Fox and the Zapatistas: Clearing the Path to Peace
The Zapatistas, Subcomandante Marcos in the lead, are coming to Mexico City to negotiate indigenous rights. They are coming with their masks and with all their experience
What steps led to this event?
Between his victory in Mexico’s July 2000 elections and his inauguration on December 1, President-elect Vicente Fox was wont to define his incoming administration as a "business" government. It caused some dismay since bringing the logic of business management to the work of governing the country is no way to solve its serious social and political problems, which require a different vision and different methods. Chiapas is one of these problems.
Fox’s position and promisesOn a trip through Europe shortly before taking office, Fox ran into demonstrators everywhere he went demanding a solution to the problem in Chiapas. There was not a single European country on his itinerary in which the issue was not raised by governments and civil society alike. Fox made his position clear: he would order the troops’ gradual withdrawal from the conflict zone, and expected in exchange that the Zapatista Army would agree to talks.
The president of France’s National Assembly advised him that the European Union was watching the Chiapas situation closely. Germany’s Foreign Secretary expressed deep interest in the problem and full support for a solution to the conflict. In Brussels, Fox announced that he would send a bill to Mexico’s Congress based on the San Andrés Accords. When he spoke in New York with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, Fox reiterated his determination to reach agreements in Chiapas as soon as possible and again promised that a bill based on the San Andrés Accords would be one of his government’s first actions. In his speech closing the World Conference Against Racism, Fox admitted to the indigenous representatives of people from several continents that Mexico’s indigenous peoples have been asking for something very basic long denied them: a country in which they are respected and can live freely and with dignity. He acknowledged that their objective is to gain recognition of their right to be different, with their own rules of coexistence and even of government, their own cultural traditions and practices. Fox promised to take actions to reverse the exclusion, neglect and marginalizing of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, respecting their dignity, culture and customs, and their environment.
Meanwhile, the National Indigenous Council (CNI), a network of some 150 indigenous organizations in Mexico, insisted that the government fulfill the San Andrés Accords. It demanded that the country’s indigenous groups be recognized as subjects of law throughout the state reform process, and that the document drafted several years ago by the legislature’s Commission on Harmony and Pacification (COCOPA) on indigenous rights and cultures be approved as law. The CNI feared that the new government might try to simulate consultation by talking with indigenous organizations that are not genuinely representative.
Paramilitaries: While Fox was making declarations about the Chiapas conflict, the Zapatistas chose to remain silent. Those in power interpreted this as a product of internal power struggles within the Zapatista movement, and speculated on possible splits that might emerge in response to the country’s new political panorama.
A dangerous legacy
At the end of October, the Attorney General’s Office detained leaders of one of the most active paramilitary groups in Chiapas. The Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center stated that, although this was a positive step, the Attorney General had not investigated those responsible for creating the groups or those who masterminded the Acteal massacre. The Attorney General’s Office made arms searches among the paramilitary groups in November, but in a slow and clumsy way—on purpose, it appears. The searches were thus not only fruitless but also fanned tension in the region. Later, several indigenous communities charged that both military and paramilitary groups were harassing them. COCOPA expressed fears that 29 paramilitary groups made up of Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) activists were getting out of control. Zedillo’s government, which created the paramilitary groups, made a pretense of trying to dismantle them before leaving office, but these actions were also fruitless and the paramilitary groups remain as a dangerous legacy for the new administration.
Nongovernmental human rights organizations, anticipating that Fox might push for a general amnesty in Chiapas, criticized any such initiative on the grounds that the armed civilian groups responsible for so much violence—including the Acteal massacre and massive displacements of indigenous populations—would continue to enjoy impunity. This would instill even greater distrust among the people who have been affected by the paramilitary groups.
Marcos breaks his silenceOn November 20, a march of indigenous people led by the groups known as "Las Hormigas" and "Las Abejas"—the latter made up of people from Acteal—reached Veracruz, after passing through Chiapas and Oaxaca on a pilgrimage to the Basilica of Guadalupe. "We carry flags of peace. We have been displaced, but come with neither hatred nor a desire for revenge, simply the prayers of the people who sent us," they said. They asked that the paramilitary groups be disbanded, the army be withdrawn from their communities, the San Andrés Accords be fulfilled, and the conditions be established that will permit the displaced to return to a dignified life. They also denounced the official lies of the outgoing Zedillo government.
On November 29, the paramilitary bands regrouped and threatened the Zapatista grassroots. That was the day Marcos broke his silence. He invited the media to a press conference to December 2 to hear him present the Zapatista’s posture toward the Fox government. In his presentation that day, Marcos accused Zedillo of having chosen war instead of dialogue, blamed him for the Acteal massacre and directly asked him, "Why did you order the assassination of children?" He added that Zedillo’s government had represented one long nightmare for millions of marginalized and impoverished Mexicans, while facilitating the brutal, illicit enrichment of a few.
COCOPA had been reactivated soon after the July elections, with new members drawn from the legislators who would take office in September. But Fox’s National Action Party (PAN) announced that it would modify COCOPA’s proposed legislation, supposedly to "modernize" it. The PAN argued that indigenous communities should not be seen as exceptional territories with supra-constitutional modalities—a position that goes against the grain of the San Andrés Accords. Fox, apparently recognizing this, announced in his inaugural address on December 1 that he would send the bill on indigenous rights and cultures drafted by COCOPA to Congress on the 5th. He also ordered the withdrawal from Chiapas of 53 army checkpoint units.
Starting with a clean slatePAN representative Luis H. Alvarez, who had participated in COCOPA for some time, was named the governmental peace commissioner for Chiapas. He described the Zapatistas’ silence as understandable since they had been victims of so much deceit, and agreed that the army had to withdraw to ensure peace. Fox and Alvarez proposed opening the dialogue with actions. Meanwhile, two thousand Zapatistas marched in Chiapas to demand respect for the San Andrés Accords.
On December 2, the EZLN agreed to talk, but only under certain conditions. Marcos demanded the demilitarization of seven zones (the army has 259 posts in Chiapas), the release of Zapatista prisoners, and incorporation of the San Andrés Accords into the Constitution, and called on society to mobilize so that these conditions would be met. He announced that he and 23 other Zapatistas would visit Mexico City in February 2001. Marcos criticized Fox’s proposals as superficial, since the indigenous people’s problems will not be solved with "vocho, tele y changarro" (a cheap car, a television and a small business). At the same time, however, he applauded Alvarez’s nomination as peace commissioner and said that Fox was starting with a clean slate, since the new President had not attacked the Zapatistas. Fox replied that he would humanize the armed forces and seek to comply with the Zapatista conditions for renewing talks.
One positive signEight days after Fox replaced the PRI in the National Palace, Pablo Salazar, who won the elections in the state of Chiapas running as an opposition coalition candidate, turned the PRI out of the governor’s mansion in that state. Salazar expressed his opinion that all of the EZLN’s demands were attainable and announced that the cases of prisoners who could be identified as Zapatistas would be reviewed. He also dismantled the state re-municipalization commission, which the outgoing governor had set up as part of his counterinsurgency strategy.
But not everything was going as Fox had announced. PAN and PRI representatives in Congress declared that they would not accept the initiative drawn up by COCOPA and embraced by Fox. Peace in Chiapas could yet be stalled in Congress.
Marcos spoke again. He recognized the work done between 1994 and 2000 by Amado Avendaño, the "governor in rebellion" in Chiapas, who had run for the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and lost to PRI fraud. He repeated the Zapatistas’ willingness to resume talks and supported the pilgrimage by indigenous peoples from ten states to the Basilica of Guadalupe, which they reached on December 9, after two months on the road.
The army withdrew from its encampment in Amador Hernández, one of the points demanded by the EZLN. People took this as a positive sign, but noted that there would be no peace as long the other signs of belligerence left by the previous government remained.
Three peace signsSeventeen Zapatista prisoners were released in Chiapas at the end of December, and on January 1, the Zapatistas commemorated the seventh anniversary of its emergence in public. It called on society to accompany it to Mexico City in February to convince congressional representatives and senators of the justice contained within the constitutional recognition of indigenous rights and cultures. When unarmed Zapatistas advanced on the army post in Jonalchoj, the army retreated to avoid incidents and the President then ordered it to withdraw entirely from the area. Some members of Congress felt that the army had been humiliated, but Fox replied that there was no affront in this case since the army’s retreat reflected its desire for peace.
The EZLN announced it would create a Zapatista Information Center, and recalled that it had asked the government to take three minimal steps as a prerequisite to talks. With respect to the first of these, the withdrawal of federal troops from seven posts in the conflict zone, the army had withdrawn from only two. Regarding the freeing of all Zapatista prisoners, 17 had been freed but many more remained in jail. And the constitutional recognition of indigenous rights and culture in accord with COCOPA’s bill had not yet been ensured.
Fox replied that the Zapatistas had no need to come to Mexico City to make their demands, but that if they did, they should come without weapons or masks. Marcos replied that they would leave Chiapas on February 25 and travel through ten states before arriving in Mexico City on March 6. He added that they would wear their masks.
In January, the government announced that it had suspended the requirement obliging foreigners who wished to visit Chiapas to obtain a special permit. This was another sign of its openness to talks, as was its decision to put an end to the army’s practice of buzzing Zapatista positions in its planes.
On January 10, the army pulled out of Cuxuljá in the presence of Peace Commissioner Alvarez and Latin American diplomats. While the withdrawal was taking place, the Zapatistas showed up to declare that they were pleased by this step but still troubled by the fact that four more posts had yet to be demilitarized: Roberto Barrios, La Guarucha, the Río Euseba barracks—where soldiers had harassed indigenous people—and Guadalupe Tepeyac. The latter is a Zapatista town whose inhabitants had fled to the mountains years before due to the army’s presence. The Zapatistas recalled that they had declared war not only against the PRI but also against a system that had neglected and humiliated them, and that the war would not end until Mexico fully recognized its indigenous peoples and never again forgot them. Alvarez asked the Zapatistas to establish contacts, even informal ones, and agreed that Mexico could not exist without the indigenous people.
"Peace.com"Reports came out in the media of complaints among the troops over the way they had been withdrawn: under pressure in Jonalchoj and repudiated in Cuxuljá. Fox denied any ill feelings, and reiterated his call to the Zapatistas to resume talks.
Other reports also made the news: while troops were being withdrawn from some posts, reinforcements were reportedly sent to others. People in several autonomous municipalities charged that they were being harassed.
Fox was compelled to admit that the army would not be completely withdrawn, and maintained that he had agreed only to reduce its presence as a sign of good will in the search for dialogue. Obviously annoyed, he asked what more his government could be expected to do in Chiapas. He was clearly hoping that the Zapatistas would immediately express their willingness to resume talks aimed at resolving the conflict.
On January 12, celebrations marked the seventh anniversary of civil society’s success in forcing the federal government to agree to a cease-fire in Chiapas. Demonstrations took place around the country; the largest in San Cristóbal de las Casas where over 10,000 indigenous people marched to demand that the new government take the three steps that had been asked of it.
A statement from Marcos was read at the march, in which he pointed out that although the PRI no longer governed either the country or Chiapas, the Zapatistas had not yet seen clear signs of a willingness to peacefully resolve the conflict. He acknowledged that progress had been made but also noted that it was accompanied by a language that was less than honest, trying to make it appear that everything necessary had been done to prepare for the talks. He said that the indigenous people wanted a genuine dialogue to achieve a true peace, and that the government would lose nothing by meeting their three demands, which were small things. He emphasized that the Zapatistas were true to their word and would ask for nothing more before resuming talks. He stressed that there was a long history behind the indigenous people’s lack of trust, but they would not become mired in it. "Now that a new century and a new millennium is beginning, we insist on taking the path of dialogue to end the war."
He recalled that over the past seven years, "those who were the government" had used talks to cover up war. They had lied, and the Zapatistas wanted no more lies. The key to opening the door of their mistrust was to meet the three demands. He listed them once again: while the Zapatistas applauded the freeing of 17 prisoners, 80 others were still being held in Chiapas, Tabasco and Querétaro; they applauded the army’s withdrawal from three posts, but four more remained; and the constitutional recognition of indigenous rights and culture was still pending.
Marcos sent another communiqué to civil society in which he applauded its successful efforts to organize people in various parts of the country and abroad. Noting that pilgrims from ten states were in the capital, he asked for help lodging them. He also announced that the information on the trip to the capital would be posted on the web page www.ezlnaldf.org., and concluded with the wish that "peace dot com" come soon.
With or without masks?PAN senator Felipe de Jesús Vicencio, COCOPA’s president, said that the government had not yet taken enough steps to demand that the Zapatistas immediately resume negotiations. Nonetheless, with apparent disdain for the Law for Dialogue and Peace—approved by Congress in March 1995 recognizing the Zapatistas as parties to the talks—House of Representatives president García Cervantes, a PAN representative, declared that those wishing to address Congress would have to remove their masks and lay down their arms. He added that Marcos would only be allowed to speak if he also requested a hearing under his true name.
The PAN leaders in Congress had thrown down the gauntlet: they talk to no one wearing a mask. The main obstacle facing COCOPA’s initiative was the strong resistance of many PAN and PRI representatives, who were apparently unconcerned that their position inflamed the conflict. Members of Congress who said they would not speak with masked Zapatistas forgot that COCOPA, itself a legislative commission, had dealt with the Zapatistas as they presented themselves and was continuing to do so.
Debate in COCOPAFox sidestepped the debate about the masks, claiming that the important thing was to resume the talks. He said that he took the Zapatistas at their word with respect to their three demands, and asked in exchange that they lay down their arms and get to work. Echoing Zedillo, he boasted that he would wait "patiently" for the Zapatistas’ response. His spokesperson declared that the new government’s first and most urgent project was to ensure peace in Chiapas and that Fox’s proposal to lay down arms was not "a condition" but rather "an invitation."
Debates took place within COCOPA to establish its position. On January 15, COCOPA’s president said that the executive branch should ease up on its positions, since there had been "an increasing array of conflicting press statements from various official or officious spokespeople" which were undermining the government’s positive steps.
The debate within COCOPA revolved around Fox’s problems with the EZLN. Although the President had sent positive signals, there were then trip-ups over mistaken or contradictory statements that fanned the conflict, undermining credibility and trust. The main criticism was that Fox was trying to make partial compliance pass for the whole thing and was manipulating the information to make the Zapatistas appear intransigent, which only aggravated the situation. Some COCOPA members accused Fox of being less than fully honest in his statements. They expressed their disagreement with the way he treated the conflict in the media and his failure to take a clear position on the Zapatistas’ visit to the capital. A social rather than a business approach was required to sort out the problem of Chiapas.
The events of January 16A meeting between COCOPA and Fox had been planned, but COCOPA suspended it because the commission did not want to appear as if it was receiving directions from the executive branch. Finally, on January 16, there was an extremely important turn of events: the COCOPA members unanimously supported the proposed bill on indigenous rights and cultures. This had been one of the Zapatistas’ demands in 1997, but after President Zedillo drafted an alternative bill, the PRI legislators in COCOPA were obliged to support his initiative. At that point, most PAN representatives had also dropped their support for the original proposal and drafted yet another bill which, like the President’s, was rejected by the indigenous people. The most important aspect of January 16, 2001 is that COCOPA had taken a strong, consensual stand on the issue for the first time in four years.
In its official statement, COCOPA highlighted the Zapatistas’ willingness to talk, and deemed that the demands they had set out as prerequisites to talks were reasonable. It also endorsed the idea that the Zapatistas talk with Congress about the bill and described the government’s actions as positive but insufficient. COCOPA called on the Zapatistas, the government and other political and social actors to work for reconciliation. The presidential spokesperson responded by declaring that the executive had no disagreements with COCOPA, but then promptly announced that no more troops would be withdrawn from Chiapas.
Fox in ChiapasGovernment officials made several more such confusing statements about the Zapatistas and their upcoming visit to the capital. In one, the government secretary suggested that they could come with their masks, but not their weapons. He charged that while the government was speaking with actions, Marcos was responding only with communiqués, and though they contained "light" (positive recognition of the government’s actions), they also included "dark" (troubling hints of demands for more).
On January 17, Fox himself went to Chiapas to issue micro-credits to indigenous women so they could start up their crafts businesses and to inaugurate other social programs. While there, he ordered the army to withdraw from the Roberto Barrios military post and explained that he had not announced the withdrawal earlier to avoid a face-off with the Zapatistas. In his tour of Chiapas, Fox saw that the indigenous people want not only education, health care and projects, but also respect for their way of life. When an indigenous woman told him that the soldiers had only increased their suffering, Fox replied that the army wanted peace and if some soldiers had made mistakes, he was sorry. He said that he would accept no more mistakes and wanted to replace the army with jobs in Chiapas.
The next day, Chiapas’ Attorney General announced that another 26 Zapatista prisoners would be freed. The Government Secretary in Chiapas commented that it was not only possible but essential to meet all the EZLN’s demands. Justifying the Zapatistas’ use of masks as a way to protect their families, the PRI governor of Veracruz announced that he would guarantee their passage through that state with or without masks because that was not the important thing. The PAN governor of Morelos promised not to put obstacles in the Zapatistas’ way, saying that it was their right to decide whether to wear their masks.
Powerful oppositionBut other positions were heard as well. The Business Coordinating Council’s president said that no more army troops should be withdrawn from the conflict area. Business representatives asked that the Zapatistas’ visit to the capital be blocked, arguing that it would discourage investment. Bishop Onésimo Cepeda, closely tied to the business sector and the PRI, spoke repeatedly and scornfully of the Zapatistas. He said they should not be allowed to come masked to the capital, since that would represent a triumph for them. Without a mask, he said, Marcos would be reduced to "a pitiful soul." The bishop of Tijuana added that the government had made concessions to the EZLN but had not demanded any gesture from them that would reflect their willingness to resume talks; he argued that it should not have ceded so much. One PAN legislator even demanded that the Zapatistas be jailed when they reached Mexico City.
On January 21, Fox consulted the biggest parties on the question of Chiapas. Representatives of both the PRI and his own party, the PAN, agreed that it was time for the Zapatistas to take actions that would show their willingness to resume talks before Fox met any more of their demands. The PRD, in contrast, maintained that the San Andrés Accords should be fulfilled and the government should continue to give signs of peace.
The next day, Peace Commissioner Alvarez said that the federal government would do as it had promised, but "in good time," as the Zapatistas offered responses in kind. He emphasized that the government hoped the Zapatistas were receptive to the nutrition, health care, education, employment creation and housing projects it had already launched in Chiapas, and that situations like the one in Jonalchoj should be avoided in the future.
The day after that, House president García Cervantes, a PAN representative, ignored COCOPA’s position and once again said that the march to Mexico City planned by the Zapatistas was illegal, since they could not leave Chiapas before signing an agreement to resume talks. He threatened that he would not speak with people wearing masks.
The coordinator of the PRD’s legislative bench described Cervantes’ comments as irresponsible and reflective of a profound ignorance of the pacification law. He said that congressional representatives from all parties were willing to listen to the Zapatistas and agreed with the Veracruz governor that the mask issue was unimportant, since the EZLN was legally recognized as an army and the government and COCOPA had already dealt with Zapatistas in their masks. The statements by Cervantes triggered conflicts even within his own party, while COCOPA called on him to act prudently.
The debate goes onIn a conference at the Jesuit Ibero-American University, Chiapas’ governor urged the passage of legislation in line with the San Andrés Accords. He called the criticisms leveled at the Zapatistas for wearing masks irresponsible and frivolous, and argued that the ultra-conservatives were trying to block progress towards peace and recognition of indigenous rights. He described the Zapatistas’ show of approval over the naming of Luis H. Alvarez as government peace commissioner as a positive sign that they were implicitly accepting him, but viewed as troubling the fact that the federal government did not yet have bridges to the talks.
In an interview with journalists from Sonora on January 23, Fox alluded to periodic surveys done by his office showing that 75% of those consulted approved of the Zapatistas’ visit, although 50% thought it responded to an invitation from the President. Some 40% were sure they were going to negotiate. He said that the army would not be withdrawn from any more military posts until the EZLN gave a clear sign that it was interested in talks.
That same day, COCOPA urged Fox to establish his position on the Zapatistas’ visit to the capital. It announced that it would ask for measures to guarantee the Zapatistas’ security. To facilitate its work, it sought direct contact with the EZLN.
Irreversible march to Mexico CityOn January 24, 55 days into Fox’s term in office, some PAN representatives declared that receiving the EZLN in Congress would amount to apologizing for violence. The PRD announced that if the PAN bench opposed talks with the Zapatistas, the PRD and PRI legislators would invite the Zapatistas to speak and would open talks with them. The majority in Congress seemed to be coming around to the position that they should receive the Zapatistas on the condition that they contact COCOPA first.
PRD representative Rosario Robles—who had served as mayor of Mexico City until Andrés Manuel López Obrador took over in December—challenged Fox to take off his own mask in order to resolve the conflict in Chiapas.
The analysis of many commentators was that the Law for Dialogue, Reconciliation and Peace with Dignity in Chiapas did not imply that Zapatistas be confined to Chiapas, nor that they would have to uncover their faces, but it did establish that they could not bring arms to the negotiating table. Protected by this law, 1,111 Zapatistas had come to Mexico City wearing their masks in October 1996 and Comandante Ramona had been in the capital to receive medical treatment.
At the end of January, Rosario Ibarra, a social activist and director of the Zapatista Information Center, announced that the Zapatista march would happen. She added that 2,000 representatives of civil society had signed up to accompany the Zapatistas from Chiapas to the capital.
Also in January, France’s Green Party and nine organizations working in solidarity with Mexico called a meeting in their National Assembly. Acknowledging that Fox had unseated the PRI, they expressed skepticism about how genuine his willingness to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Chiapas really was.
The Right up in armsIt must be emphasized that the elections that had made Fox President and Salazar governor of Chiapas radically changed Mexico’s political scenario. Had the PRI held on to office, the policy of harassing Zapatista communities would have been stepped up. The change has lessened tensions and opened up the possibility of peace.
COCOPA has been a pivotal actor in this context because of its insistence that the Zapatistas’ demands merit consideration, as well as its openness to having the Zapatistas participate in drafting the constitutional reforms. Its decision to again take up the initiative to convert the San Andrés Accords into law was another big step towards peace.
It is now up to civil society to exert pressure on the legislators to ensure that they become well informed on the issues of indigenous rights and culture and legislate responsibly. This pressure should also be applied at a local level, since the approval of 20 state legislatures is legally required to pass COCOPA’s initiative. The debate that has taken place so far has shown that many legislators are profoundly ignorant of the topic and many negative attitudes typical of Mexico’s non-indigenous culture towards the indigenous peoples’ rights prevail.
Meanwhile, the Right is up in arms against the EZLN. It has launched a huge media campaign arguing that much has been ceded in exchange for nothing, and describing the government’s concessions as gratuitous and dangerous. The voices of Bishops Samuel Ruiz and Raúl Vera once defended indigenous rights. Now that the Vatican has removed them from Chiapas, the only voices heard are those of arrogant bishops tied to power.
Once again, civil societyThe fact that the EZLN tends to treat COCOPA as a counterpart is a serious problem since it was legally established as a commission to cooperate in the search for peace and has proven itself willing to clear away obstacles to peace. If this attitude remains unchanged, it could undermine the commission’s effectiveness.
The fact that the Zapatistas have not established direct communication with the executive branch bolsters the intransigent positions of the enemies of peace. The President’s office is already beginning to cave in to the pressure of hard-line sectors in the Catholic hierarchy, private enterprise and many PAN members deeply opposed to indigenous interests.
Fox’s problem is having believed that he could dispatch the problem in Chiapas in short order. He has also dealt with it inconsistently, trying to put an end to it as though nothing had gone before and offering very little in exchange. The result has been a publicity war with Marcos, which, admittedly, is not the worst of wars to engage in.
Resolving the problem in Chiapas involves the federal and local executive branches, the federal legislative branch and the legislatures of the majority of states, the political parties, the mass media, the churches, private enterprise, indigenous people, the Zapatistas, marginalized sectors and a large number of groups in civil society. What has taken place so far is a deaf struggle of the powerful against the excluded. Once again, civil society has the responsibility to make moderation prevail, to build bridges and convince the parties to abandon their inflexible positions so talks can be held that will guarantee respect for indigenous rights and cultures. Despite the numerous difficulties and continuing ill will among some, the truth is that changes in the national political context have opened the path for those who want true peace.