of people in a country he doesn't live in? When he's safe and doesn't have to suffer the consequences?
It's something solidarity movements grapple with. But it's a question wrongly put. Because the real question is not credentials. Credentials or no, 45 people were murdered in a church in Acteal in 1997 by paramilitaries. Credentials or no, there are 70,000 soldiers occupying the state of Chiapas. There are over 100 political prisoners, mostly supporters of the Zapatistas. There are people suffering poverty, hunger, displacement, dispossession, racism. And our actions here, pressuring our own governments, pressuring corporations from our countries eager to reap the benefits of the exploitation of these people, can help. Our watchfulness can limit the atrocities that elites can get away with. And if, as my friend charged, we don't understand the situation, shouldn't we try to find out? Shouldn't we try to learn what's happening, where our work could make a difference, where our struggles overlap, where we can learn from the creative resistance of others? I think so.
Operating on that assumption, let me now provide an update on what is going on in Chiapas.
On December 3, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) held a press conference in the autonomous municipality of La Realidad. There they announced their intention to go to Mexico City in February to address the national government, to demand recognition of their rights as indigenous people and to argue on behalf of the peace initiative proposed in 1996 (by Cocopa). They announced their desire to move to a more 'open politics'. They provided a series of signals which the government could provide to demonstrate a willingness to dialogue. The most important of these signals is the demilitarization of the state. 'Withdraw the troops', they asked the new president, 'and you can be assured of a positive response from us.'
The intention to move to 'open politics' comes after the official change of power on December 1 from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the state party which had ruled Mexico for 71 years, to the National Action Party (PAN) and its new President Vicente Fox. The PAN is a right-wing party. In Guanajuato state, a PAN government made abortion illegal in August. Its economics are the economics of privatization and corporate power. And while President Fox emphasized during his campaign that he would choose dialogue, that he would retire the troops (sometimes he said retire-- other times he said reposition or reorient) the Zapatistas reminded him in an open letter that his predecessor Zedillo made similar promises before ordering massive military offenses.
The Zapatistas emphasized that they would continue to resist the neoliberal economic policies, the dispossession, and the lack of recognition of indigenous rights. The only question was whether there was now sufficient political space for their resistance to be open, or whether they would have to continue as an armed group, hiding in the jungle.
They will be heading to Mexico City in February, unarmed, with a civilian mobilization, in the hope that that space is now open.
Until then, the new administration of Vicente Fox will have the chance to show whether such hopes are justified-- it will have the chance to begin the demilitarization of the state, the chance to begin the end of the low-intensity war in Chiapas.
ZNet's Chiapas pages are: http://www.zmag.org/chiapas1/index.htm
The open letter to Fox is at: http://www.zmag.org/Chiapas1/tofoxdec3.htm