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Uprising in Chiapas: reforms prompted by rebellion

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The uprising of the EZLN (Zapatistas) in Mexico caught the government off guard. Stuart Corby reports.

In the early hours of New Year’s Day a poorly equipped guerrilla force of 800 peasants and indians took over several towns in the Mexican region of Chiapas. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) demanded “work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace”.

They demanded agrarian revolution, confronting the major barriers to progress in Chiapas—the latifundists (big landowners) and the caciques (political elite). The EZLN have also demanded rights for women and an end to discrimination and racism. They indicted the Salinas government for perpetrating policies of genocide against the indigenous people by signing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), calling it a “death sentence”. They also called for all workers in foreign owned Mexican plants be paid the same wages and benefits as workers in the home country of the foreign company.

The rebellion took the regime of President Carlos Salinas Gotari completely off guard. Only on 3 January did the Mexican military launch a ground and air offensive to recapture towns that had been taken by the EZLN. Troops sealed off the region preventing the press from witnessing how they terrorised the peasants. The initial body count of 80 killed in the first days was later substantially rounded up into the hundreds as it was learned that the army had taken many peasants from their houses and summarily murdered them. After the Mexican army had swept through Ocosingo, Las Margaritas and Altamirano the dead were found with their hands tied behind their backs and signs of torture.

Still they failed to crush the EZLN. The Zapatistas merely dissolved into the mountains and the mass of peasants stood firm against the repression. Peasant, indigenous and workers’ organisations declared their solidarity with the EZLN, first among the people of Chiapas, and then rapidly throughout Mexico. In the Chiapas rebellion millions saw a struggle to unite around and began to press for national political reforms.

Salinas was forced to negotiate his way out of the crisis. He cannot afford a protracted guerrilla war like that of El Salvador or Guatemala. It would threaten the inward investment promised as a result of signing NAFTA. More pressing, Salinas and his party, the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), in power for more than 60 years, face an election on 21 August.

The PRI only won the presidential elections of 1988 as a result of widespread election rigging. If the Chiapas rebellion ignites a more generalised social and political movement against the government then even the PRI may need more than vote-rigging to stay in power.

The rebellion clearly has very deep roots in Chiapas. Peasants and workers have been subject to decades, even centuries, of the most brutal exploitation and oppression. Not until 1842 was Chiapas forcibly integrated into the State of Mexico. The region borders Guatemala with which it still has close ties. More than 30% of Chiapas’ population of 3 million are indigenous. At least nine ethnic indian groups are recognised, eleven including the 80,000 Guatemalan peasants who sought refuge there from the genocidal actions of the Guatemalan government.

The Chiapas is a symbol for every betrayal of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20) ever presided over by the PRI. Malnutrition is rife. The region is incredibly rich in mineral and energy resources yet Chiapas remains the poorest region in Mexico. It produces electricity for the whole of Mexico. There are enormous reserves of oil particularly in the Lacandona jungle where the EZLN is said to have been founded. One of the major industries is logging, an industry controlled by large private concerns which rapidly denude the forests.

In the last decade malnutrition related illnesses rose more than sixfold. Some 77% of children were found to be totally malnourished. In education things are no better. More than 30% of Chiapanecans over the age of 15 are totally illiterate and in 1990 sixty two percent of the registered population under 15 had not completed their primary education. Housing for the vast majority is primitive. Over 70% of homes in Chiapas receive no electricity and 57% of houses have no running water, yet it is through damming the water that much of Mexico’s electricity is produced.

Agriculture employs most people in Chiapas. This region alone produces 30% of the national agricultural surplus. But it is the contradiction between the wealth of the land and the lack of land held by the mass of the peasants that forms the mainspring of the Chiapas revolt.

Most of the region’s land is divided into latifundio, the great estates. The coffee and banana plantations are concentrated into the hands of less than 20 latifundists. The majority of indigenous and immigrant peasants, however, either eke out a poor living in the mountains or on small parcels of land. Such farming remains largely subsistence. The only way they are able to increase their earnings is by working for the latifundists. The poverty that is caused by the miserable wages the latifundists pay is hard to match. Some 80% of Chiapaneco families receive less than $25 a month. Often peasant and immigrant workers are not paid at all.

The latifundistas control every level of Chiapaneco society, primarily through their domination of the local PRI apparatus. They use their wealth to buy the acquiescence of local political institutions, the police and the military. When an indigenous person or a peasant takes out a grievance with the local courts against a landowner they are never surprised to find themselves in prison, fitted up for some petty crime. In this way the landowners have deflected the intended effect of the many legal reforms that were supposed to chip away at their power.

The landowners have also consolidated their power through the violent rule of their private guards. Any peasants who resisted the exploitation and injustices of the system were brutalised by the goons of the landowners and often murdered. Such practices persist under the cover of the legal apparatus of the local political regime.

In addition to the political apparatus and repression the landowners have used the ethnic diversity of the Chiapanecos to their own benefit. One group is set against another through preferential treatment of one over the other.

In addition to the many different indigenous groups centuries of immigration have brought more groups. Following the logging industry came many poor workers in search of employment in the jungle.

Many peasants were forced to seek new land as a result of being chased off estates in other regions. A lot were even forcibly transported. This century has seen more migration than ever. Since the 1940s the majority arrived as a result of the defeat of the agrarian revolution and the subsequent backlash from the landowners.

The development of caciquismo was an essential weapon for the landowners. By encouraging and supporting ruthless community leaders, those who were prepared to crush their own people for a share of some crumbs from the landowners table, the landowners maintained their hegemony in the face of fierce peasant resistance. A prime example is the way they employed thousands of the Guatemalan refugees at even less rates than they were paying the Chiapanecos.

The latifundists and caciques benefited even more from the Salinista agrarian counter-revolution after 1988. The government set out to break up the ejidos, the communal lands traditionally farmed by the middle and poor peasants.

This land was the greatest legacy of the Mexican Revolution and the later wave of agrarian reform in the 1930s. As a result of the loss of these lands farming has become unviable for many of these peasants forcing them to sell up their own small parcels (often indebted) to the latifundists.

NAFTA was a further blow. It opened up Mexico’s markets to North American agro-industry. It makes maize—the predominant surplus of the poor Chiapas peasant—unsellable against foreign competition in local markets. Sugar and coffee were already hard hit by the collapse in global market prices.

For the peasants of Chiapas it meant the closure of sugar-processing plants and the collapse of many sectors of agriculture. The aggressive cuts in state expenditure, yet another weapon in the neo-liberal armoury, have destroyed what little welfare provision existed.

The uprising is not an isolated event in the struggle against exploitation and oppression in Chiapas. There is a long history of peasant and indigenous struggle in the region. The organisation of the Indian Congress in San Cristobal de las Casas in 1974 was an important event in developing solidarity between the four ethnic groups that attended, around claims for land, access to business, better education and health.

From the beginning of the seventies right up to today many different independent organisations of struggle have emerged, including trade unions that organise agricultural workers and workers in related industries. However, to date none of these organisations have been able to unify a significant majority of either the peasants, workers or indians, to smash the power of the caciques and the latifundists. Many of these organisations are characterised by corruption. Some organisations even have strong links with the PRI.

In part this explains why the EZLN was formed, in desperation at the lack of progress in securing the peasants’ and indians’ demands by other methods. In bringing the PRI to the negotiating table it at first sight seems to have justified a turn to guerrillaism. But this would be a mistaken conclusion.

True, a revolutionary action, breaking with the corrupt institutions of the Mexican state (including many bought and sold “workers’ leaders”) allied to impeccable timing has brought forth the promise of reforms.

But the danger is that the reforms offered in early March to defuse the rebellion will demobilise the armed struggle and leave little in its place by way of self-organisation. The reforms offered include clinic construction, a road building programme, land reform and a new state penal code.

Each reform is proof of decades of injustice and inequality. But with the elections out of the way in August what hope is there that the reforms will be implemented, what prospects that the promise of a new armed rebellion will force the new government to make further concessions?

Armed insurrection is a tactic for revolutionaries. It comes at the end of the broadest political and social mobilisation of the oppressed masses. If the EZLN bury themselves in the jungle and cut themselves off from the day to day struggle of workers and peasants they will condemn themselves to a future similar to that of the FMLN, the Senderistas, the ELN, FARC and EPL of Colombia.

They will prove no match for the Mexican army, determined on liquidation, and they will find that they have not built up the strong self-organisation of the peasants in whose name they speak. The key task is to build really strong, politically independent worker and peasant organisations armed with a revolutionary social programme.

A revolutionary programme for Chiapas must address the immediate problems of the oppressed; land hunger, social needs, indigenous rights. But one pressing question is the army and police which must immediately be forced to withdraw from the region.

Instead of dedicated bands of guerrillas training in the mountains there is an urgent need for their experience to be used to train working peasants in the arts of self-defence against the actions of biased police and private goons of the latifundists.

Meanwhile, the corrupt State and local governments must be closed and free elections organised immediately. All the election procedures must be open to the scrutiny of workers’, peasants’ and indian councils.

To resolve the central economic problems, the land question, poverty and unemployment, peasants and workers must take control over their own destiny. No faith can be put in the short term opportunistic promises of the PRI, which are likely to be forgotten the day after they are re-elected.

Now is the moment to break the hold of the caciques over the local administration.

New elections for regional assemblies, supervised by peasants’ and workers’ organisations. The EZLN wrongly refused to press for the local corrupt officials to be brought to justice—all those with blood on their hands must be brought to account before peasant and worker tribunals.

The peasants must not wait for PRI promises on a fairer land distribution to be made good. They should take the land for themselves by seizing the latifundios and democratically redistributing under the control of peasants’ and workers’ councils.

All privatised industries must be taken over by the State and control of the factories and places of work placed in the hands of the workers.

Peasants and workers must demand that any increased central funding to provide for a better infrastructure should be placed under the control of peasant, worker and indian councils. The public works must include the provision of fresh running water and electricity for every household in Chiapas, the building of schools, hospitals and clinics.

Training of staff for the new installations must be a priority, funds to be raised from levies on all the super-profits of the logging and oil companies and other industries.

The Salinas government have said they will address the needs of the indigenous people by funding a local radio station and appointing an attorney general for the defence of indian rights.

While these are cosmetic reforms there is no evidence that the EZLN has demanded self-determination for any of the people of Chiapas.

In spite of the fact that the majority of the EZLN are Tzotziles, Tzeltales or Tojolabales there has been no demand for the independence by these peoples.

On the contrary, the EZLN correctly recognised the need to integrate the struggle of the Chiapas peoples into the general struggle of the oppressed masses throughout Mexico.

The Chiapas rebellion is a blow to all those defeatists in Latin America who said that direction action outside the framework of the constitution is doomed to failure. It rebuts those who preached that neo-liberalism cannot be pushed off its chosen course.

If by putting the PRI into retreat the Chiapas peasants and workers can inspire all exploited Mexicans to remove the agents of the PRI in their ranks and rebuild strong lasting organisations of struggle then this will prove to be the EZLN’s enduring legacy.

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