Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 154 | Mayo 1994



Chiapas and the Crisis of Mexican "Democracy"

In the next electons, rather than deciding the new president of Mexico, it will be decided if the transition to democraacy will be pacific or violent.

Enrique Flota Ocampo

On the night of July 6, 1988, then candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari, concerned about the unanticpated electoral catastrophe his party was facing , announced that the era of "the virtually single party" state was at an end. This unexpectedly democratic speech was forced by the electoral returns coming in at that very moment, which indicated dramatic advances by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, Salinas' opponent in the presidential race.

The issue of democracy reappeared with force in his government's Fourth Report, delivered by Salinas on November 1, 1992. The President recognized that "we are living in new times in our country, which generate heretofore unseen situations.... The way to maintain political control over the country, and thus our sovereignty, is by strengthening our democratic political system, a system of parties in a competitive context. We cannot return to a virtually single party, as there can be no isolation from the new world dynamics." He was right on the mark, but subsequent events showed that he lacked faith in his own words.

Sixty Years of a Single Party

With the euphemism of a "virtually single party" system, Salinas alluded to the peculiar Mexican system, whose origins can be found in Mexican events early in this century. The revolution of 1910 left in its wake a good number of military caudillos and regional political forces. The institutionalization of the revolution forced a centralization of military power and its subordination to civilian command. In response to this necessity, the National Revolutionary Party (PNR), the PRI's precursor, was created in 1929.

The PNR created mechanisms to assure political control over the caudillos and local parties and subordinate them to presidential power. Subsequently, during the presidential term of General Lázaro Cárdenas (1936 1940), the PNR, by then known as the Party of the Mexican Revolution, incorporated corporative control over mass groupings into its structure. National organizations were created and groups such as the Federation of Mexican Workers (CTM) and the National Federation of Peasants (CNC) were forcibly affiliated to the party. The military as a sector was excluded from the party, culminating a process of institutionalizing the armed forces and subordinating them to presidential power. By this time, the party had adopted its current name.

Shortly thereafter the National Confederation of Popular Organizations (CNOP) was created, to bring within the party framework a mosaic of sectors ranging from businessmen to residents of poor neighborhoods. Since then, the official party has operated with the following characteristics: a party government symbiosis, presidentialism and corporativism.

The PRI was never a political party in the strict sense of the word. It was born out of a state initiative and functioned as the government's political electoral apparatus. In fact, there has never been an authentic system of political parties in Mexico. The opposition parties compete electorally, but not against each other or the PRI per se. Rather they take on an entire state structure, expressed, for political effects, as the PRI. This has meant that for 60 years the official party won every presidential election, all state governorships, virtually every municipal leadership post and almost all legislative seats.

Salinas de Gortari: Hyper Presidentialist

The 1988 presidential elections marked the beginning of the end of this reality. There is still heated discussion today about who won those elections. Many indicators including the "crash" of the computerized vote counting system at a critical moment point to Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas as the real winner. But nothing could, or ever will be proved. In a controversial decision, the PRI legislature approved a decree calling for the incineration of the urns containing the votes, which were being safeguarded by the army.

Despite everything, the electoral campaign that year demonstrated that the state's political control system was breaking down. This led to a series of adjustments aimed at repairing the fissures.

Paradoxically, Carlos Salinas translated the weakness with which he took office into an extreme presidentialism. At the beginning of his six year term, Salinas demonstrated with support from the army his will to settle accounts with those undermining his support. This resulted in the imprisonment of part of what, up to that point, had been the extremely powerful oilworkers' union, and sparked a realignment of forces within the party. Official union leadership with the eternal Fidel Velázquez at its head lost influence and was forced onto the defensive by the neoliberal economic policies imposed by the Salinas regime.

This presidentialism was subsequently projected through the National Program of Solidarity which, in effect, exalted the image of a generous President. The definition of new church state relations legal status for the church, for example allowed even the figure of the Pope himself to be exploited to the President's benefit. The success of this was undeniable. Halfway through his term, Salinas' popularity had reached spectacular levels.

Crisis in the Party

The counterpart to this success flourished within the party itself. Presidentialism was consolidated, but the PRI was weakened. With an eye towards the future, an attempt was made to adapt the party to the new times. Under the leadership of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI made moves towards renewal in its XIV National Assembly. Among other measures, Colosio introduced democratic mechanisms for selecting candidates, the reduction of presidential intervention in party decisions and the repeal of forced affiliation. But his attempts were unsuccessful; the changes were made only on paper. Resistance to change was ultimately more powerful than the lukewarm attempts to convert the PRI into an authentic political party.

Nevertheless, nothing was the same after this. Throughout the Salinas administration, there were internal struggles and desertions as never before. The party's traditional grassroots sectors were restructured and lost their traditional share of power. Professional politicians were displaced by technocrats in the making of key decisions. A growing opposition force pushed the government to negotiate electoral results even at the cost of sacrificing supposedly triumphant PRI candidates. The regime's new allies including the inner circles of private business and the Catholic hierarchy, headed up by the Nuncio now took up space previously reserved for the party leadership.

In spite of everything, the Salinas regime neared the end of its term with optimism. Its macroeconomic achievements the reduction of inflation to a single digit, a fiscal surplus, reduction of the foreign debt made the other conflicts seem manageable. Yet this was not to be. The clamor for democracy had taken root. The explosion in Chiapas illustrated that particularly clearly.

Depose the Dictator

On January 1, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) burst onto the national stage in an action both bold and unexpected. The Zapatistas took four cities in the state of Chiapas in southeastern Mexico, of which the most important was San Cristóbal de las Casas. That same day, the EZLN issued its Declaration of the Lacandona Forest, in which it explained that its movement was centered around demands for work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace.

It was clear from this initial declaration that the EZLN was not fighting for merely social demands. There is political as well as social content in the origins of the insurrection, although the political content is clouded over by subsequent events.

The central point of that first statement is a declaration of war: "Thus, in adherence to our Constitution, we issue this declaration of war against the Federal Mexican Army, key pillar of the dictatorship from which we suffer, monopolized by the party in power and today headed illegally by its highest, and illegitimate, leader Carlos Salinas de Gortari. In accordance with this declaration of war, we ask the other powers of the nation to advocate the restoration of the nation's legality and stability by deposing the dictator."

Political and Social Demands

Twenty percent of the population in Chiapas is indigenous, and 16% does not speak Spanish. Some 15% of the state's territory is dedicated to agriculture, and another 33% to cattle raising. The key crops are corn, coffee and beans. Of those who are employed, 58% work in the agricultural sector, and 40% of those who work receive less than the $4 national minimum daily wage.

There is one doctor for every 1,500 people. According to extra official statistics, 15,000 people die annually from curable diseases.

Although Chiapas generates 60% of the country's hydroelectric energy, 31% of the homes in Chiapas do not have electricity. Added to all these dry statistics is a history of discrimination against and exploitation of the indigenous population. This sets the stage for the emergence of an armed rebellion with demands for democracy as well as social justice.

The Zapatista uprising is against the conditions of extreme poverty and oppression the indigenous peoples of Chiapas face. But it is also against the country's lack of democracy, against the state party system and its consequences.

A War that did Not Begin

The taking of the four cities in Chiapas responded more to political than military objectives. Everything indicates that the EZLN was not interested in either holding the cities or fighting in them. Occupying them represented the possibility of grabbing the public eye, which is certainly what happened.

The actual armed conflict lasted only 11 days. During that time, apart from sporadic exchanges of gunfire, there were only two real combats. One was the attack against the Rancho Nuevo military post, located fairly near San Cristóbal. It is still not exactly clear what took place there. Some versions of the events say it was just harassment, which led to nothing more due to the army's strong defense. But, according to another version, the Zapatistas were able to penetrate the post and recover a number of arms, assisted by the desertion of some soldiers. The other combat was in Ocosingo, where some of the Zapatistas resisted the army's entrance, and the end result was unfavorable to the EZLN.
The Zapatistas' military strategy was to retreat quickly to the forested zone and wait for the army there, where the terrain is rugged and very mountainous and the EZLN had prepared its defensive positions. The army would have to pull together a significant number of troops and munitions before deciding to penetrate. But the combats never began. On January 11, the government declared a unilateral cease fire.

"After the taking of San Cristóbal," subcomandante Marcos was later to say, "We didn't think that it had had such success throughout the country. Nor were we aware that our mountaineers had become famous. We thought ourselves saintly, because the number of our dead was so much lower than we had thought. We were preparing ourselves for a war of attrition, when the enemy is all over you and you begin to bleed them dry." The Zapatista Army conserved its forces estimated at some 20,000 in total virtually intact. For its part, the army mustered some 25,000 troops in the cordon it threw up around the Zapatista controlled area.

A Blow to NAFTA

The political effects of this embryonic war were very important. Perhaps the most important critical one for the Mexican government was the impact on its foreign policy. The Zapatista uprising began the same day that NAFTA went into effect, tainting the government's successful campaign.

The blow was a hard one. It put a brake on the expected flow of foreign investment and has kept investors dangling, awaiting news of Mexico's political situation. But the consequences were not only economic. What happened seriously affected the country's international image, which had been so painstakingly constructed by President Salinas. It also buried Salinas' line about Mexico's triumphant entrance into the First World.

The rebellion led to the removal of Minister of Interior Patrocinio González Garrido, ex governor of Chiapas. He was blamed for the uprising, since he had minimized the strength of the EZLN, which the government had been aware of since May 1993.
González' removal also affected the Papal Nuncio, Jerónimo Prigione. Both González and Prigione had been pushing to replace Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristóbal, seen by them as too close to the progressive, liberation theology church as well as too closely identified with the cause of Chiapas' indigenous peoples. Events forced the government to make overtures to Bishop Ruiz, taking advantage of his influence in the area to promote a negotiated solution to the conflict. There was a corresponding distancing between the government and the Nuncio. The situation in the Catholic hierarchy changed dramatically; Prigione lost significant influence, and Samuel Ruiz and Cardinal Corripio, another Prigione opponent, received support from the bishops that they had not had just a month earlier.

Tremendous Social Pressure

The mobilization of civil society and public opinion catalyzed by what happened in Chiapas has no precedent. The demand was for a negotiated solution to the conflict. The charismatic figure of subcomandante Marcos generated a strong current of sympathy towards him and the Zapatista movement in general. Even broad sectors of the middle and upper classes demonstrated a "radical chic" fascination with his personality.

The government's attempt to portray the EZLN as a group of violent criminals was in vain. The guerrilla mystique, this time combined with the indigenous mystique, took hold in public opinion, helped by the widespread coverage the media gave the event.

Social pressure forced the government to search for a negotiated solution. Its measures included naming Manuel Camacho Solís as Commissioner for Peace and Reconciliation (January 10), unilaterally declaring a cease fire (January 12), announcing an amnesty (January 16), and getting Congress to approve the Amnesty Law (January 20). The EZLN responded by suspending its military operations and stating its willingness to negotiate a peace.

The major political impact was produced indirectly with Camacho's appointment. For some time, Camacho had been considered one of the men most likely to be named PRI presidential candidate. When Salinas decided on Luis Donaldo Colosio in November 1993, Camacho felt betrayed and broke with one of the system's unwritten rules he made his disagreement public and refused to support Colosio's candidacy.

His appointment as peace commissioner, as well as his performance in this important position, catapulted Camacho to levels of political popularity well beyond the PRI's rather dull candidate. On March 22, a regrouping of sorts took place, with Camacho's announcement that he no longer aspired to the presidency. This announcement gave Colosio the green light to start his campaign in earnest, out from under Camacho's stifling shadow. Colosio was assassinated the very next day.

The Zapatistas' 34 Demands

On February 20, the Campaigns for Peace and Reconciliation began in Chiapas with the presence of the three principal actors. Government representation was taken on by Camacho. It was a representation without legal backing he wasn't even a public official but it had the total and direct support of President Salinas, with whom Camacho maintained close and constant communication. Under the protection of the International Red Cross Committee, Subcomandante Marcos and 18 leaders from four indigenous groups all members of the EZLN General Command participated. The third actor was Bishop Samuel Ruiz, named as mediator by the other two.

Against all expectations, the dialogue took place behind closed doors. From what is known, the talks followed a dual course looking at both the demands made by the Zapatistas and the peace accords themselves.

At the beginning of the dialogue, the EZLN presented 34 demands, the biggest bloc of which dealt with the living conditions of the indigenous people in Chiapas, including health, housing, social services, education and jobs. One demand that merits highlighting (point 8) had to do with the complex and pressing agrarian problem in Chiapas. The government offered a range of resources and programs in an attempt to respond to the demands related to the standard of living.

Another bloc of demands had to do with issues of an ethnic nature: recognition of the use of indigenous languages and customs and autonomy for indigenous communities, among others. The government's commitment to respond to these demands was along legislative lines.

These two blocs constitute the most extensive part of the long list of demands. Seen as a whole, it would seem somewhat out of proportion to undertake an armed uprising in order to demand answers to such elemental problems. But the Zapatistas do not see it that way. The benefits are basic, but they have been absent for centuries. And at bottom, they all express a single demand dignity. "If we cannot live with dignity, we can at least die with dignity," said the guerrillas in justification of the war.

A third bloc of demands had a political character, and dealt with the state of Chiapas: electoral reforms, political trials of the state's ex governors, etc. The governmental response in this area varied from a "no" regarding political trials to offering a new electoral law that would include the key points the Zapatistas put forth.

Free and Democratic Elections

The demands of a national character merit separate treatment. From the beginning of the talks, both parties agreed not to deal with these demands, national issues, only those specifically pertinent to Chiapas. Discussion of Article 27 of the Constitution, which refers to the agrarian question, was thus excluded. That article was modified during Salinas' term to take on a more neoliberal slant, so that land may now be privatized.

Another key demand excluded from the agenda was national democracy. The Zapatistas dealt with it this way in their list:
"First, we demand that a truly free and democratic election be called, with equality of rights and responsibilities for all political organizations struggling for power, with authentic freedom to elect one or another proposal and with respect for the wishes of the majority. Democracy is a fundamental right of all indigenous and non indigenous peoples. Without democracy there cannot be freedom, justice or dignity. And without dignity there is nothing.

"Secondly, for there to be truly free and democratic elections, it is necessary that the President of the nation, as well as the head of those states where power was won through fraudulent means, resign. They have usurped the will of the majorities. Consequently, it is necessary that a transition government be formed so there will be equality of and respect for all political currents. The legislative, federal and state powers elected freely and democratically should take on their true functions of promulgating just laws for all and securing compliance with those laws.

"Another road to guaranteeing that truly free and democratic elections are carried out is to make them real in the laws of the nation and the municipalities, to legitimate the existence and work of citizens and groups of citizens who, without party obligations, oversee the entire electoral process, approve its legality and results, and legitimize the entire electoral process."
Although this point was not discussed in the talks at San Cristóbal, it is probably the most relevant, due to both its connections with the origin of the Zapatista insurrection, and its implications for the country's near future.

Three Problems for Peace

The results of the discussion about the peace accords, which was the most delicate and complex of the entire dialogue process, have not been made public. It is known, however, that the basis exists for an accord that would put an end to the hostilities and that this accord will be made public when it is signed.

The end of hostilities assumes the resolution of a series of problems:
Amnesty. The government promoted the approval of an amnesty law making it illegal to prosecute those involved in the Chiapas events between January 1 and 20, under two conditions: the handing over of hostages (all had been handed over); and the turning in of weapons. The Zapatistas have rejected amnesty, as it assumes they committed some crime for which they now need to seek amnesty. The EZLN holds that it committed no crime, but rather used its constitutional right to rebel against an illegitimate government.

Turning in weapons. The government sees disarmament of the Zapatista forces as key, but the guerrillas know that those arms are their prime guarantee of government compliance with the accords.

Verification of compliance with any accords reached. In the government document responding to the Zapatista demands, a verification commission is discussed: "In the terms under which it is required, the government will support the creation of a National Commission of Peace with Justice and Dignity. This commission will play a key role in overseeing compliance with the accords contained in this political commitment for peace with dignity in Chiapas." The creation of a commission of this type presupposes agreement about who will make up the commission, how it will function and what authority it will have.

Assassination and a Fragile Treaty

Upon leaving San Cristóbal for the zone under their control, the Zapatistas stressed that there had been a dialogue and not a negotiation and that, consequently, they would now proceed to consult with their bases regarding the government proposals. This grassroots consultation began a few days after the talks with Commissioner Camacho began, but was interrupted by Colosio's assassination. There is no fixed date for reopening the dialogue and recent national events make any predictions particularly difficult.

There is currently a treaty between the EZLN and the federal army in Chiapas, based on the cease fire ordered by the government and a parallel decision by the Zapatistas. But this treaty is threatened by pressure from two other actors. On one side are the cattle ranchers and other big landowners backed by their "white guards", squads of gunmen who are in the process of rearming. They see their privileges and power being gradually eroded. On the other hand are the non Zapatista peasant and indigenous organizations that have reinitiated their own struggles, including activities such as land takeovers. They are well aware that the army will not take action against them due to the treaty. For them, the EZLN is a guarantee of sorts against the landowners' impunity. It is thus a very fragile treaty.

Chiapas and the Electoral Situation

The Chiapas rebellion is really an indigenous one, but it was by no means a spontaneous uprising. The EZLN is an organization forged over a period of ten years, with a political consciousness and a strategic project. Its indigenous composition is so indisputable that it is supremely stupid to allege, as some government spokespeople have done, that the indigenous population, due to its difficulties speaking Spanish, cannot analyze reality or look into the future. Only a racist attitude could see in this difficulty a lesser intellectual capacity. This racism sees "manipulation" behind any indigenous rebellion.

Despite its strong indigenous content, the Chiapas rebellion is not limited to this content. It also expresses the crisis of the Mexican political system. It is thus neither gratuitous nor circumstantial that the issue of democracy lies squarely at the center of the EZLN's demands.

From their Lacandona Forest declaration to their various demands, the Zapatistas have consistently underscored the illegitimacy of the Salinas government and the PRI dictatorship, and the need for free and credible elections. This position links the Chiapas crisis with the current electoral situation.

On Sunday, August 21, Mexicans will go to the polls to elect a new President. If the results are not credible, if there is yet another electoral fraud, no prior peace accord will stop the Zapatistas from feeling that one of their central demands was betrayed. Hence, nothing will stop them from once again taking up arms. From this point of view, the prospects are grim.

The presidential race seems to be reduced to the PRI and Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) candidates. Although the National Action Party (PAN) is the second most important electoral force, its candidate has been nudged down to third place because his closeness to Salinas has lost him support, even within his own party.

Camacho and Colosio

The PRI is going into the upcoming elections with an unprecedented vulnerability. The division within the party is now public. Manuel Camacho's initial opposition to the Colosio candidacy significantly weakened Colosio's campaign and led to a clear division between Camacho supporters and Colosio backers. After he was appointed Commissioner for Peace and Reconciliation in Chiapas, Camacho never stopped speculating about the possibility of his presidential candidacy, even outside the PRI. That speculation, based on the enormous political force he had accumulated as peace negotiator, ranged from attempting a candidacy under the banner of an opposition party to replacing Colosio as the PRI candidate. Many within the PRI felt that this last possibility was at least tolerated by President Salinas, who presumably had come to the conclusion that he had erred in selecting his successor Colosio was now seen as a weak candidate, whereas Camacho was a clearly successful politician. Camacho's declaration on March 22 that he would not seek the presidency relieved Colosio, but for many others, it was not Camacho's final word. That would be given when the peace accord was finally signed, a moment at which, presumably, Camacho would harvest his political successes.

The March 23 assassination of Colosio shattered everything. It even meant Camacho's political death, since Colosio supporters reproached him for having refused to immediately extend his full support to Colosio.

Who Killed Colosio?

The criminal investigations make it clear that the assassination was a conspiracy among a number of people, including a well known PRI member. If, in the first moments after the murder that moved an entire country, the suspects were the regime's outside enemies (Zapatistas or PRD members) today society watches in horror as the possibility unfolds that the responsible parties were members of Colosio's own party.

In a country where the justice system has little credibility, public suspicions take on significant weight. Today those suspicions point to sectors of the PRI, and even to President Salinas himself, although these suspicions are obviously not an indicator of real guilt. It is unlikely that Salinas would have had even minimal participation in the crime.
The discredit to the regime, however, is undeniable. Popular opinion in general does not adhere to legal regulations when making its judgments. If it could be foreseen that the PRI would try to take advantage of the sentimental vote provoked by the figure of Colosio as martyr, this vote may now well be denied the PRI if it is confirmed that Colosio was the victim of an internal PRI conspiracy.

The designation of the new candidate, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, widened the gaps already existing within the official party. Zedillo is not a candidate of either the Camacho or the Colosio faction, both of which now seem to have been displaced. He is Salinas' candidate. For the beneficiaries of the current regime, as well as for both national and foreign investors, Zedillo guarantees continuity in the current administration's neoliberal policies. In selecting him, Salinas ignored the voices within the PRI demanding less top down political procedures the President as exclusive elector and an authentic consultation within the party.

The new official candidate's task is likely beyond his possibilities. He must convince not only his own party colleagues to salvage party unity, but also the electors, a task in which he has no previous experience. As a good technocrat, he has occupied state posts, but never been elected to one. Today, given the potential electoral force of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the PRD candidate, the weakening of the PRI must be taken seriously into account. But the most serious problem is not which candidate will garner the most votes in August. It is, above all, the credibility question.

War and Peace Scenarios

The peaceful scenarios are that Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas will win the elections and his triumph will be recognized. Or that Zedillo will win, and Cárdenas will not object. Today, neither possibility seems particularly likely.
An indicator of the government's willingness to accept an eventual Cárdenas victory would be to establish all the conditions necessary to make sure these elections are exceptionally clean and without any possibility of being manipulated by the government. But there is no demonstration of any such willingness. Assuring that from this point on Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas bows to the August results lies in giving prompt attention to his demands for electoral law reforms. This would leave him with no arguments for disputing the electoral results. To the contrary, the government made a few minimal concessions reforms to the composition of the electoral groupings, etc. but refused to cede on substantial points such as those dealing with the transparency of the electoral model.

The fact that the PRI is weakened by internal divisions and saddled with an official candidate lacking force and strength raises many doubts about an eventual Zedillo victory. The refusal to modify the electoral law also opens the door to an almost certain post electoral dispute of the results by Cárdenas and his PRD. The first group to mobilize in such a case would be the Zapatistas, but they would no longer be isolated in Chiapas. They would have a new presence in the context of a national political crisis, in which it would not be strange to see new armed insurgencies emerge in other areas of the country.

It is very likely that the treaty in Chiapas will last until August. What happens afterwards will depend on the electoral results. And current data does not allow for facile optimism. The shadow of war is still present. What is at stake on August 21, more than choosing a new President, is whether the transition to democracy will be peaceful or violent.

It might well seem that Mexico is arriving late to the era of armed revolutions. But, at bottom, it is arriving late to democracy.

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