Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 177 | Abril 1996



The Zapatatistas' Voice Is Still Being Heard

“It is shameful that only in the last decade of the 20th century does the government begin to recognize our existence and our rights. And even there they have been niggardly!” Once again, the Zapatistas negotiate, make proposals and convoke Mexican society.

David Fernández

"Today, with the heart of Emiliano Zapata and having heard the voices of all our brothers, we call on the people of Mexico to join in a new stage of struggle for national liberation and the construction of a new country, through this Fourth Declaration from the Lacandon Forest, in which we urge all honest men and women to participate in the new political force issuing forth today: the Zapatista National Liberation Front (FZLN)."

Members of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) General Command called for the FZLN's formation in the early morning hours of January 1, 1996, in the Chiapas community of Onventic, also known as Aguascalientes II. Its program of struggle will be the 13 demands contained in the First Declaration of the Lacandon Forest (1992): housing, land, work, food, health care, education, information, culture, independence, democracy, justice, freedom and peace.

The Zapatistas explained that the Front would not function as a political party because taking political power is not its ultimate goal. They also explained that the EZLN has not disappeared, but that the key effort at this point will be in the political arena.

Even if the Zapatista Front will not itself be a party, it will bring together political parties, as well as some 500 other organizations, including unions, peasant and grassroots organizations, and well known national personalities.

Politicians from a wide range of opinions questioned the FZLN's declaration that it did not seek power, to which Subcomandante Marcos responded: "They have strongly criticized the fact that the FZLN is not interested in power, and we don't understand that criticism. They say it's impossible to struggle for democracy without also proposing the taking of power, as if criticizing corrupt politics or an official who is doing a poor job means you have to become a government official or a politician to get things moving forward. What we want to do is organize society to resolve those problems that the government is not resolving."

Defining the Left

The new proposal to create the FZLN gives coherence to other activities the EZLN has carried out since the cease fire two years ago. Its distance from the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), its National Citizens' Consultation, its invitation to dozens of advisers to participate in the First Dialogue all now take on their true meaning as part of a strategic project of the Zapatistas.

Ever since they were able to organize a military force in the southeast of Mexico, the Zapatistas' intention has been to create their own political organization, with a profile and program clearly identified with the left side of the political spectrum. This is probably why the Zapatistas never seriously put forth the possibility of an alliance or strategic unity with the PRD, although they have always politically recognized some of the PRD's key figures, principally Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas.

They are also looking to mobilize civil society around peace and the citizens' consultation regarding the EZLN's future. To that end they called on democratic sectors within Mexico to make up the National Democratic Convention and, when that failed, to participate in the dialogues taking place in Chiapas. During this whole time, as it turns out, the Zapatistas have been defining their political profile and building political alliances.

The new Zapatista call has begun to crystalize and speed up processes already underway in the country's democratic spaces, particularly within the PRD. The call effectively forced definitions and will likely cause fissures in center left political groupings.

Building a left pole in the country is a process still weighted down by a few self proclaimed revolutionary groups with whom the EZLN has had commitments for many years. While these decidedly sectarian and vanguardist organizations thrived in the EZLN's shadow, their dogmatic principles and preconceived purist ideas fly in the face of the pluralistic spirit the EZLN is invoking.

National Indigenous Forum

For all of these reasons, the National Indigenous Forum held in Chiapas at the start of this year was part of the EZLN's effort to deepen relationships and strengthen alliances. It was a decisive step forward in the Zapatistas' open political activities.

The context in which the Forum took place was a very dicey one for peace in the country. Hostilities were on the verge of breaking out again when the Federal Army tried to occupy the outskirts of Aguascalientes, which Zapatista civil society built to celebrate the second anniversary of the January 1, 1994 insurrection. Both the Secretary of Government and the EZLN made strong statements, and only the timely mediation of the National Mediation Commission (CONAI) and Commission of Harmony and Pacification (COCOPA) allowed tensions to ease. CONAI is headed by Bishop Samuel Ruiz and COCOPA members include legislators from all political parties. Their involvement also facilitated the holding of the EZLN's scheduled forum, in exchange for which the Zapatistas suspended the military parades they had planned.

The forum's results were extraordinary. Over 400 participants came from the country's southernmost state, paying their own way. Unprecedented consensus was reached around key programmatic points of the indigenous demands, and divisions within the independent indigenous movement were surmounted.

Leftwing groupings are absolutely necessary in any society that puts a premium on democracy. But the groups that seem to get the most out of this label are those at the center of the political spectrum. This is because the mere existence of the left allows for a counterweight to balance authoritarian rightwing postures and organizations. Although there are other reasons, this is the one that led almost all social sectors within the country to welcome the EZLN's call to form the Zapatista Front.

Some on the Right are Perplexed

The call has also caused confusion and misunderstanding, however. Octavio Paz was extremely critical from a rightwing perspective. "On a number of occasions," he declared, "I have pointed out the vagueness of the demands made by the Clandestine Revolutionary Committee: what does it mean by the words justice, freedom, democracy, dignity? It asks for a change, but its will to change resolves into a question. What does this change consist of and what will its goals be?"

"The Fourth Declaration," continued Paz, "clarifies none of these points and adds two equally imprecise ones. The first is the formation of the Zapatista National Liberation Front, outside the realm of all parties and governments. The second is that the Front's central mission will be to draw up a new 'national project'. The move to constitute a Zapatista National Liberation Front is perplexing. In the first place, why Zapatista? It is an adjective that excludes those who are not Zapatistas, in other words, the majority of the country. The Front's goal also leaves me perplexed, since it is to create a political organization that expressly rejects the central objective of political activity, be it democratic or revolutionary: taking power."

Octavio Paz cannot understand that what the Front has proposed is a democratic struggle, one to transform all the political rules of the game through grassroots political participation, removed from the old objectives and practices of the formally constituted parties.

Some on the Left Are Wary

Personalities on the left, particularly high profile PRD leaders, have also received the proposal warily and some even rejected it. They are afraid of being displaced from public life.

In reality, the EZLN is proposing to carry out political activity outside of the "top down" sphere under corporativist government control. That is the perspective from which its refusal to aspire to political office emerges. It is not a matter of putting the organization above the government and parties, but of building a new alternative power from the very base of society. This is what is revolutionary about its proposal.

The sectarian left is also confused. In a meeting "for national dialogue," the left's most backward currents expressed rejection of the "reformist forces" that joined the FZLN. Independent of their characterization of a few democratic groupings, what happened was that they confused the EZLN's call to form the Front with another, simultaneous call to form a national liberation movement.

The Zapatista National Liberation Front, as the EZLN says, would be its own homogenous and civilian political organization, even though the tag "Front" may be disconcerting to some. The National Liberation Movement, in contrast, really is a political front, which seeks unity of action with other organizations in the democratic arena around minimal consensus issues like reform of the state.

Intergalactic Encounter?

The Zapatistas issued still another call to the Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism, dubbed the "intergalactic encounter" by Subcomandante Marcos. At the root of this call is this understanding of reality: there are no national, racial, cultural or ideological barriers among the governing officials of different countries and members of the politically and financially privileged classes. Fueled by their common neoliberal religion, the members of these elites identify and overlap with one another, and mutually admire each other. Similarly, the struggle against neoliberalism now unites those who one way or another are conscious of the neoliberal economic model's social effects.

In its two stages, the Intercontinental Encounter's goal is to understand and articulate people's viewpoints on neoliberalism. Groups, organizations and individuals from Europe, America, Asia, Africa and Oceania, first at a continental level and then all together, will meet to exchange their knowledge, and explain to each other how they live, how they resist and what their experiences are under neoliberalism, as well as their proposals to struggle against it and for humanity. As Paulina Fernández says, "If neoliberalism has brought such distinct governments together, why can't it unite people who oppose it?"

Dialogue: Advances and Reverses

At the same time, the EZLN government dialogue in Chiapas is in a cyclical process of advance and retreat. Positive signs appear from nowhere, followed as quickly by negative ones. During December 1995, on the eve of the second anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, the double edged official strategy of dialogue accompanied by dissuasion was all too apparent. The dialogue is vacillating and uncertain, with advances, retreats and contradictions, while the dissuasion is clearly defined and ever forward moving.

On December 13, after enormous difficulties, the National Mediation Commission finally made possible a new meeting between COCOPA and the EZLN, at which new regulations for the National Indigenous Forum were established. With all its successes, however, the forum took place amid tight limitations imposed by increased military control in the zone.

By being a permanent fixture in both national and international news, this growing militarization runs the risk of desensitizing public opinion. "It's an issue of pronounced progressive escalation," says reporter Hermann Bellinghausen.

The National Defense Secretary systematically justifies military reinforcements and patrols as "administrative movements," "troop replacement," "distribution of foods and medicines" and "routine manuevers." However, as National Assembly representative and COCOPA member José Narro charged on December 6, the army deployed troops with small tanks, artillery vehicles and heavy equipment to patrol and inspect the community. It was not distributing or supplying medicines, but openly intimidating the civilian population. Civilians watched with great concern as the unusual troop deployment took place with the goal of undermining the activities planned to commemorate the uprising.

A Stroke of Genius

In the midst of all this, positive signs appeared with the holding of the First Dialogue on Indigenous Rights and Culture. In a truly brilliant move, the EZLN invited some 150 advisers to the negotiating table, appealing to an article regulating the dialogue that permitted either party to have advisers (the government had invited four or five). The EZLN advisers included intellectuals, social leaders and members of the over 56 ethnic groups in the country. With this move, the EZLN achieved two of its central objectives: to convert the San Andrés Dialogue into an authentic national dialogue, moving beyond the borders of Chiapas; and to put the problems facing indigenous peoples squarely on the national agenda. The government could not stop the move, but attempted to redirect things its way by promoting similar forums, called by the Secretariat of Governance, in all areas of the country.

The Government Did Not Believe

We'll let Jesuit Ricardo Robles, who coordinated the EZLN advisers in the group dealing with the issue of "Access to Justice," relate the results of this dialogue session.

"The Resolutive Plenary has not yet finished. We're waiting for the results of the consultation held among grassroots Zapatista supporters. The Mexican government wanted to characterize the base agreements achieved in San Andrés Sacamchén as final conclusions, but that's not the case. What is the government trying to gain politically and what might be its hidden card in this game? What has the EZLN won, and for whom? What peace can we expect?

"In the face of the EZLN's clear political force, the government has wanted to save its image, both domestically and internationally. The EZLN was able to convoke a pluralistic advisory group, made up of indigenous peoples and intellectuals from civil society, all participating voluntarily because they believe in the cause, the demands, the rights of the peoples, the indigenous truth, the history of justice and dignity for which the admirable Zapatistas are struggling.

"The government had publicized what it termed its 'generous offer', and presented a document that, while acceptable in general terms, fell short of Zapatista demands. It was betting on the success of its offer because it assumed that the Zapatista advisers would fail. It did not believe that this pluralistic group could contribute such human qualities and share the indigenous words; it did not believe that the indigenous advisers could offer definitive and far reaching statements; it did not believe that the intellectual advisers could set their individualism to one side; it simply could not believe that we all shared the same thirst for justice and dignity.

"The great difference was that we were speaking from conviction, freely and in no one's pay, called forward by trustworthy people. The counterpart negotiated as little as it could given public opinion, using the slogans of the government in crisis. It tried to salvage its image, magnanimously publicizing its 'generous offer' to strip the EZLN of its political triumphs and its Lacandon Forest demands. It was attempting the absurd task of stepping into the comandantes' shoes, trying to gain control over what had been gained through life and death struggle honesty.

"On January 18, once the plenary in which the basis of the agreement had been hammered out was over, Comandante Tacho charged that 'an entire army had to take up arms to make ourselves heard and to begin to open spaces where the most deeply felt needs of the indigenous peoples and all peoples of Mexico can be heard.' He added that 'it is shameful that in the last decade of the 20th century, the government is only now beginning to show signs of recognizing our existence and our rights, and has even been trying to bargain over that.' 'The government,' he went on, 'now has the opportunity of opening new roads and doors as well as demonstrating that war is no road.'

"The EZLN insisted that it needs guarantees, deeds, in order to carry out its consultation in the indigenous communities, given the presence of Mexican government troops, whose strength increases daily and whose harassment of the population is unceasing. It repeated that message in the plenary session and in the press conferences: 'We are clearly stating that words and commitments are useless as long as the repression continues.'

"The results of this first dialogue session seem acceptable. As EZLN adviser Adelfo Regino, of the Mixe indigenous people, said, 'A great door has been opened, though many smaller ones have been shut." Opening these smaller doors will take time and new struggles, but I think it is clear that, if the agreements are complied with as stated, indigenous peoples will have taken an important step in Mexico, virtually in spite of the government."

This agreement regarding Indigenous Rights and Culture is the first of six packages of negotiating issues previously established by the two parties to the dialogue. Implementing the agreement, which includes elements related to indigenous autonomy as well as economic, legal and political aspects, requires constitutional reforms and both state and federal legislation.

The text of the Accords contains three parts: 1) a joint declaration, which is a proposal for a new relationship among indigenous peoples, national society and the Mexican state; 2) a series of joint proposals to be presented to the federal executive and legislative branches, and 3) a package of themes specific to the state of Chiapas. CONAI and COCOPA witnessed the signing of the agreements.

What To Expect

"What can be expected from here on in?" wrote Father Robles. "We must still wait for the results of the consultation, and based on that, perhaps reformulate some of the agreements. But then we will have to wait and see how the legislation upon which all this is based turns out, with the risk that, as time goes by, the crafty whittling away will start again. That would irrevocably detain the process of negotiating a peace.

"For many analysts, a military coup in Chiapas carried out by an extremist faction within the government is still a possibility. The Zapatistas themselves do not rule it out.

"What the government has ceded to date is no more than it would have soon had to accept in any case: the ancestral rights of a population it didn't even want to recognize, rights it now hopes to grant as a favor, with the aim of salvaging its image and also protecting its economic power and resources from the indigenous peoples. There is also the possibility that the most positive forces within the current government will use this opportunity to accept with coherence what they are now arguing for and building in international treaties. That could lead to an honorable solution to the current conflict."

But the Price Could
Be More Blood

The second round of dialogue, on democracy and justice, is to begin in March, which may turn out to be simultaneous to the dialogue between the government and the political parties about reforming the state. That would open the way to breaking with the electoral framework in which the government, the PRI and the PAN would like to circumscribe the "dialogue of Barcelona," named for the city where it took place. It would also open the way to a profound reform that would touch the farthest reaches of the Mexican state.

National and international civilian support is still crucial, since vengeance by the system remains possible, despite all the agreements. "A great door has been opened for indigenous peoples," concludes Robles. "It could lead to concrete action, but the price may be the blood of those who made this all possible, the blood of the humble Zapatistas from the forests and the mountains who continue to give hope to human dignity."

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