Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 153 | Abril 1994



Insurrection in Chiapas... Revolution in Mexico?

The Zapatista insurrection in Chiapas has highlighted the contradictions that plague Mexico and all Latin America. There is development without social welfare. There is integration into the world market along with internal disintegration among regions, peoples and cultures. There is openness to the universal culture of the West along with marginalization of our own most native cultures, especially indigenous ones. “We are achieving in days what we waited 500 years to achieve: that they listen to us,” said Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristobal de las Casas, in the first days of the insurrection in Chiapas.

José Virtuoso

On New Year's Day 1994, a virtually forgotten state in Mexico rose up in arms, led by a guerrilla force that at first seemed to be spearheading an irrational and anachronistic adventure in these "new times." Less than three months later, that anachronism has become the banner of the age-old desire of Chiapas' indigenous peoples and mestizo peasants for radical change. Even more than that, the "behind-the-times" process in Chiapas has catalyzed the aspirations for justice and democracy that laid buried in the consciousness of so many Mexicans. Chiapas has sparked new possibilities and expectations, and is obliging Mexico to change.

The significance of these events goes even beyond the borders of Mexico itself. The search for justice and the desire to construct authentic democracies in the rest of Latin America find eloquent inspiration in Chiapas.

Rich in Culture and Resources

The state of Chiapas is located in Mexico's southeastern region, along the border with Guatemala. It covers nearly 3.8% of the national territory and has a total population of 3.2 million, 59.6% of whom live in in the rural areas. The state is divided into 11 municipalities, 9 geo-economic regions and 16,422 localities. Three-fourths of these localities have under 100 residents, a clear indication of the tremendous population dispersion.

The zones involved in the uprising led by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) are the Lancandona Forest, the Chiapas highlands and the border region. The Lancandona Forest, with 15,000 square kilometers and 537,697 inhabitants, cuts through the eastern area of Chiapas. The highland extends across 25,000 square kilometers of mountains between 850 and 2,500 meters above sea level, and has 431,227 inhabitants. The border zone with Guatemala has 658 square kilometers and 397,697 inhabitants.

The key population centers taken by the EZLN in the first days of January were San Cristóbal de Las Casas (100,667 inhabitants), Altamirano (18,909), Ocosingo (147,000) and Las Margaritas (431,227).

Chiapas is an important indigenous center. It has nine indigenous communities, all descended from the Mayas, each with its own language, religion and culture. Five of them-the Chujes, Jacalatecos, Mames, Mochos and Labales-are found on both sides of the Mexico-Guatemala border. the other four-the Tzeltales, Tzotziles, Tojolabales and Zoques-only live on the Mexican side, and are also the most numerically important.

Some 716,000 Chiapans are registered as speaking some indigenous language. The state also has the highest percentage of monolingual indigenous groups, since 32% of the indigenous population over 5 years of age does not speak Spanish. The predominant indigenous language is Tzeltal (21.6%), followed by Tzotzil (18.9%) and Chol (10.3%).

Chiapas is an important agricultural and cattle-ranching zone. It also has a wealth of abundant natural resources: huge oil deposits and tremendous hydroelectric potential, of vital importance for all of Mexico. Chiapas generates about 60% of the electric energy produced by the country.

Extreme Poverty

The zone's wealth and economic potential contrast with the extreme poverty of the people who live there, especially the indigenous population. Leaders of the region note that 71 children were born without brains in 1992, due to severe malnutrition. The poverty indicators expressed in the 11th General Population and Housing Census carried out in Mexico in 1990, speak volumes.

Institutional Violence

Chiapas has a tragic history of human rights violations and political conflicts. International and national human rights organizations have testified to this reality. One recent example is the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights (MAHR), which over the last 18 months has documented the ongoing violation of the indigenous people's human rights by the Federal government and the local government of Chiapas.

According to the MAHR study, "Too frequently, there have been violent conflicts between landlords and ranchers backed up by state security forces against mestizo peasants and indigenous peoples for defending their rights and searching for peaceful solutions to their problems, as was the case when 300 indigenous people blocked the main plaza in Palenque on December 26, 1991, where the protest was dispersed by force and some of the leaders were tortured."

Many analysts characterize the socioeconomic and political structure of Chiapas as one of institutionalized violence. The underpinning of this violent structure is latifundismo, which keeps the peasants landless and working in conditions of servitude. The local "chieftains," along with the "white guard" (death squads at the service of the hacienda owners), have established wholesale authoritarianism: a judicial system with corrupt judges who do not guarantee justice, and a series of Federal institutions that act in cahoots with the local powers. Those who suffer most from this whole structure are the indigenous peoples, who also suffer from a historical lack of respect for their dignity and their culture.

Seeing Chiapas in Mexico

Shortly after the conflict began, the well-known writer Carlos Fuentes proposed "that Chiapas be seen in Mexico, and Mexico be seen in Chiapas." That Chiapas be seen in Mexico means being able to understand the problems there in a national context.

It is a difficult proposal for a country whose economy has reached number 13 at the world level over recent years, has been able to overcome its high levels of inflation and recession and recently signed a free trade agreement with the United States and Canada. Mexico projects and international image as the vanguard of modernization vis-à-vis Latin American underdevelopment; its model is offered as a paradigm of development and progress.

It is thus difficult to understand Chiapas as a consequence of the very dynamic of which the country feels so proud. The temptation is to see this misery and rebellion in Chiapas and other states of southern Mexico as the typical residue of underdevelopment that is slowly being overcome. According to this vision, the problems in Chiapas will be gradually resolved as part of the entire nation's march toward progress.

Seeing Mexico in Chiapas is a call to see the other Mexico, not the one of propaganda and speeches, but the reality of millions of men and women who suffer injustice and exploitation. Seeing Mexico in Chiapas is seeing the underside of neoliberal history. Seeing Mexico in Chiapas starkly underlines that Mexico has not resolved the serious problems of poverty and misery that affect the majority of population. Nor has it made progress towards a political structure with greater participation.

Specialized studies about Mexico's reality indicate that 30% of the Mexican population, approximately 24 million people, lives in conditions of extreme poverty or indigence. If that statistic seems exaggerated, the official statistics, while less, are nonetheless cause for great concern. According to President Salinas, 13.5 million Mexicans live in extreme poverty.

The indigenous population in Mexico most suffers the hardships of poverty and is politically the most marginalized. The Confederation of Mexican Workers made this prediction at the end of 1993: "There are currently 8 million unemployed people in the country and the situation will worsen in 1994". The basic salary in Mexico is 15 pesos, while a basic food basket costs nearly 23. The government argues that no family earns only one basi salary and that it is just a reference point for salary negotiations. In any case, the government's social policy is seriously questioned, not only because it hardly exists and is plagued by corruption, but also because it is inefficient.

As in Chiapas, there has been an effort throughout Mexico to translate the social discontent of those sectors hardest hit by "modernization" into a search for alternatives, into democratic spaces for participation. But the government's response in other places has been similar to its response in Chiapas.

A human rights foru called "Mexico: Democracy and Repression," which brought organization from both sides of the border together in Brownsville, Texas in September 1993, concluded the following: "According to officials statistics, in the last five months of 1993 some 3.5 million citizens in the city of Mexico alone mobilized around political-electoral issues, as well as issues related to housing, employment, agricultural debts whose term is up, human rights, etc. In the face of these demonstrations of discontent, the government has responded by repressing, just in the first three years of its administration, 2,033 workers, 7,787 peasants, 2,402 members of political organizations and 3,984 members of the popular movement." The forum also presented statistics on government assassinations and torture.

New Year's Day, 1994

In the first hours of 1994, as glasses were still being raised to salute the new year, the EZLN was able, without too much effort, to take over San Cristóbal de las Casas, Ocosingo, Altamirano and Las Margaritas. At 6 am that same morning, Subcomandante Marcos, spokesperson for the armed insurgency, made his first declaration from the presidential balcony of the municipal palace of San Cristóbal de las Casas. A government radio station taken by the rebels was able to broadcast slogans again and again. The objectives the EZLN laid out at that time can be summed up in three points:
1. Resignation of the Carlos Salinas de Gortari government as an illegitimate dictatorship that came to power through massive electoral fraud.

2. Formation of a new transition government that will hold free and democratic elections in August 1994.

3. A solution to the peasants' key demands in Chiapas: food, health care, education, autonomy and peace.

"The decision to take up arms on that day," said the Zapatista Front, "is because that is the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico took effect, and agreement that is, in effect, a death certificate for Mexico's indigenous people, whom the Salinas government" views as dispensable.

Ten Days of War

The EZLN's occupation of San Cristóbal de las Casas did not last very long. The guerrillas abandoned the city of their own will and concentrated their attack on an important military post in the zone, which they continued to harass in the days following January 2. The Federal army reacted 24 hours after the events began. Some 17,000 soldiers from various areas of the country arrived in the zone, supported by all kinds of armaments.

The war between the Zapatistas and the army lasted 10 days. the EZLN's strategy was to rely on surprise incursions, rapid deployment of its forces followed by melting back into the civilian population as a means of camouflage. This allowed them to mock the military cordon and maintain a presence in a numbr of areas. In its declaration of war, the EZLN laid out a bold objective: "Advance towards the country's capital, overwhelming the Mexican federal army, key pillar of the PRI dictatorship and the government; protect the civilian population in this liberating advance and allow the liberated population to freely and democratically elect their own administrative authorities."

The government's goal, in turn, was to wipe out the insurrectionary force as quickly as possible. As long as the war continued and the army increased its operations in the zone, both national and international opinion would look for a way to get involved, further complicating things and postponing a solution to the conflict. Nor could the government lose sight of the fact that Federal Elections are to be held in August, and are predicted to be particularly conflictive because the voters are willing to defend their votes against the traditional art of electoral fraud carried out by the PRI, the party that has governed Mexico for over 70 years. At such a moment, an active guerrilla force could make things even more problematic.

From the outset it could be seen that the EZLN's advance would not be simple, as it was facing a modern army with sophisticated weaponry. The government was afraid that the Zapatistas would rely on support organizations in key cities and areas throughout the country, which would allow them to quickly broaden the armed conflict without moving their base from Chiapas.

After 10 days of intense military activity and a spectacular and violent deployment against the rebels and the civilian population, the Federal army was only able to force the EZLN to retreat to the Lancandona Forest zone. Some source say that as many as 400 people died during those days. With the open war over, the strength of both sides became clear. The EZLN is not just a tiny group; it is a large peasant and indigenous army that has trained for more than 10 years, knows its terrain well and enjoys broad popular support. It is suspected of having contacts in other regions and a national structure. The EZLN has the wherewithal to carry out a "prolonged popular war." The Federal army has tremendous military capacity, but will not be able to wipe out the Zapatistas without drowning all of Chiapas in blood.

Civil Society Appears; Government Changes Tack

In the midst of this military stalemate, center stage went to a vigorous and politically capable civil society, as well as some opposition parties, the media and international public opinion. Al agreed that the EZLN's demands were just. "Chiapas, the southern states, the indigenous Mexican populations and all of Mexico demand justice, freedom and democracy. The search for political solutions must be exhausted before sending the entire country into generalized political violence," is the consistently heard political message. This consensus has created a single voice, capable of pressuring the government to seek a political solution: cease-fire, dialogue and negotiation.

On January 10, the government made changes in its administrative team that would permit it to confront the conflict with more flexible and democratic criteria. It created the Commission for Peace and Reconciliation in Chiapas, and proposed Bishop Samuel Ruiz of the San Cristóbal de las Casas diocese to mediate the conflict. Only weeks before, the government had accused this very man of disturbing the social peace in Chiapas and the Papal Nuncio and the Vatican were making moves to remove him from his diocese.

On January 12, President Salinas ordered a unilateral cease-fire in Chiapas. Negotiations between the government and the EZLN began on February 21 in the cathedral of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Nineteen members of the EZLN--the majority of them indigenous-sat down to dialogue with Manuel Camacho Solís, of the Presidential Commission, with Bishop Ruiz mediating. National and international journalists, diverse organizations from civil society, some political parties and the Red Cross surrounded the dialogue and protected it.

The government was not the only one that had to change its strategy. The EZLN was also forced to modify its position in the face of emerging consensus within civil society regarding the conflict. The EZLN belongs within the classic parameters of Latin American Marxism. More specifically, there are diverse ideological positions within the EZLN, including a Maoist one and another that promotes taking power through prolonged popular war.

However, this changed as events unfolded. The EZLN shifted away from its vision of armed struggle conceived of as an autonomous movement to take revolutionary political power, with which the popular movement would align, submitting itself to this logic.

The new conception toward which the EZLN moved sees armed struggle articulated within a broad-based overall strategy sustained by diverse social actors seeking to open spaces for participation, negotiation and dialogue. Weapons cease being strategic, becoming instead an element to support the political articulation that is the subject of change.

Agenda for the Dialogue

The dialogue is San Cristóbal de las Casas lasted until March 2. During it an agenda of agreements was designed, along with a strategy to insure that real changes, both in Chiapas and throughout Mexican society, will take place.

The agenda emerged from the confrontational dialogue about the proposals put forth by President Salinas' commission and those made by the EZLN. The latter were largely linked to the struggles and demands made by civil society and the opposition political parties.

The demands laid out by the EZLN are essentially the following:
* Assure an effective transition to democracy in Mexico through the resignation of the President and his subsequent replacement by a transition President, or through an electoral reform in which civil society would guarantee the legitimacy of elections in the country.

* Make the country's federated political organization effective, permitting municipalities to take on full self-administration and governance.

* Recognize indigenous culture throughout the country, which presupposes the following:
- Recognize indigenous peoples' right to govern themselves in accordance with their customs and traditions.

- Guarantee the right of indigenous peoples to preserve their cultural patrimony. (A key proposal in this area is that the state be obliged to offer bilingual education to the country's different indigenous groups).

- Guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples to administer justice in their own areas.

- Reorganize the property and land tenure structure in both Chiapas and Mexico as a whole.

- Review NAFTA's impact on the peasant economy and indigenous culture.

- Reorganize the labor and productive conditions in the state of Chiapas to guarantee that the latifundio and servitude models currently repressing peasant and indigenous peoples are overcome.

- Insure that the state of Chiapas adopts adequate social policies in health care, housing, education, public utilities and attention to indigenous women.


The simple listing of these points underscores the depth of the changes the EZLN proposed for Mexico and Chiapas. It was clear from the very start that many key important national problems could not be taken up at the negotiating table in San Cristóbal de las Casas due to a lack of adequate representation and authority.

The other pressing topic of discussion and understanding was the methodology to be followed once the agenda for the talks was prepared. In essence, the agenda is a list of problems to be resolved and, in this sense, is an invitation to all interested to mobilize around a solution. Thus, the real negotiation begins now.

The government institutions must discuss each of the proposed points, and civil society as a whole, particularly in Chiapas, must do the same. The EZLN must also discuss what has been agreed to and assume responsibility for it. During this electoral year, the position the political parties take with respect to the Chiapas accords will be key. In reality, the negotiation strategy is to generate a wide and democratic process of dialogue, consensus and articulation in Mexican society around a program that is still incomplete and sketchy.

Peace between the EZLN and the government will be signed after each side has analyzed and adopted the agenda of accords.

Three Lessons

Chiapas is a graphic illustration of the contradictions Mexico and all of Latin America face today: development without social welfare; integration into the world market but desintegration within regions, entire peoples and cultures; and an opening to the Western culture universe, while marginalizing our cultures, especially indigenous cultures. The process as it has been experienced to date also exemplifies how the search for democratic spaces of participation, dialogue and negotiation can be converted into a path to bring about change. From this perspective, the contents of the conception of democracy have been considerably broadened. Democracy means free and clean elections, participation, dialogue and consensus, but it also means respect for human rights, quality of life and well-being for all.

The popular army and armed struggle were expressed in Chiapas in a valid and novel manner. If the "arms of the left"-to give them some name-are articulated with the real subjects of change and conceived of strictly as support for an overall strategy to which they are subordinated, they may be very useful to force those opposing this change to pen up to real democratic participation. They may be able to create new conditions of dialogue and open spaces for the development of the popular movement.

It was with these ideas that the FMLN in El Salvador and the M-19 in Colombia were born many years ago. The EZLN learned at incredible speed in Mexico.


* We are facing a very difficult situation, politically, economically, socially and ideologically.

* We must speak of the current economic system, because we are living a way of life and production that oppresses us. We are seeing that those who accumulate wealth need two things to keep going in this new time: the privatization process and NAFTA. These two things need capitalism to keep benefiting the wealthiest, nationals as well as foreigners. This new way of working has left thousands of peasants and workers to their fate.

* We have serious and pressing economic problems. People are feeling more and more cruelly the weight of unemployment, injustice and growing misery.

* People are not content, there is malnutrition and illness provoked by poverty.

* We don't have land to work, to give us food. We have to rent land and that's where all our earnings go. We have asked for land, and never received any response... It's very expensive to buy land, while others have so much land that they don't work or just use for cattle ranching.

* When we want to register our land, we are charged very dearly and if we are late in payments, they threaten to take our land away from us.

* They dig oil wells that only serve the government, but affect us because they, too, take our land away.

* The prices for what we sell are low and we must transport our own products because the intermediaries steal what we grow.

* Salaries are very ow and don't strech to maintain a family. Many peasants and workers who ask for salary increases see that the law always decides in favor of the companies.

* Electricity and land taxes are very high and increase every year. It's difficult to pay off the bank credits so we end up in debt.

* There are problems because of the forestry law. We need permission to cut a tree. If we don't pay we have to give 10 days of work.

* The comfortable, the powerful and their followers are sucking our blood.

* In Political terms, they don't listen to our opinions. We are humiliated and betrayed.

* We are forced to vote for the official party, the PRI, and for the government's candidate.

* When we elect our own authorities, those on top don't like it and put their own people in.

* The authorities don't like us to organize and they want to disappear those who head up the different groups.

* There is general corruption among the authorities. Justice is at the service of the wealthy and the police.

* Alcoholism is deeply rooted within our communities. It is a sign of frustration and generates divisions and even death.

* To construct a highway, the government demands 70% of the cost from us, as well as food for the workers.

* In ideological terms, there is conformism due to the influence of others who dominate due to their ideas, Those who leave the area to find work come back with new ideas and don't fit into the communities.

* The radio tells us lies. It broad-casts propaganda about things beyond our reach, making us think that if we use those things we will be happy.

(* These statements were gathered in the August 1993 Pastoral Letter, "In this hour of grace," by San Cristóbal de las Casas Bishop Samuel Ruiz.)

To the Mexican people:
We are the product of 500 years of struggle. First, against slavery, in the war of independence against Spain, headed by the insurgents. Later, in an attempt to avoid being absorbed by US expansionism. After that, in a struggle to promulgate our Constitution and expel the French Empire from our soil. Still later, when the Porfirio dictatorship denied us the just application of the Reform Laws, our people rebelled, naming their own leaders.

Villa and Zapata emerged, poor men like us who have been denied the most basic preparation so we can be used as cannon fodder to pillage the riches of our country without anyone caring that we're dying of hunger and curable diseases. It doesn't matter to them that we have nothing, absolutely nothing, no decent roof over our heads or land, no jobs, no health care, no education, no food, no right to freely and democratically elect our own authorities, no independence from foreigners, no peace or justice for ourselves or for our children.

But today we are saying Enough! We are the heirs of the true forgers of our nationality. We dispossessed are millions and we call upon all our brothers and sisters to join us in this, the only road left to avoid dying of hunger due to the insatiable ambition of this more than 70-year dictatorship, headed by a gang of traitors who represent the country's most conservative and sold-out groups. They are the same ones who opposed Hidalgo and Morelos, who betrayed Vicente Guerrero. They are the same ones who sold more than half of our land to the foreign invader, the same ones who brought a European king to govern us, the same who forged the dictatorship of Porfirista scientists, the same ones who opposed the petroleum expropriation, the same ones who massacred the railroad workers in 1958 and the students in 1968. They are the same ones who today take everything from us, absolutely everything.

To avoid this, as our last hope after having tried to put into practice the laws based on our Magna Carta, we return to that document, our Constitution, to apply Article 39 which says:
"National sovereignty resides essentially and originally with the people. All public power comes from the people and is instituted in benefit of the people. The people have, at all times, the inalienable right to alter or modify the form of their government."

By José Virtuoso, sj. of the Gumilla Center in Venezuela, and the CRAS team in Mexico.

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