At the Edge of War?
Convoked by the EZLN, hundreds of representatives of Mexican civil society will meet in Chiapas from August 6th to 9th to discuss democracy. Twelve days after that will be the elections. And after that?
Enrique Flota Ocampo
As the end of the century that gave birth to Mexico's revolution approaches, the country is being shaken by a political conflict that threatens to become uncontrollable. The uprising of the Zapatista indigenous movement has ended up inextricably linked to Mexico's electoral process.
The cry for democracy at the center of the Zapatista National Liberation Army's demands has also become central to the nation as a whole. It has shaped a political moment that is moving along two axes: the August presidential elections and the conflict in Chiapas.
The TV Debate Rattled the RatingsAlthough nine parties have candidates in the presidential race, it was thought at the beginning of the year that the real contest was between only two: the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).
Then, on May 12, an event took place that caused a reevaluation of this assessment. For the first time in the country's history, a debate among the three top candidates Ernesto Zedillo of the PRI, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of the PRD, and Diego Fernández de Ceballos of the National Action Party (PAN) was televised to an estimated 40 million viewers. Fernández, until then in a distant third place, won the debate hands down.
Fernández's enormous rhetorical ability allowed him to throw hard challenges to the surprised Cárdenas and the cardboard stiff Zedillo. His victory was so indisputable that the party faithful confidently predicted an equal one at the polls.
Following the debate, a good part of the media particularly those headed by Televisa mounted a campaign against Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, aimed at sowing the idea that he had been defeated and was not a viable presidential aspirant. Alongside this campaign, a proliferation of polls put him in third place among presidential preferences, garnering only about 12% to 15% of those intending to vote.
Government circles welcomed the debate results, even though Zedillo, the official candidate, was far short of brilliant. The PAN candidate's severity toward Cárdenas indirectly favored the PRI since it put the PRD out of the race. Diego Fernández, on the other hand, represents no threat to the system. The PRI could even adopt him as the winning candidate, since his platform is even more like that of the incumbent Salinas than Zedillo's is.
After the debate, PAN strategists put together a multi city tour of party strongholds to buttress their candidate's triumphant image. Huge crowds came out in San Juan del Río, Querétaro, Guanajuato and Guadalajara to acclaim Fernández as the certain next President of Mexico.
PRD Revives, PRI Gets TenseBy the end of May it seemed that, with Cárdenas on the ropes, the presidential race would be limited to a test of strength between the PRI and PAN candidates, both loyalists of the current administration's neoliberal project. But it soon became apparent that news of Cárdenas' political death had been greatly exaggerated. By June, the ratings were back to their pre debate positions.
Fernández quickly ran out of PAN bastions to visit and his campaign returned to the low intensity affair it had been before: an activities program full of idle time, focused almost exclusively on media interviews, particularly on the radio.
Cárdenas, on the other hand, managed to turn his campaign back around. He kicked it off with a successful tour through the state of Oaxaca, and shored it up with the best attended rally of any held in Mexico's National Autonomous University. Since then, his campaign has been reminiscent of the huge gatherings that won him so many supporters in 1988.
His tours through the state of Tabasco and the south of Veracruz were similar. Even in places where the PRD has weak support, such as Chihuahua (a state governed by PAN) and Campache (a PRI bastion), the receptivity to Cárdenas' proposals surprised the incumbents.
This new stage culminated successfully in a rally held in the "El Toreo" bull park, which has a 16,000 person capacity. When Zedillo appeared there, the gates had to be closed to keep people from leaving when he began to speak. Fernández had also been there already, drawing a good crowd but not filling the space. When Cárdenas came, the place filled to overflowing, and several thousand more had to stay outside.
Once again, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas seems to be the only opposition candidate with any real chance to become President. His possibilities look even better in that the PRI is suffering the worst internal fissures in its history, ones that auger the end of its absolute political predominance.
Ernesto Zedillo has so far not managed to reunify his incumbent party. In fact, his criticisms of Manuel Camacho Solís' labors as Peace and Reconciliation Commissioner of Chiapas came perilously close to actually splitting it. Camacho responded sharply to Zedillo's characterization of the peace negotiations in Chiapas as a failure; in his resignation speech, he alluded to those whose posture and declarations had undermined the peace process.
The team of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI's assassinated first presidential candidate, has already been moved aside by a group of politicians of the old stamp, headed by Carlos Hank González, the current Secretary of Agriculture and Hydraulic Resources. These realignments have aggravated the PRI's internal divisions and could be expressed in the elections in "punishment votes": votes by PRI members for opposition candidates.
Will There Be Fraud?The government is not only grappling with the problem of a growing opposition that threatens to snatch away the power the PRI has held for most of the 20th century. Perhaps an even greater headache is its credibility problem.
The Mexican population's skepticism has been fed for years by the truth gap in official versions of just about everything. People simply no longer believe what the government says. Huge crimes fade into the penumbra of the passing years without any explanation that could ever fully satisfy public opinion. The unresolved assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio threatens to cast a deep shadow on the elections, since the opinion is widespread that there will be a cover up of the crime's intellectual authors, assumed to be found within the circles of state power.
Precedents of never clarified intrigues abound: the 1968 student massacre in Tlatelolco; the brutal aggression against polytechnic students on June 10, 1971; the murder of journalist Manuel Buendía; the 1992 explosions in Guadalajara; the assassination of Cardinal Posadas in 1993... These and other still open cases prompt many disquieting questions.
The government's credibility is no better in the electoral field. A deeply rooted belief exists that one's vote doesn't count for anything, that electoral fraud has always prevailed. An opinion poll based on a sample of 9,000 citizens distributed in 120 municipalities around the country, done by a new nongovernmental body of electoral observers called Alianza Cívica/Observación 1994, showed that more than half think the August elections will be fraudulent.
Against this backdrop, Arturo Núñez, who currently directs the Federal Electoral Institute, responsible for organizing the elections, unearthed the ghost of the 1988 elections. Explaining the computer crash on election night, Núñez said that the first results coming in which were from the state of Mexico and the Federal District showed a voting tendency favoring Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, not Salinas de Gortari. That, he let slip, led to the decision to "crash" the system.
It is the first public admission that the suspicious computer failure was fraudulently provoked to favor Salinas. It is alarming that such a confession would come from a high official of the electoral system, who in 1988 was the PRI's representative to the electoral bodies. His slip was silenced by the argument that old wounds should not be reopened and that there will be no investigation.
The UN Will Come and There Will Be ObserversA new feature of the 1994 elections will be the legally recognized presence of national and foreign observers. Alianza Cívica/Observación 94 was formed at the end of 1993, and will mobilize some 15,000 people to oversee the electoral process. Another 14 organizations have since announced their intention to also participate as observers, and will issue their own findings alongside those of the Alianza Cívica. This newer proliferation of observers has been interpreted as a possible official counterweight to the Alianza Cívica, whose genuine independence has already sparked some concern within the government. But what will prevail at the end of the day will be the criteria of the organization or organizations that gain most credibility with popular opinion, based on the background of their members and the methodological seriousness of their work.
The government surprised everyone by inviting the United Nations to become involved in the electoral process. The invitation, however, was to observe not the elections but the other observers. The UN delegation is already working in Mexico, and will file a report on the openness, objectivity, impartiality and professionalism of the national observers. The government runs no risk with this formula and subjects the observers to an external stamp of approval on their own work.
Foreigners may also come as observers, under the category of "foreign visitors interested in the electoral process." But they may issue no judgment whatever that implies an intervention in Mexico's domestic affairs.
The observers, will play an important role in spite of all the limitations that the law imposes on them. They can buttress or impugn the credibility of the elections, and credibility is the touchstone of the current electoral process.
The Voter Rolls: Focus of SuspicionAlthough this year's elections will be the most closely watched in Mexico's electoral history, modern technical mechanisms have made possible all kinds of fraud that are not visible at first glance. The gross theft of ballot boxes or the adulteration of records is outmoded. Fraud now rests on manipulating the computerized voter rolls. "Losing" voters in zones where the opposition is strong, "finding" them in those where the party in power has the most presence, listing their names in an inappropriate column to disqualify them from voting are some of the many resources in the hands of computer engineers that can sway the electoral results one way or another.
With a list of more than 40 million registered voters and short legal deadlines for the parties to review them, the computer census is at the very center of suspicion, and its complexity converts it in some sense into an unsolvable problem.
Despite all the suspicions, the proximity of the elections is a fact, as is the obligation to participate in them. The ultimate characterization of the process as fraudulent or not will have to be a posteriori. Other mechanisms will have to be used beforehand, such as indelible ink to mark the votes; at this point sufficient guarantees have not even been given that it is really indelible.
Carpizo Goes, Carpizo StaysThe crisis that hit Salinas' Cabinet when Secretary of Government Jorge Carpizo presented his resignation could be situated on this credibility plane. Without honoring the forms of the political system, Carpizo's letter accused "sectors of a political party" which he left unidentified of having pressured him to act with partiality in the electoral process.
Carpizo was immediately deluged with requests to remain at his post and oversee the organization of the elections. His academic prestige and personal honesty were praised to the skies. Two days later, politically strengthened by this broad support, Carpizo withdrew his resignation. In passing, he contributed to a new media attack against the PRD by failing to be more specific about his critical allusion; two TV channels openly accused the PRD of being the party in question.
Carpizo now appears as a guarantee that the electoral process will be clean. Everyone, however, knows that this guarantee is out of his hands, that fraud in Mexico goes way beyond the person of the governmental secretary.
The EZLN's Important MessageThe government's effort to separate the electoral process from the Chiapas conflict has been fruitless. A consultation with the Zapatista grassroots base regarding its support for the peace accords that the government in San Cristóbal de las Casas proposed at the end of February and beginning of March netted an almost unanimous rejection. The essential reason, say the Zapatistas, is that neither the social problems nor the EZLN's demands can ever be resolved as long as there is no democracy.
At the end of June, the EZLN issued its Second Declaration of the Lacandona Forest. In seven terse points it defined its position regarding the new situation created by its rejection of the peace accords. We offer a translation of the full text of this important message below.
Our sovereignty resides in Civil Society; it is the people who can, at any time, alter or modify our form of government and they have now taken up doing so. It is to the people that we make a call in this Second Declaration of the Lacandona Forest to say to them:
First. We have unfailingly complied with the conventions of war established at a world level in carrying out our military actions; this has permitted us the tacit recognition of nationals and foreigners as a belligerent force. We will continue complying with said conventions.
Second. We order our regular and irregular forces throughout the national territory and abroad to unilaterally prolong the offensive cease fire.
We will maintain our respect for the cease fire to permit civil society to organize itself in the ways it considers pertinent to achieve the transition to democracy in our country.
Third. We condemn the threat hanging over the head of civil society to militarize the country, with personnel and modern repressive equipment, on the eve of the federal elections. There is no doubt that the Salinas government aims to impose itself through the culture of fraud. We will not permit it.
Fourth. We propose to all independent political parties that they acknowledge now the state of intimidation and deprivation of political rights that our people have suffered for the past 65 years and that they speak out in favor of assuming a government of political transition toward democracy.
Fifth. We reject the manipulation and the attempt to separate our just demands from those of the Mexican people. We are Mexicans and will put down neither our demands nor our weapons if Democracy, Liberty and Justice are not resolved for all.
Sixth. We reiterate our openness to a political solution in the transition to democracy in Mexico. We call on Civil Society to take the protagonist role in stopping the military phase of the war and to organize itself to lead the peaceful effort toward Democracy, Liberty and Justice. Democratic change is the only alternative to war.
Seventh. We call the honest elements of Civil Society to a National Dialogue for Democracy, Liberty and Justice for all Mexicans.
The Government's ResponseThe government responded by also extending the offensive cease fire, which thus established a continuation of the truce. While this is not an unimportant advance, the situation in Chiapas is extremely fragile.
When Manuel Camacho Solís resigned as Commissioner for Peace and Reconciliation in Chiapas, President Salinas moved Jorge Madrazo Cuéllar into the slot. Madrazo Cuéllar, who was the president of the National Human Rights Commission before the shift, has neither Camacho's political strength nor his negotiation skills. The Zapatistas have not yet reacted publicly to his appointment.
The tense climate between indigenous and peasants on one side, and cattle ranchers and estate owners on the other, is tending to grow around the issue of land ownership. Rage provoking violent incidents such as the assassination of two migration agents who were burned alive on the border with Guatemala or the rape of four Tzeltal women by soldiers of the Mexican army only increase the tension and the possibility that the truce could be broken at any moment.
The EZLN Summons All Honest MexicansThe Zapatistas regained the political initiative with their Second Declaration of the Lacandona Forest, followed by the Convocation to a Democratic National Convention, which we translate below.
Hope with a trigger had its place at the beginning of the year. It is now necessary to wait. It is necessary that the hope residing in great mobilizations return to the protagonistic place corresponding to it by right and reason. The banner is now in the hands of those with names and faces, of good and honest people who walk routes that are not ours, but whose goal is the one for which our steps yearn. Our greeting to these men and women, our greeting and our hope that they will carry this banner to where it should be. We will be waiting, steady and with dignity. If this banner falls, we will know how to pick it up anew.
Let the hope organize itself, let it walk now in the valleys and cities as yesterday it did in the mountains. Fight with your weapons, and do not worry about ours. We know how to resist to the last. We know how to wait... and we know how to return if all the doors that permit dignity to walk close again.
For this purpose we direct ourselves to our brothers and sisters of the nongovernmental organizations, the peasant and indigenous organizations, workers in the fields and cities, teachers and students, housewives and rural settlers, artists and intellectuals, those of Mexico's independent parties.
We call for a national dialogue on the theme of Democracy, Liberty and Justice. To this end we issue this convocation to the Democratic National Convention.
We, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, in struggle to achieve the democracy, liberty and justice that our country deserves, and considering:
First. That the supreme government has also usurped the legality bequeathed us by the heroes of the Mexican Revolution.
Second. That the Magna Carta that governs us is no longer the popular will of Mexicans.
Third. That the departure of the usurper of the federal Executive is not enough and a new law is needed for our new homeland, which must be born of the struggles of all honest Mexicans.
Fourth. That all forms of struggle to achieve the transition to democracy in Mexico are necessary.
We call for the holding of a sovereign and revolutionary National Democratic Convention, from which will come the proposals for a transition government and a new national law, a new Constitution that will guarantee the legal fulfillment of the popular will.
The fundamental objective of the Democratic National Convention is to organize civil expression and the defense of the popular will.
The sovereign revolutionary convention will be national in that its composition and representation must include all states of the federation, plural in the sense that all patriotic forces can be represented, and democratic in its decision making, recurring to a national consultation.
The convention will be freely and voluntarily presided over by civilians, public personalities of recognized prestige, with no importance given to their political affiliation, race, religious creed, sex or age.
The convention will be formed by civilians through local, regional and state committees in ejidos, neighborhoods, schools and factories. These convention committees will be in charge of gathering the popular proposals for the new constitutional law and the demands to be fulfilled by the new government that emanates from this.
The Zapatista National Liberation Army will recognize the National Democratic Convention as the authentic representative of the Mexican people's interests in their transition to democracy.
The Zapatista National Liberation Army is now found throughout the national territory and already has the possibility of offering itself to the people of Mexico as an army that will guarantee compliance with the popular will.
For the seat of the first meeting of the Democratic National Convention, the EZLN offers a Zapatista community and all the resources at its disposal.
Marcos Leaves No DoubtsThe Zapatista convocation was met with generalized acceptance, and the participation of a wide gamut of social organizations and nongovernmental agencies, including observers from some political parties, is foreseen. But it also generated broad debate at the outset about the convention's character and content. In the first days of June, the Zapatistas detailed their posture through a communiqué signed by Subcomandante Marcos, which left open the hows but not the whats on the agenda:
We want to say that the EZLN is making this call with precise objectives. It is convoking those who are struggling or want to struggle for democratic change. Those who do not want democratic change are not convoked. It is convoking those who are in agreement with insisting on peaceful democratic change. Those who think that democratic change is only obtained through armed struggle are not convoked. It is convoking those who agree with proving whether this democratic change can also be obtained through the electoral road. Those who are not in agreement with testing the electoral road are not convoked. It is convoking those who are in agreement with a transition government. Those who are not convinced of the need for a transition government are not convoked. It is convoking those who are in accord with the need for a new Constitution. Those who are not convinced that a new Magna Carta is necessary are not convoked. It is convoking those who recognize that the party of the state is the principal obstacle to democratic transition. Those who do not see this are not convoked.
Who Will Unite Civil Society?As the elections draw near, other initiatives of all kinds have proliferated that also aim to bring together personalities and groups from civil society. One such, which calls itself the San Angel Group, was convoked by former PRI member Demetrio Sodi de la Tijera and political writer Jorge Castañeda. This whole effort is linked to the scenarios of post electoral violence that can already be predicted, in which the capacity to generate consensus in society will be key.
Through their rejection of the accords, their second declaration and their conference call, the Zapatistas have tried to put together a social force that can have an impact on peaceful transition through elections. Marcos' communiqué went a long way to clarify the proposal contained in the Second Declaration of the Lacandona Forest. The Zapatistas support neither warmongering positions nor abstentionist ones.
Many doubts still remain about what the content and sense of a transition government should be (such as its composition and its relationship to the electoral process) and about the new Constitution (whether the old one should simply be thrown out or could be adequately reformed).
The holding of the convention will be significant in this current moment, particularly if without pretending to be sovereign, representative of the whole Mexican people it can unite many around the idea of a peaceful transition to democracy and a new development model. It will obviously have to deal with the risk of internal division, inherent in any assembly of this kind. The charismatic figure of Subcomandante Marcos will play an important role in avoiding this and other pitfalls. He will be strengthened in this effort by the advantages of holding the convention in a zone under Zapatista control.
Uncertainty on Election EveIn a journalistic interview, Subcomandante Marcos declared that an electoral victory by Ernesto Zedillo would be unbelievable and unacceptable to the EZLN. And, although he did not say it, it can be deduced that a victory by Diego Fernández would be equally unacceptable for the same reasons. Both men back a program almost identical to that of the regime against which the Zapatistas took up arms. That makes the risk of war after the elections loom large.
An electoral win by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas would create the best conditions for continuing the peace process in Chiapas, but this possibility faces resistance from President Salinas and the whole political system. An electoral fraud would again unleash hostilities in Chiapas, but in conditions very different to those of January.
The Zapatistas know that they have political backing, which the Democratic National Convention will ratify. But, above all, they know that the war would not be limited to the state of Chiapas. Armed outbursts would very probably occur also in Guerrero, Oaxaca or Puebla, just to name the conflictive areas most often cited by the media.
The dispersion of military actions, combined with a mobilization of the citizenry protesting fraud, would create a national political crisis that could evolve into an ungovernable situation. The government it is well aware that an extension of the conflict could cause the economy to crumble (through the flight of capital and investors, unemployment, more crime, etc.).
To forestall this, the government would have to try to smash the opposition both civil and armed in the shortest time possible. Its recent purchase of armaments and military equipment, its creation of a National Security Coordination and some military movements inside the country suggest that the government is already preparing to deal with such a scenario. Mexico is at a historic crossroads. At issue is less whether or not there will be a transition, but whether it will be peaceful or violent. It is a crossroads that will detour the elections from their normal course. The elections can end up on the road to democracy or to civil war. The country itself is at stake in the choice, and the timetable for the results to be felt is already set: between August and December of this year.