Chiapas, A Call for Solidarity

— The Editors

SOME EVENTS DEMAND of us: which side are you on? Such is the rebellion in Chiapas.

On January 1, 1994, several thousand Mexicans, overwhelmingly Mayan people of the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas, rose up in armed rebellion against their government, demanding land and protesting against electoral fraud and the repression suffered at the hands of the big landlords and government agents. Organized as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), they also protested the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), negotiated between Canada, Mexico and the United States. It is significant that the revolt began the day the treaty went into effect. In doing so, the Chiapan peasant rebels put their revolt in a continental context.

The Mexican government immediately blamed the revolt on Central American revolutionary groups as well as the Catholic Church as it proceeded with indiscriminate bombings, summary executions and other human rights abuses. This initial strategy failed to suppress the insurgents. The failure—and the massive sympathy that the rebellion elicited, virtually transforming the political climate in the country—forced the government to recognize the rebels and agree to negotiations.

But even if they helped in some way, neither foreign guerrillas nor liberation theology priests are responsible for the Chiapas Rebellion. The immediate causes of the rebellion are to be found in decades of violent attacks on the indigenous people of Chiapas by landlords, politicians, the police and the army.

In the broader Mexican context, the Rebellion in Chiapas is also a reaction against President Salinas’ attack on the political rights and living standards of the Mexican people. Salinas dismantled a good part of the state’s intervention in the economy and of the Mexican welfare state. Inadequate as this welfare state was—particularly for the peasantry—it provided a minimum safety net for millions of poor Mexicans.

Mexico, as the famous phrase notes, is "so far from God, so close to the United States." In the first half of the nineteenth century the U.S. domination of Mexico began as a military struggle over land. By 1854 the United States succeeded in taking half of Mexico’s territory (Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, part of Colorado.) But in the second half of the century, U.S. influence was primarily economic, particularly in the metal and petroleum industries, but also dominating its railroads and utilities. Mexico also provided natural resources and cheap labor for the mines, logging camps and oil fields. Mexico’s dictator, Porfirio Diaz (1876-1910) used his army and police to attack unions and opposition political parties in order to keep wages low.

The Mexican Revolution (1910-20), and its resurgence under Lazaro Cardenas (1934-40) were attempts to shape an independent national identity. The radical Constitution, adopted in 1917, included recognition of the peasants’ traditional collective ownership of the land. During Cardenas’ presidency, millions of hectares were redistributed to peasants throughout Mexico and key industries were nationalized. The populist, authoritarian, capitalist state that emerged was a one-party state (headed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party—PM) that regenerated its rule by organizing and controlling trade unions and peasant federations. The financial resources at the P1U’s disposal are immense.

Thus the social pact established by Lazaro Cardenas in the late ’30s, while depriving the peasantry and working class of their independence, offered, as an implicit exchange, a modicum of social justice. This mode of national development proved successful until the late ’60s when movements rose to challenge the PRI: a student movement—which was gunned down by the police and army at Tiatelolco Plaza in 1968—a peasant guerilla movement, calling itself the Party of the Poor, and independent labor unions. The PM reacted with both repression and economic expansion, providing jobs and social programs. But the expansion was bought with foreign loans. Mexico’s collateral was its oil—but by August 1982, when the price of oil fell to $14 a barrel, Mexico went bankrupt.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund dictated the new situation: Mexico would sell off its state-owned industries, break up the collective ejidos, permit foreign investment and reduce government social welfare programs. If this were carried out, the bankers would willingly roll over the loans and work with the PRI government, even forgiving a part of the debt. This caused a split in the PRI, with Cuauhtemoc Cardenas (son of Lazaro), opposing the deal.

The election of 1988 pitted Cardenas against Salinas. Most observers believe Cardenas won, but given that the FRI held the election apparatus in its hands, Salinas was declared president. Salinas’ efforts to replace the Mexican version of state capitalist development with an export-oriented model of capitalism has left, as usual, the working class and the peasantry with the worst of both worlds: a lack of class independence and a shrinking welfare state.

Salinas sold the vast majority of state-owned firms (frequently to friends and political supporters), welcomed foreign investment, attacked labor unions and pushed through legislation which "allows" peasants to divide and sell their collective lands. This changed the fundamental dynamic of the Mexican economy. Under Salinas, Mexico is returning to its subservient position under Porfirio Diaz, a corrupt and repressive dictator who has gone down in Mexican history as a sellout.

GATT and NAFTA make explicit what Salinas and the PRI have done: Mexico is open to foreign investment and will do what it can to insure those investments are "safe." This includes weakening or removing outright environmental protections, workers’ health and safety, workers’ rights. It will force peasants off the lands. They will flee to the shantytowns where the youngest will become "hands" in the plants and the rest will be forced into the informal economy, which already supports one-third of the Mexican workforce.

As EZLN Commander Marcos, a leader of the rebel forces in Chiapas, said over a captured radio station in January: "The free-trade agreement is a death certificate for the Indian peoples of Mexico, who are dispensable for the government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari. We rise up in arms against this death sentence from Carlos Salinas."

The EZLN issued its own radical agrarian law, demanding the return of the land to those who work it in the tradition of Emilano Zapata and in explicit opposition to Salinas’ "reforms" of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution. Their law proposes a redistribution to landless peasants and agricultural workers of all land in excess of 50 hectares of good quality land or 100 hectares of poor quality (communally held land is exempt). Agrolivestock monopolies and the means of production and financial resources would also be expropriated, redirected to cooperatives and other collective groups.

The Zapatista’s law further explains that producers should dedicate themselves to the production of necessary foodstuffs for the Mexican people. The law’s objective, then, is to end the hunger of the people and to insure the health of the land. To that end, the law calls for reforestation campaigns and collective care for rivers and lakes. It seeks to establish a fair price for peasants’ produce, enabling them to buy products in order to live "a dignified life." This includes free health care, recreation and educational centers, housing and road construction, creation of an infrastructure that guarantees potable water, drainage, electricity, things necessary for the house (stove, refrigerator, lavatories). Poor peasants and agricultural workers are to be forgiven their debts (whether from credit, taxes or loans) and communal lands would not be taxed.

The EZLN-proposed agrarian law comes out of the experience of a peasant movement that organized itself first at the local level. In 1974, with the help of Bishop Samuel Ruiz, they organized the First Indigenous Congress of Chiapas. Later, the Peasant Alliance was created by landless peasants and ejidatarios to "struggle against the rich and their government." These Chiapas-wide organizations sometimes affiliated with national groupings, from the Independent Central of Agricultural Workers and Peasants, a non-governmental organization providing technical assistance to peasant movements, to the Plan de Ayala, a national independent peasant coordinating committee that was tied to the left.

The basic form of peasant struggle has been an "invasion," an attempt to take back land stolen by ranchers, loggers and plantation owners. The level of repression and struggle against injustice stands revealed in one statistic: according to the Mexican government, Chiapas—with 47o of the national population—has about 307o of all the Mexican land conflicts.

Over the last quarter of a century, the indigenous population of Chiapas has organized and fought back against their increasing pauperization. At the same time they have attempted to advance an alternative vision of a society based on social solidarity and mutual cooperation. And they have joined national groups, like the Plan de Ayala, to participate in the broader social movements of Mexican society.

The EZLN, on January 1st, struck a powerful blow that already has shaken up Mexico. Their declaration placed their struggle as a continuation of the Mexican Revolution. Hopefully their action has begun the process of reorganizing and reshaping the class forces with which a democratic and revolutionary socialist movement can be established in Mexico. In the end, it is only the creation of such a movement from Mexico to Canada that can pose a full-fledged and real alternative to the capitalist NAFTA.

March/April 1994, ATC 49