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  Number 219 | Octubre 1999
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Mexico

Alliances, Students And Chiapas: All Talks Aborted

The natural disaster afflicting the country just adds to the other man-made disasters. It is lamentable that the Alliance for Mexico—all of the opposition against the PRI—died before it was even born. Meanwhile, the students are still on strike and the government is trying to prolong the conflict. And in Chiapas, the government is calling for dialogue and activating war.

Jorge Alonso

During the summer of 1999, Mexicans bore witness to the similar fates of three proposed talks that never came about, as the country's pressing need for communication was frustrated yet again. The Alliance for Mexico—a united opposition against the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)—died even before it was born, a casualty of the opposition parties' inability to act effectively, either alone or together, on the presidential campaign. Negotiations to resolve a student strike that has been going on for over five months also led nowhere, as government maneuvers successfully prolonged the conflict. And the “dialogue for peace,” offered by the government even as it fires up its war against the indigenous people of Chiapas, is no more than a ploy.

The race for the PRI nomination

As the PRI's November 7 internal presidential primary draws near, the four candidates have stepped up their attacks on each other. One of them, Roberto Madrazo, is using his last name—a “madrazo” is slang for a sharp blow—to strike especially hard at his main opponent, former Government Secretary Francisco Labastida. Although Madrazo enjoys broad support among disaffected members of the party, Labastida makes a show of being the “official” PRI candidate, and indeed the machinery that will organize the party's first-ever primary elections is working in his favor.
The big loser in a debate held among the PRI's four candidates was the PRI itself, as each man acted like a candidate for the opposition, accusing the others of violating campaign spending limits. They all, however, avoided answering accusations on the origins of their campaign chests and their own personal fortunes. The four men also accused each other of being linked to former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who now lives in self- imposed exile in Ireland, where he fled to avoid questioning on a number of events—including corruption and murder—that took place under his administration. All four even challenged the achievements proclaimed by President Zedillo in his annual report to Congress, which he gave just before the debate. They denounced the poverty in which the majority of Mexicans live, decried the alarming levels of insecurity, and pointed to corruption within the circles of power.

The government has yet to give convincing answers to several pending questions. First, Mario Ruiz Massieu, brother of the PRI general secretary assassinated in 1994, committed suicide in mid-September, leaving a letter implicating Zedillo in the murder of his brother and of Luis Colosio, the PRI's original presidential candidate that year. Second, further proof of illegal contributions from the Banco Unión to Zedillo's presidential campaign continues to emerge, but the President refuses to provide any information in response. Third, López Obrador's book on the scandal in FOBAPROA, titled FOBAPROA: expediente abierto (“FOBAPROA: Open File”), reveals how Zedillo converted the private debts of a group of bankers and big businesspeople into public debt by acting through the network of deals and favors that links economic and political power in Mexico.

President's report: Intolerance

In his fifth annual report to Congress, Zedillo came across as an insensitive and authoritarian president; one who does not deign to respond to questions and shamelessly rigs official statistics. He did not mention the bank bailout, the strike at the National Autonomous University (UNAM), or Chiapas.

Carlos Medina, the leader of the National Action Party (PAN) bench in Congress, responded to the President's report. He stressed that Mexicans are demanding clear answers, that the government has offended the people too many times, and that the number of Mexicans living in poverty continues to grow. He also mentioned the appearance of evidence proving that the PRI looted the national treasury in the 1994 elections. But angry PRI representatives noisily cut him short, while the television stations ignored the content of his response and chose instead to insult the man who dared to confront the President. Although Zedillo had spoken of tolerance, the PRI representatives' intolerance was quite apparent, and was endorsed by the President's complacent silence. The regime's intolerance thus became the central message of the report.

Searching for an alliance

The PAN representative's brave stance stirred hopes that a coalition among the leading opposition parties could yet be achieved. The leaders of eight parties had made progress in designing this alliance, though their efforts were hampered by the personal concerns of Vicente Fox, the PAN's presidential candidate, and of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the candidate of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).

The commissions established in the eight parties managed to draft the key documents for an alliance, taking into account all of the relevant legal questions, and to agree on how they would put forward candidates for Congress. They failed, however, to reach agreement on one essential point: how to nominate the alliance's presidential candidate. The PAN refused to consider primary elections, fearing that they could be manipulated, while the PRD insisted that primaries were the only way people could really get close to the alliance candidate.

To resolve that one point, the parties decided to form a citizen's council charged with designing a candidate selection method. The council proposed doing three polls before the candidate's election and establishing 12,000 voting booths to hold an open consultation. Instead of resolving the problem, however, this proposal aggravated it. The PAN accused the majority of council members of proposing a solution that served PRD interests, and of simply splicing together the PAN and PRD proposals. The PAN asked for clarifications and received them, but was not convinced.

An aborted alliance

The PRD and five other parties accepted the council's proposal, but the Green Party, under pressure from the Government Ministry to break the alliance, took advantage of the moment to opt out. Although supporters of the alliance see it as essential to democratize the country, establish a pluralistic government of reconciliation, guarantee governability and put an end to the six-year crises, the alliance aborted.
It is a shame, since hope had grown among many Mexicans that this alliance—which had already been baptized the Alliance for Mexico—would be the golden opportunity to finally defeat the state-party regime. Now, with the opposition divided, it will be much easier for the PRI to hold onto the presidency by virtue of hardcore supporters, together with its illegal tactics, coercion and vote buying.

UNAM: Five months of strike

Talks have fared no better at the UNAM, where the student strike has dragged on for over five long months. With the government trying to discredit the movement, arguing that a radicalized minority is trying to impose decisions and solutions on the majority of students, the movement has been losing some of the support it enjoyed at the start.

After faculty in the Peace with Democracy Association acknowledged that the General Strike Committee has succeeded in placing the right of all Mexicans to higher education on the national agenda, they asked the striking students to reopen the campus and accept the solution proposed by a group of eight distinguished retired professors. The students want guarantees, however. They know that if they end the strike without having firm commitments from the authorities, the promises will not be kept. The specter of what has happened in Chiapas hovers over the conflict in the UNAM.

The solution proposed by the eight professors emeritus includes the students' most important demands, but the majority of the student assemblies do not feel that this is the case. A consensus around this solution has been growing in society at large, however. For his part, President Zedillo has tried to use the proposal as an ultimatum, warning the students that they could either accept this path or expect the use of force.

The authors of the proposal explained that it was meant only to be a starting point for further negotiations by the parties involved. While the university authorities pretended to accept it, they postponed acting on it while pressuring the government to forcibly evict the students. Groups of student infiltrators, paid by the university authorities and the Government Ministry, tried without success to enter the occupied campus buildings, and on several of their attempts also tried to provoke violence.

After several very tense meetings, the University Council formed a “liaison” commission to find out what the striking students are proposing—which is perfectly clear to everyone else, since their demands have been repeatedly broadcast through the media. The students agreed to work with this commission to arrange talks.

The University Council, which the university president controls, has repeatedly postponed the issue, however; it seems that the intransigents are prevailing. Intransigence has also been seen in the General Strike Committee, and some of the hard-liners within the student movement have been pushed into the violent positions of the infiltrators.

The Zapatistas repaid the students' visit to them in the jungle by going to see the students in Mexico City, where they participated in three important events. The first was a march against the militarization of Chiapas, another was a march against the privatization of university education in solidarity with the student movement, and the third was an Independence Day celebration on the campus esplanade.

Taking a phrase from the national anthem, the Zapatista delegates who visited Mexico City declared that the government was treating them as a “foreign enemy” and that the army was destroying the forest and contaminating its water. On September 15, the delegates gave the “cry of independence” on the City University campus while the indigenous communities gave the “cry of the excluded” in Chiapas.

The strike's big achievements

In response to everything that has been said against the student movement, the striking students have become more flexible. They have reduced their initial six, seemingly immutable demands, down to four: repeal of the new tuition regulations; an end to any actions and legal sanctions against the movement's participants, along with the dismantling of the UNAM's repressive apparatus; the extension of the school year to reschedule lost class time; and a democratic congress with decision-making power. The other two points, which have to do with the regulations on admissions and promotion and with the agency in charge of making these evaluations, would be left up to this congress.

One lucid opinion on the conflict was offered by Octavio Rodríguez Araujo, who has emphasized that the students, in striking to protest the new tuition regulations and later adding other demands, were trying to counter the government's neoliberal education policies, not to show how many things they oppose. Thus, the purpose of the strike is not to close down the UNAM but to oblige the authorities to discuss the university's current legislation, forms of government and study plans. Sergio Zermeño, in turn, has shown that, between the radicalism of some students on the one hand and the radicalism of the authorities on the other, a sizable number of people have chosen to repopulate the middle ground in order to rebuild the university community. Many of the striking students who are proposing talks can be found in this middle ground, along with the University Council members who dissent from the positions of the president's bureaucracy and want to find genuine solutions rather than see the proposed university reform imposed from above and outside.

The student movement's biggest achievement is to have unleashed a debate about what structural reforms are needed in the national university, a discussion in which all members of the university community must participate.

War in Chiapas

Four hundred representatives of over 20 organizations went to La Realidad in August to meet with the Zapatistas. There Subcomandante Marcos spoke with them about the intensification of the terror campaign against the movement. He also said that the Zapatistas would continue to support the student movement as well as the electrical workers' struggle against the privatization of electrical service. They also support the struggle of the faculty and staff of the National Institute of Anthropology and History, and of the teachers and students of the National Anthropology and History School, against an attempt to enact a law privatizing culture. Marcos denounced the government's decision to put the country's cultural patrimony up for sale: “For those who govern us today, history has no value if it is not priced on the stock market. If they can't sell the country's cultural patrimony, it's useless.”
Because this meeting was still underway on August 14, its participants bore witness to the militarization that Chiapas has suffered for several years. That day 10,000 soldiers, together with a platoon of paratroopers, tightened the military cordon around the Zapatistas by invading the Amador Hernández communal farm.

The official coordinator of the nonexistent talks defended the military action by explaining that highway construction companies in Ocosingo and Las Margaritas had asked the army to provide security. If true, this reveals yet another illegal act, as the army cannot be put at the service of private entities.

An increasing number of indigenous communities are obliged to live surrounded by federal troops, who have declared a silent war against them. The army arrives with armored cars, sophisticated weapons, helicopters, airplanes, prostitutes, alcohol, arrogance and violations of all kinds. The situation is complicated by the fact that many indigenous communities and autonomous municipalities are located on or near oil deposits, and the government wants these natural resources. It also wants to punish the Zapatistas for their struggle and their solidarity with other national struggles. What's more, if roads are being built, it is not to provide a service to the communities but to allow the army to move more rapidly and buttress the military cordon around the Zapatistas.

US advisers in Chiapas

As if this were not enough, civilian communities that sympathize with the Zapatistas are harassed by planes buzzing the area, arbitrary and violent detentions, the occupation of communal land and attacks against observers. The government claims the conflict involves only 4 municipalities, but the army has broadened its radius of action to over 70. Furthermore, in an effort to smash the Zapatistas and their social base, it has extended the armed violence through at least a dozen paramilitary groups, while the Defense Ministry has created five counterinsurgency units with sophisticated weaponry. A foreign delegation visiting Chiapas reported seeing US weaponry and advisers in the area.

Such a war requires privacy, which explains why observers bother the government. It also explains why the human rights organizations insist on having national and foreign observers in Chiapas, so their presence might help prevent conflicts.

Need for talks

It has been said that Chiapas is short a governor and long on provocateurs. What it is really long on are superfluous coordinators of nonexistent talks, and what it is really short of are the talks themselves. At the end of August, the United Nation's Subcommission to Promote and Protect Human Rights formally expressed its concern over the situation of human rights and basic freedoms in Mexico, placing particular emphasis on the rights of the indigenous peoples and communities.

On August 30, a caravan from Mexico City carrying 20 tons of humanitarian aid arrived in Chiapas. And following up on a counterinsurgency proposal recommended by US advisers to destabilize the Zapatistas and their support base, a group of PRI businesspeople created a foundation to collect some US$20 million for the people of Chiapas. The idea is to make these organizations look like new NGOs, to counteract the independent ones.

The government's “open letter”

Although Zedillo did not refer to the problem of Chiapas in his fifth annual report to Congress, the Government Secretariat published an “open letter” to the EZLN several days later, calling on it to return immediately to the talks broken off three years ago. In the letter, he proposed opening up the President's initiative on indigenous rights and culture to the Zapatistas' opinion, creating a new body to intermediate in the talks, restructuring the monitoring and verification commission, freeing imprisoned Zapatista sympathizers who are not implicated in violent acts, and studying the harassment charges that have been made by various human rights groups, the communities and the people affected. He also promised that this time the government's representatives would have decision-making power. The letter made no mention whatever of either the military or paramilitary presence in the region.

The PRD gave its opinion on the proposal, insisting that it is unacceptable as long as the federal government refuses to withdraw the troops stationed in indigenous communities and fails to fulfill the San Andrés accords. It called the proposal nothing more than rhetorical demagoguery, since no one sits down to talk with a gun to the temple. When the government argued that it had met the conditions laid down by the EZLN in 1996 to resume the talks, the PRD answered that those conditions had changed since the situation had worsened since then. It said that all the government has to do if it really wants to resume the talks is accept the proposal presented in 1996 by the now marginalized Commission on Harmony and Pacification (COCOPA).

One soldier for every nine people

Many NGOs have also described the government's proposal as insufficient. While recognizing that the letter shows a change of government attitude, which for a long time was closed to any new contact with the Zapatistas, they argued that the proposal is unaccompanied by any signs of sincerity and appears only to be a public relations move.

The indigenous organizations went even further, describing the proposal as “a step backward” as it proposes to resume the talks as though an agreement had not already been reached—one the government refuses to honor. They also pointed out that a full third of the army's troops are now stationed in Chiapas, and that the ratio of these troops to the population is 1:9. Other figures on militarization are equally alarming. For example, while there were 7 army barracks and 5 camps in Chiapas in 1995, today there are 26 barracks and 57 camps.

More of the same

While the papal nuncio in Mexico asked the EZLN to accept the government's proposal, a US State Department report revealed that armed men had profaned 48 churches in Chiapas and murdered 5 catechists between 1994 and 1997. The bishops' commission for peace in Chiapas asked the EZLN to give signs that it was interested in resuming the talks, and called on the government to reposition its troops. The Mexican House of Representatives called on the federal government and the EZLN to fulfill the San Andrés accords and assume their responsibility to the nation to resume the talks.

It is quite clear that the government is maintaining the same position in the proposal that led to the breakdown of the talks in the first place. It is trying to present the same official policies as though they were new, in an apparent replay of the logic it used when it tried to renegotiate what had already been agreed upon. Also again, the threat hangs over the conflict that a law on indigenous rights will be pushed through with the support of the majority of PRI senators that respects neither the letter nor the spirit of the San Andrés accords.

On September 13, the ex-mayor of Chenaló and 23 indigenous people were sentenced to 35 years in prison for the Acteal massacre. Of the 102 people detained, only 5 admitted their participation in this horrendous crime. Ninety arrest warrants are still pending, including those against 11 former government officials and mid-ranking police officers. The planners of the massacre have not been touched.

The same day as the sentencing, thousands of indigenous people marched and blocked highways in six regions of Chiapas. They rejected the government's proposal and demanded fulfillment of the San Andrés accords. They also demanded that political prisoners be freed, that safe conditions be established so displaced people can return home and that the paramilitary groups be disbanded. Finally, they demanded that interim governor Roberto Albores be removed from office and tried for his foolish and dangerous management of the region's affairs, for illegally using public resources to support Labastida's presidential campaign and for pitting the people of Chiapas against each other.

Contradicting emphatic official declarations that paramilitary forces do not exist, the attorney general timidly admitted that 15 “probably armed” groups are active in Chiapas.

Zedillo's irritable look

In mid-September, Marcos referred to the Government Secretariat's open letter. “And how can we respond quickly if ‘el supremo’ refuses to give up the microphone, and keeps adding declarations, rectifications and postscripts to his open letter?” He then put in his own postscript, insinuating that Ruiz Massieu's suicide should not be taken at face value, because it has to do with a frequent practice in the US justice system: the witness protection program. The government replied that his statement was not an answer, and that it is still waiting for a response to its open letter.

While the opposition and many civic groups, especially indigenous groups, unmasked the government's hypocritical call to the EZLN to talk, Marcos analyzed the current national dynamic in a communiqué. There he called attention to something that is evident in quite a few photos of the President: his irritable look. He described the decision to send tens of thousands of troops from the National Palace to southeast Mexico as the postmodern remedy for the plague of Indians and students, adding that the government's actions enjoy the support of the local strongmen who govern, destroy and kill on indigenous lands. Killing Indians and persecuting students has become, he said, a fashionable sport in Chiapas. Marcos described armies as the most absurd structures in existence, which is why the EZLN's aspiration is to disappear. He also offered a chilling piece of information: soldiers who disapprove of the use of paramilitary groups in Chiapas, arguing that carrying arms requires discipline and a sense of responsibility, have disappeared.

Three violations of the cease fire

A review of the events of the past two years shows that the federal army is the main cause of destabilization in southeast Mexico. Where federal troops appear, tensions rise and conflicts break out. Marcos recounted the government's failure to comply with the law on the talks as well as international resolutions, and pointed out that, since Zedillo rose to power thanks to Colosio's assassins, the federal army has broken the cease-fire at least three times: in February 1995, when five Zapatistas, one army colonel and ten soldiers fell in combat; in June 1998, when eight Zapatistas were executed in El Bosque after being taken prisoner by the army; and in August 1999, when two Zapatistas were struck by bullets and eight soldiers by sticks and stones in San José La Esperanza.

”Humorless” students

Marcos didn't forget the student movement in his analysis. He said that few other social movements in recent years have suffered such a crude media war. Private television, which in Mexico represents the far right, as well as radio have gone well beyond what might have been expected, and with the government's evident complacence. The students have been branded as agitators, subversives, assailants, kidnappers, delinquents, imposters, extremists and much more. Some of the students dubbed one of the television channels “narco-TV,” a reference to the case of Paco Stanley, a popular comedian on the station who was recently killed under murky circumstances that apparently had to do with links to the drug trade.

And in Chiapas, large amounts of money originally destined for the indigenous communities have been diverted to the media. As Marcos detailed, the local government picked up a new theme once parading “Zapatista deserters” had fallen out of fashion: that of “evil striking university students who have come to sow discord among the previously placid indigenous communities.” Governor Albores has decided that he must prevent these young people from “violating” Chiapas' sovereignty, since he apparently sees anything outside of the PRI as foreign.

Marcos offers a different vision of the students who go to Chiapas. While he praises their courage and thanks them for their solidarity, he is critical of their solemnity, the fact that quite a few of them seem to lack a sense of humor. He refers to that missing ingredient as “a lamentable thing in anyone fighting for change, and a terrible thing in a young person.”
To learn more about the student movement, Marcos had spoken at length with the students who visited the Zapatistas. Some of them described their movement as worn out; others said it was gaining strength. Some argued for remaining firm, while others said it was necessary to be more flexible. Marcos saw much right on both sides. After listening carefully, he spoke to them, with no slogans. He said the Zapatistas respected, loved and admired them, and followed closely what they are doing and what they are no longer doing. He added that the Zapatistas see many new things in them but also many old things, including the fact that they are very closed in on themselves—as though everything turned around their own movement. He criticized their lack of humor, their stiff seriousness and, above all, their failure to listen more to others.

Marcos asked the General Strike Committee some questions: “Is the way to win an argument by imposing silence on the other side? Does the committee become stronger by ‘purging’ dissent and becoming a homogenous entity? Is this the university the committee wants?”

Similarities between Zapatistas and students

Marcos found 12 important similarities between the Zapatista movement and the student movement.

* While the protagonists in Chiapas are scorned and forgotten indigenous Mexicans, the movement in the UNM is made up of Mexican youth, also scorned and forgotten.

* From the very beginning of the Zapatista uprising, the two leading private television stations have clamored for crushing the indigenous people and, along with the government and some newspapers and radios, organized a campaign to discredit them. Since the strike broke out in the UNM, TV Azteca and Televisa have dedicated themselves to slandering the students with particular virulence. In this they have been joined by a large share of the country's newspapers and radios, and seconded by the government and university authorities. “They're just a few manipulated Indians,” the television shouts. “They're just a few lazy, manipulated young people,” TV Azteca and Televisa scream at the top of their lungs. The government insists that “obscure interests, white students, the red church and the PRD” lie behind the indigenous uprising. The government and the university authorities keep reiterating that “outside interests, Zapatistas and the PRD” are behind the student strike in the UNAM.

* The Zapatistas' main demand is, “We're here; we want a country that includes us, a more free, democratic and just country. We're not fighting for daily provisions or corn grinders. We took up arms for a better Mexico.” And the students' main demand is, “We're here; we want a country that includes us and free public education. We're not fighting so that they don't charge us for the semester. We're on strike for free education for all Mexicans.”
* The government offers roofing and provisions to the indigenous people who have taken up arms. “What more do you want? Put down your arms and surrender!” cry the media. The university authorities offer to hide the fees under another guise. “What more do you want? Vacate the buildings and surrender!” the media cries.

* The government names clumsy, inexperienced and repressive negotiators, and instructs them to sabotage the talks with the Zapatistas. The university authorities name an authoritarian, intolerant, fascist commission, which sets out to sabotage the talks with the striking students.

* Two lawyers representing the country's far right, Carrancá y Rivas and Ignacio Orihuela, demand that the San Andrés accords be thrown out and state force be used to make an example of the indigenous rebels by massacring them. They also demand the use of state force against the students.

* During the most difficult, complex moments in the talks in Chiapas, President Zedillo made things worse with his threatening declarations and reiterated his ultimatum to the EZLN. Zedillo has also hampered the talks between university authorities and striking students with his declarations and torpedoed the proposal of the eight professors emeritus by threatening to use “the legitimate force of the state” if the proposal is not accepted.

* Right-wing intellectuals spare no ink in asking for the federal army's intervention and annihilation of the Zapatistas. Rightwing intellectuals also ask for a strong hand against the striking students.

* Business associations call for repression of the indigenous Zapatistas. They also call for closing down the UNAM and repressing the students who participate in the movement.

* During the talks, the EZLN does everything possible to keep them going while the government does all it can to sabotage them. In the UNAM, the students make concessions in their proposal and give clear signs of wanting to talk, while the government and the university authorities stop at nothing in their efforts to undermine the talks.

* The government accuses the EZLN of being intransigent and not wanting to talk. The government and the university authorities accuse the students of being intransigent and not wanting to talk.

* The government and its lackeys spread the tale that within the EZLN are “hard-liners” who reject dialogue and are imposing their position on a “conciliatory” tendency. The government and its lackeys spread the tale that the student movement is divided between “extremists and moderates” and that the majority of the striking students are being manipulated by the extremists.

A new phase begins

The Zapatistas have attracted broad sectors of society to support the indigenous cause. The student movement has put authoritarianism up against the wall, and has won the support of many grassroots movements. But the state party regime, with its eye on the 2000 elections, has a strategy for dealing with this broad, democratic movement.

Polls show that over 60% of Mexicans had hopes that, through a broad opposition alliance, the state party regime could be brought down in order to take solid steps towards a democratic transition in Mexico. The parties, blinded by their own interests, were unable to respond to this demand and incapable of giving form to this alliance. Beginning in October, they will be facing the PRI divided, or, at best, with partial alliances.

The PRI has breathed a sigh of relief. Now, with its hardcore supporters, vote buying and the use of state resources, it can hold onto power. It is also hoping that many voters will become disillusioned and stay home on election day. To achieve this, it has designed two tactics. One is to use its subordinates in the media to shower us with news about the electoral campaign until we're completely fed up with it. With the primaries barely underway, signs are that it is already succeeding in this.

The PRI's other tactic is to till the soil in order to harvest the vote of fear. This explains its determination not to resolve conflicts but rather to aggravate them and draw them out. This is what it is trying to do in both Chiapas and the UNAM.

Despite the PRI's enormous power, however, the pressure exerted by citizen groups may be able to limit or even reverse its efforts. Although the opposition parties will enter the race alone, it is still possible that once the presidential campaign is well underway, this pressure could encourage candidates who are way behind in the polls to withdraw in favor of the one in the lead. Though this may seem unlikely, it is not impossible. Nor are the other bold moves and sacrifices that must be made.

Jorge Alonso is a researcher with CIESAS Western and envío correspondent in Mexico.

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