Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 210 | Enero 1999



The Pope, Poverty and Chiapas

The government wanted to show the Pope a clean image by hiding what is really happening in Chiapas. It wasn’t able to do so and neither could it hide the poverty that has affected 15 million more Mexicans during this administration. In the end, neoliberalism was condemned and the right of the indigenous peoples vindicated and defended.

Jorge Alonso

The main motive of Pope John Paul II's trip to Mexico in January 1999 was to present the conclusions of the Synod of the Americas, held in Rome at the end of 1997. The document is the fruit of collective reflection, legitimated by Rome. The first document produced by the Catholic Church's teachers in the Americas, it strongly criticizes corruption, drug trafficking and neoliberalism, and makes significant contributions to discussions of democracy, human rights and the dignity of indigenous peoples.

When presenting the document in the Basilica of Guadalupe, the Pope emphasized its "Guadalupean spirit." His visit thus gave new backing to the Virgin of Guadalupe, a popular symbol of the Virgin Mary. The Pope's trip, his 85th, also had a commemorative side, since it coincided with the date of his first trip as Pope, which he made to Mexico in 1979.

The most positive aspect of the Pope's visit was his insistent condemnation of neoliberal economic policies, which impoverish the majority, and his sensitivity towards the issue of indigenous rights. The dark side was the elitist organization of the visit, which was scandalously commercialized.

Like the biblical Simon Magus

Mexican and transnational companies sponsored the events during the Pope's visit at an estimated cost of US$2 million. The electronic media and marketing techniques played leading roles, and when the organizers were questioned on this, they replied, "a Papal visit is priceless." Historian Jean Meyer warned that there was even danger of simony, an allusion to the activities of the Samaritan sorcerer from the1st century AD who bought and sold church offices: "What we are seeing here is a business deal put together by the companies and some Catholics who, unlike the businesspeople, don't know what they're doing and are very close to following the example of Simon Magus. It seems that the idea originally came from them, not the businesspeople." Others recalled that Jesus expelled the merchants from the temple.

Covering up Chiapas

Days before the Pope's arrival, the Zapatistas charged that the Mexican government was trying to cover up the war in Chiapas. They asked how it planned to hide the 45 indigenous people massacred in Acteal in December 1997, who were praying for peace when they were executed by paramilitary troops. Nor is it easy to hide the Catholic churches closed by these groups, or the chapels transformed into military quarters by the Mexican army. The Zapatistas wondered how the government would make people forget the declarations of an army general, who said that the translation into Tzeltal of the Gospel according to Saint Mark was evidence of the link between the Church and the Zapatistas.

A legislator in the Commission for Harmony and Pacification (COCOPA) spoke out against the government's attempts to cover up its low-intensity war against the Zapatistas. Nongovernmental organizations sent a letter to the Pope before his visit explaining that respect for human rights in Mexico is especially weak since, in addition to the misery that prevents millions of Mexicans from fully exercising these rights, they must also confront impunity, the country's increasing militarization and the presence of paramilitary groups in Chiapas.

The Mexican government did everything it could to ensure that the topic of Chiapas not arise during the Pope's visit and carried out an intense diplomatic effort to avoid declarations on Chiapas in the Papal events. Although the issue was not raised in the meeting between the Pope and President Zedillo, it came up in a veiled way many times during the visit, and openly at least once. During his flight from Rome to Mexico, John Paul II said that the solution to the armed conflict in Chiapas requires a dialogue between indigenous and non- indigenous people and emphasized that peace there depends on recognition that the indigenous people are the original owners of the land. Later, in his message before President Zedillo at the airport, he spoke of the need for concord among Mexicans.

Allusions and pressure

Human rights activists believe that the "concord" spoken of by the Pope was an allusion to the war in Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca. The legislators in COCOPA saw particular significance in the fact that the Pope spoke during his flight of the need to resume talks between the government and the EZLN. The Pope's reference to the property rights of the indigenous people was interpreted as a way to pressure the government to honor the San Andrés agreements. It was also clear that, despite the smokescreen the government tried to raise around the war in Chiapas, the Pope was informed on the subject.

A finger in the nation's wounds

In giving John Paul II the keys to Mexico City, the head of the Federal District's government, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), praised the Pope's fight against poverty, marginalization and inequality. Cárdenas recalled that, from Chiapas itself, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas defended the rights of indigenous peoples during the Conquest. He also charged that the policies imposed on the country by the last several federal governments have had grave consequences for the majority of the population.

The writer Jaime Avilés pointed out that the Pope was welcome in a country wrecked by the crudeness and corruption of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). One PRD legislator sent the Pope a letter saying that the deterioration in the quality of life of the majority of Mexicans was due to the government's poor administration and the diversion of state resources by federal government officials, many of them mixed up in activities related to drug dealing; he mentioned the brother of former President Salinas de Gortari as an example. At the start of his Sunday Mass, Cardinal Rivera presented John Paul II to an impoverished, betrayed, suffering country in need of peace.

The words of John Paul II

The Pope greeted the indigenous people from all regions of Mexico present in the activities, told them he was very close to them, and called on them to keep up their hopes in order to overcome the difficulties they were facing. In front of President Ernesto Zedillo, one of Latin America's strongest champions of neoliberalism, the Pope condemned neoliberal policies that marginalize the weakest, and said that the debt that weighs so heavily on Latin America is due to speculation and corruption.
In his speeches, the Pope called for an end to corruption, violence and racism. He asked that the conditions of small farmers and indigenous people be improved. He called on people to deal with the extremely diverse social and human situations that coexist in Mexico through dialogue with great respect and justice. In concluding, he emphasized that only dialogue will strengthen democracy, and blessed a country with numerous indigenous peoples in whom he recognized rich human values and the willingness to work to build a better future. The Pope was emotionally applauded throughout his visit by the multitudes who thus demonstrated the depths of their religious roots.

Trick scenery and trap doors

In the second half of January, shortly before the Pope's visit, the government official in charge of coordinating the negotiations in Chiapas presented a document to COCOPA with a new proposal for the EZLN. The document proposed private meetings, the formation of a new national intermediation committee, and consideration of the five conditions for resuming negotiations laid down by the EZLN. The new proposal formed part of an elaborate plan to brush up the government's image before the Pope's visit. It was not, however, evidence of any government determination to seek genuine solutions to the conflict, since it is common knowledge that the EZLN will not return to the negotiating table until the government honors the agreements it has already signed.

The government's now traditional doublespeak was once again evident in its efforts to discredit the EZLN before the Pope's arrival. Just days earlier, the army destroyed drug plantations in abandoned plots in the area under Zapatista influence in Chiapas. Although the army itself admitted that these plots did not belong to the Zapatistas, a government spokesperson tried to accuse the EZLN. COCOPA legislators rejected the government's insinuations of links between the EZLN and drug trafficking, and said that they would only serve to polarize the situation and create a climate of confrontation. Some people even suggested that paramilitary groups in the area might well have planted the drugs in an effort to undermine the search for peace. The EZLN said it has no dealings with drug traffickers and accused the federal government of launching a slanderous media campaign to try to link the Zapatistas with such activities. It emphasized that Zedillo's government had lied again, and used the occasion to denounce the attempt by the Chiapas government to approve an amnesty for paramilitary and military troops involved in criminal activities.

Chiapas: Five years later

January marked the fifth anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, and provided an occasion to weigh up the course of events over these past five years.

Some of the salient points in the analysis: since January 1, 1994, Chiapas has been central to Mexican affairs. The conflict was created and is maintained by neoliberal policies that exclude and impoverish the majority, obviously including indigenous people, and have favored only a handful of powerful people, who thus defend it at all costs. The EZLN rose up against this policy. Zedillo's government has shown through its actions that it wants not peace but rather the defeat of those who dare question its economic policy. The peace talks between the EZLN and the government broke down because the government refused to comply with the San Andrés accords, signed in early 1996. Zedillo's government chose instead to make war against the indigenous communities that have supported the Zapatistas. This strategy is what led to the Acteal massacre in December 1997. In response to national and international demands that the government disarm the PRI's paramilitary bands, which have displaced many indigenous people in Chiapas, the government has harassed international observers, pursued the indigenous people who demand autonomy and supported the paramilitary groups. The government also put pressure on CONAL, the mediation commission in the peace talks headed by Bishop Samuel Ruiz, until the commission had no choice but to resign its role.

In this climate, two positions have emerged: some sectors are calling for a policy that resolves the conflict and leads to a dignified, just peace, and others want to continue the oppression, exclusion and domination even at the cost of war. This bellicose policy has led to genocidal acts, including the displacement of whole communities, ongoing harassment by paramilitary groups and attacks against members of international NGOs.

The policy of war is wrapped up in a hypocritically nationalist discourse, which the government uses at the same time it is selling out the country to serve the economic interests of the international financial groups that direct Mexican economic policy. What it wants from globalization is subordination by the elite, condemning any horizontal links among groups defending human rights.

The government policy— instigated by advisers who belonged to leftist Maoist groups just a few years ago—has exacerbated the contradictions and polarized society. The government is immersed in the great contradiction of talking about peace while carrying out a counterinsurgency war. In this context, it systematically resorts to doublespeak. There is also a sharp contradiction between legality and pretense. The government constantly provokes. Zedillo doesn't want dialogue but rather surrender, and having stalled the negotiations, he ceaselessly blames the EZLN for the fact that there is no dialogue. He offers his hand in a gesture of friendship only so that he can, in the same act, strike with the other hand.

Zapatista achievements

Despite the resurgence of the government's dirty war against the rebellious indigenous people, the Zapatistas have learned to listen to civil society groups and have succeeded in putting a discussion of the rights of indigenous people on the national agenda. it is clear that the EZLN has committed mistakes—which they themselves have recognized—like judging some social and political actors too hastily. On balance, however, they have been right in insisting on two fundamental issues: that the situation of the indigenous peoples be addressed and the transition to democracy guaranteed. The Zapatistas have also managed to revive civil society groups around a new cultural movement. In this age of society networking, in which the power of flows has superceded the traditional flows of power, the Zapatistas have succeeded in weaving new national and international solidarity networks that demand respect for diversity. They have challenged the power of the state party regime and opened the door to cultural innovation and social transformation. They have engaged in a struggle for new codes of interpretation and social coexistence and have encouraged the reformulation of social identities. They have emphasized alternative values and inspired the assertion of autonomous identities. In doing so, they have found new forms of resistance to the power they have unmasked, revealing its crisis. The Mexican philosopher Luis Villoro has stated that the Zapatistas have sparked a pluralistic movement for a new project of state and nation.

Worse in 1999 than in 1994?

Government spokespeople claim that the indigenous communities in Chiapas are worse off in 1999 than before the EZLN uprising. The government now wants to lay the blame on the Zapatistas for the poor conditions in which the indigenous people of Chiapas are living. But it requires a stunning lack of perspective to attribute the lack of social improvements in Chiapas to a group of indigenous farmers, given the enormous resources that have been squandered through government corruption. The EZLN insists that the true responsibility for the deterioration in the indigenous communities' standard of living lies with the government. Zapatistas point out that now, just like before, indigenous people have no schools, no teachers, no hospitals, no doctors and no medicine, their products still sell for next to nothing and their houses are still bare. And conditions are no better in communities that do not sympathize with the EZLN. The only difference now is that the Zapatista communities have decided to refuse the government's alms, while the other communities accept them. These alms do not improve their lives, however.

The Zapatistas emphasize that the difference between what they did not have before and what they do not have today is that before, no one in Mexico cared that the basic needs of the indigenous people went unfulfilled, which is no longer the case. They stress that what they have lost since 1994 is the despair, the bitterness and the resignation, and that they now have something they did not have then: a voice. They also credit the government with bringing about many "changes": maintaining half the army in indigenous communities, organizing paramilitary groups, paying for costly media campaigns against the rebels, bringing prostitution and alcoholism to the areas under the army's influence, preventing the Zapatista farmers from sowing and harvesting their crops.

The Zapatistas insist that it would be irresponsible to sign the peace offered by the government when the fundamental causes of the indigenous people's marginalization have not been resolved. One of their strongest arguments against returning to the negotiating table is that it makes no sense as long as the government refuses to respect the agreements already reached in the San Andrés accords. If it refuses to comply with these accords, what guarantees that it will honor any agreements coming out of new negotiations?

March 21: Consulting the Mexican people

While the government plays at wanting peace while waging war, the EZLN, convinced that the only solution is dialogue with civil society, called for a mobilization against the war to exterminate indigenous people and announced a consultation on the recognition of indigenous rights for March 21. In this consultation, four questions will be asked of the Mexican people:
1) Do you agree that the indigenous peoples should be included in the national project, in all their richness and vitality, and take an active part in building a new Mexico?
2) Do you agree that indigenous rights should be recognized in the Mexican Constitution in accord with the agreements reached by the Commission for Harmony and Pacification?
3) Do you agree that we should achieve true peace through the path of dialogue, demilitarizing the country by returning the soldiers to their barracks, as established in the Constitution and the law?
4) Do you agree that the people should organize and demand that the government "rule by obeying" in all areas of national life?
The Zapatistas have also raised the possibility of carrying out an international consultation on the recognition of indigenous rights and end of the war of extermination, and have called for an international campaign on behalf of the world's excluded, with demonstrations and other public events on March 21. They argue that these demonstrations would be important in showing that the excluded have a weapon to defend themselves— resistance— and will use it so that they not disappear.

Saramago: Chiapas is "the world"

The 1998 Nobel Prize laureate in literature, Portuguese writer José Saramago, declared that, deep down, Chiapas represents the world since it is a place where practically everything negative in human behavior can be found: racism, cruelty, indifference and contempt for a minority. Saramago said that, considering Chiapas' enormous wealth in petroleum, coffee and cocoa, it is not hard to understand why capitalist ambition has extended its claws into the area. He said that situations like that in Chiapas can be found all over the world, and emphasized that when you consider this situation and then add to it a massacre committed with impunity as in Acteal, indignation is the only natural response.

Everything's fine

At the beginning of 1999, President Zedillo ordered his ambassadors abroad to tell the people of the world that there is no war and no paramilitary groups in Mexico, and that the Mexican economy is doing fine. Nothing could be further from the truth. Accumulated inflation in the four years of Zedillo's administration tops 166%—and this despite the fact that neoliberal policies focus on trying to keep inflation down. The economy is in crisis, and the war is there to be seen by all those who care to open their eyes. The army maintains some 70,000 troops in Chiapas, and the 1999 budget gives the Secretary of Defense over $62 million to spend on arms.

However hard it tries, the Mexican government cannot cover up what is happening. Given the financial crisis in Brazil, Itamar Franco, that country's former President and now governor of the state of Minas Gerais, announced a moratorium on the debt payment. When President Zedillo criticized the move, Franco answered that Zedillo should concern himself with Mexico's poor and with Chiapas instead of commenting on events elsewhere, and called the Mexican government "corrupt."

15 million more poor

Zedillo's government is not concerned with the poor. At the end of 1998, it authorized an increase in the price of tortillas, their staple food. And this came after a hike in gasoline prices had already raised the price of 90% of foods. Economic analysts agree that most Mexican people have gotten poorer with each passing year. In the past five years, 15 million more have swollen the ranks of the poor. And several indicators show that not even those most favored by Zedillo's economic policies trust them. By the end of 1998, Mexicans had deposited some $38.5 billion in US banks, while the Bank of Mexico's international reserves during that year fluctuated between $28 and $31 billion.

The IDB has been forced to admit that the dogmas of opening Latin America's markets and liberalizing its economies have not improved people's living standards. Latin America continues to have the most unequal income distribution of any region on the planet. Several economists point out that Latin American economies have become increasingly dependent on the foreign capital that finances them, and that this has led to an increase in interest payments on the debt and increased fiscal deficits. Furthermore, far from encouraging greater efficiency and competitiveness, the policies have encouraged a greater concentration of property, wiped out whole sectors of production and accentuated territorial disintegration.

Mexico's faithful implementation of these neoliberal recipes—it consistently receives top marks for its submission—brings disastrous economic consequences for its population. According to World Bank figures, 80% of Mexicans live in poverty, yet this does not take away one whit of Zedillo's stubbornness in applying neoliberal policies. Faced with the evidence, he resorts to the argument that Mexico would be in even worse shape without these policies.

PAN allies with the PRI in the fraud of the century

The alliance between the PRI and the National Action Party (PAN) to push through Zedillo's 1999 budget and approve the solution to the financial scandal involving the Bank Fund to Protect Savings (FOBAPROA) was considered by some analysts as a betrayal of the will of the electorate. In 1997, Mexicans voted to create a majority in Congress opposed to the ruling state party. But the reality is that, in the crunch, the PAN has deserted the opposition bloc and allied itself with the PRI in order to resolve the President's problems. With the help of the PAN, the PRI government got more than it wanted, and the population less than it needs. The PRI and the PAN have covered up illegal actions in the management of the banks and made the Mexican people pay for the frauds committed by those in power.

What actually took place in the case of FOBAPROA—which was used both to bail out big investors after their speculative investment bubble burst and to cover up illegal campaign contributions to the PRI—was an agreement not so much between the PRI and the PAN as between the presidency and the PAN, which PRI delegates then adhered to according to strict party discipline. There was a vote, but no discussion in Congress. The PRD charged that FOBAPROA's beneficiaries include several PAN leaders and presented new evidence to show that more funds were diverted through FOBAPROA into PRI campaign coffers than the $30 million initially estimated.

With the approval of the following "solution" to this scandal, what had already been called "the fraud of the century" was consummated. The agreement opens the way to replacing FOBAPROA with the Institute for the Protection of Bank Savings (IPAB). The banks will have to return the promissory notes unconstitutionally issued by the executive branch in exchange for the defaulted loans of the credit institutions. If this cannot be done, the sums will be guaranteed through payment instruments that IPAB will back with public funds.

Mexico betrayed

With this "solution," taxpayers will ultimately bear the cost of the agreement. The PRI and PAN legislators tried to cover up the unconstitutional creation of FOBAPROA, but could not do it. The new bank bailout law is a secondary one that cannot supercede the constitutional article that was violated. For this reason, the PRD has appealed it. To see who won or lost with the FOBAPROA agreement, it is enough to look at who is saying what. Bankers and businesspeople heaped effusive praise on the results, while most small debtors said they had been tricked. Many analysts have demonstrated that the Mexican people are the biggest losers. Immediately after the vote, the PAN spent over $4 million in television ads to clean up its image, resorting to Zedillo's argument that the situation would have gotten worse had they not reached an agreement. In return, the PAN was accused of resuscitating a dying party—the PRI—and a spent system. The "fraud of the century" was calculated at some 774 million pesos ($94 million) and the agreement will mean a lower quality of life for the majority of the Mexican people over the next 30 years. The opposition parties charged that the scandal and its "solution" have betrayed the nation.

The PAN added its votes in Congress to the representatives of neoliberalism and validated the FOBAPROA fraud—before the audit results were known—then paid for a shameful publicity campaign to justify itself with taxpayers' funds. The PRI and the PAN then took revenge on the PRD for not having lent itself to the game as well. They did so by cutting the budget of the PRD government in the capital, calculating that the increased suffering caused among Mexico City's residents by the shortage of resources would undermine Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas' leadership.

The electoral panorama

This year will be marked by the rhythm of preparations for the presidential elections. Even though these elections will not take place until the end of 2000, the race is already well underway. Within the parties, the struggle for the presidential candidacy has begun and efforts to discredit possible contenders are increasingly evident. The former head of the Federal District, Manual Camacho Solís, now in the opposition, has organized a new party, the Democratic Center. Its first action was to call for an opposition alliance to defeat the PRI, charging that its abuse of power has been so extreme that is has endangered the nation's security, integrity and peace. According to a Louis Harris poll, over half of those surveyed disapprove of Zedillo's performance.

There is no doubt but that the elections will be very close, and the PRI may well lose power. But as 1999 gets underway, an opposition alliance seems very difficult to achieve, and this would favor the state party. What is much easier to predict is that the issues of poverty and peace will not be missing from anyone's agenda.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


100 Days after Mitch: Any Sign of a Change of Attitude?


A Cry Rises Over Raging Waters

Budding Organization And a Hurricane of Contradictions

The Pope, Poverty and Chiapas

A Way Out of the Economic Growth Trap

San Francisco Libre: Giving It One More Try

What Should Change in Central America?
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development