What Chiapas & Mexico Need: Democracy, Not War!

Olivia Gall

ON THE MORNING of February 9, central and southeast Chiapanec skies filled once more with military planes and helicopters. Nobody understood what was gong on. Only a few hours later the national television channels announced President Zedillo’s unexpected new stance toward the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN).

The Zapatista leaders — Zedillo declared — would no longer be considered social fighters with whom the government can negotiate peace, but as dangerous outlaws who must be stopped, arrested and convicted according to law. The reason? The government “has found two weapons arsenals outside Chiapas, which belong to the EZLN and which prove that the EZLN leaders were not respecting the truce but in fact planning an armed insurrection on a national level.”

The consequent decision? The government ordered Antonio Lozano Garcia, Mexico’s first attorney general belonging to an opposition party (the conservative Partido Acción Nacional, PAN), to find and arrest the Zapatista leaders on charges of “sedition, mutiny, rebellion, conspiracy, terrorism, possession and transmission of firearms that are for the Army’s exclusive use.” The Secretary of War was also instructed to support the police in this task.

While the entire country was learning of the government’s decision, its first steps had already been taken: On February 8, the day before, Mexico City police arrested, in the house where one of these “arsenals” was found — seven supposed Zapatista members and a woman, Maria Gloria Benavides Guevara, whom the authorities claimed was one of the leaders, “Subcomandante Elisa.”

At the same time the federal police, army and air force marched towards Zapatista territory and took back the municipalities of Ocosingo, Margaritas and Altamirano. When they arrived they found that, according to an old fighting tradition going back even farther than the Spanish conquest of Chiapas in 1524, the towns and communities had been abandoned by their inhabitants, who took refuge in the jungle.

Following Zedillo’s speech the Attorney General assured the nation that the identity of some other leaders, especially that of Subcomandante Marcos, had already been established: Marcos’ real name was announced to be Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente, a former philosophy student and university professor who quit his job about ten years ago. Less than a day later three other supposed EZLN leaders were arrested: Javier Elorreaga Berdegué, Sebastión Entzin Gomez and Jorge Santiago Santiago, a member of a non-governmental organization.

While the heads of the main businessmen’s organizations, the aged leader of the official union federation Fidel Velázquez, the main figures of PRI (the ruling party) and organized land and cattle owners of Chiapas immediately rejoiced in this sudden change of government policy towards the Chiapas conflict, most of the rest of the country expressed their fear of war. Whether or not Mexicans feel sympathy towards the Zapatista cause, the government’s turn on the Chiapas affair is seen as yet one more of the erratic steps it has been making since taking office on December 1, 1994.

Where is Zedillo heading? Does he know what he is doing? Whose interests does he really represent? What does this actually mean for the country? How will Mexicans be able to stand this new blow, after what we are enduring now as the result of the very strong peso devaluation (from 3.50 to 8 pesos per dollar) and the inflation it has caused? Is this the first consequence of the $51 billion that President Clinton and some international financial institutions have agreed to lend to “save” our economy and future from collapsing?

A Profound Sense of Crisis

The words written by Victor Flores Olea — a Mexican liberal intellectual who has held several important posts in government diplomatic and cultural institutions — very clearly communicate the country’s feeling after the February 9 turn:

“On one occasion Talleyrand said: ‘it is worse than a political mistake, it is a stupidity.’ In this case it has been a political mistake and a stupidity, which leads us to the worst imaginable world. On one hand, economic difficulties that are deepening: the ongoing discussion on the conditions that the United States wants to impose on Mexico so as to guarantee the enlarged Mexican debt, and then the recession; in other words, on the inside, growing unemployment and living standards cruelly knocked down once more. A short-term crisis and a more than doubtful horizon if we walk towards the same development model . . . .

“To this economic crisis the government is adding a political one. Lack of capacity and stupidity: Now it happens that today Subcomandante Marcos has become a common delinquent because his partisans have been found with two laughable arsenals, when everybody knows about his thousands of armed men in the jungle? Where has the situation so qualitatively changed to turn him into an outlaw, when only a few weeks ago a congressional commission was appointed to deal with him, when an mediation commission has been officially recognized, when the Secretary of State has held an interview with him and when [Zedillo] himself sent him conciliatory letters while he was running for [and was already virtually elected] President?

“Why this mise en scene that borders on ridiculous? Why this mistreatment of the dignity of Mexican institutions? Why this insult to the intelligence of the Mexican people? Hardening of the regime, repression both selective and indiscriminate that has already started, abandonment of political means to embark on coercive force and . . . if this is still possible, a larger loss of credibility. The division of the country and the provoking of new conflicts, more and more acute. . . . Some are not surprised by the facts, which they see as fatally written in what seems to be the end of an era in the Mexican political system. I hope I am wrong, but I think that the country has already and irreversibly taken an abysmal road of difficulties and uncertainties.” (“Una Mayor Crisis,” La Jornada, February 11, 1995)

Five days later, another surprising turn: President Zedillo announces that he has instructed Lozano to stop the search for the Zapatista leaders. He calls for a new dialogue with them, and offers amnesty for those who will “lay down arms,” including their leaders. Those who a few days earlier strongly applauded the President for having “finally taken the decision that should have been taken a long time ago” are strongly disappointed and, again, more and more lose confidence in the federal authorities. The rest of the country takes a deep breath, but doesn’t understand what is going on; Zedillo has lost more credibility.

Behind the Shifting Policies

What happened during those five days? From my perspective two important things explain the zigzagging, one in favor of the federal government, one in favor of peace and Mexican civil society.

1) Despite the harm to his public image that Zedillo’s actions of February 9-14 have caused, the young Mexican President has won two victories. First, under the banner of “defending what is most sacred for the country, its national sovereignty,” he has reconquered a large part of the state of Chiapas, and forced the Zapatistas and the local population that sympathizes with then to take refuge in the jungle — where they are isolated and forced to survive under the worst possible conditions.

Second, by asking for the resignation of Lic. Eduardo Robledo — the PRI governor of Chiapas “elected” in August 1994 — the new Mexican President has gone over the heads of all local groups and interests to take full control of the Chiapas government. (On February 14, Robledo, who was accused of winning through massive election fraud and whose resignation was demanded by both the EZLN and PRD, requested an “eleven months’ leave from his public charge, on behalf of peace for Chiapas.”)

To replace Robledo, Zedillo chose a man known locally as a “chilango chiapanec” (born in Mexico City), in other words a man not known in local political corridors and considered a federal government representative. Zedillo also appointed another federal political figure, Lic. Dante Delgado, to control the Chiapas state budget.

2) On the other hand, Mexican civil society raised its voice loud enough to let the PRI government understand that the authoritarian way will get no support whatsoever from large majorities in the country. Streets and plazas of several cities around the country filled up during those five days with the shout: “Todos somos Marcos!” (“We all are Marcos!”) “We are all Indians!”

It is important that the people marching in those demonstrations were by no means all members of the PRD, the left-wing opposition party which, according to official numbers, won seventeen percent of the presidential votes last August. Reporters agree that maybe half the demonstrators were perredistas, but not the rest.

What did this shout then mean? Don Fernando Benitez, one of our most prestigious intellectual figures, an expert on Mexican Indian history and until recently ambassador to the Dominican Republic, explains it very clearly:

“The state of Chiapas is potentially the richest of Mexican states in its pastures, its rivers, its cacao, its cattle, its electrical production or its big forests [and let us add, its oil]; but it is also the state where we can find the worst misery, the most lacerating misery in the whole country; and this is the result of an atrocious injustice.

“The problem is very old. Fr. Bartolome de Las Casas, first bishop of Chiapas, was almost murdered, then was imprisoned and finally expelled by the cruel Spanish esclavista encomenderos. The descendants of those faraway encomenderos are the `coletos’ [the citizens of San Cristobal de Las Casas, a racist term meaning the non-indigenous people –ed.], who have robbed the Indians of their lands, sell them alcohol, enslave them and get rich by death, injustice and contempt.

“One must not forget that Emiliano Zapata was also judged an outlaw, he was called an ‘Attila with his hordes’ . . . and today he is considered as the greatest hero of the Revolution. I am not in favor of violence, but . . . Marcos and his main commanders… are Mexicans, and they have given the six million Mexican Indians a voice and they fight for freedom, justice and democracy even if they have sometimes issued preposterous declarations . . . they fight for a just cause and the time has come to heal a wound that has been open for the last 500 years.

“We have entered a blind alley, unless the army leaves the territories previously occupied by the Zapatistas, as they themselves demand, so as to make the dialogue possible. Concessions must be made because peace will never be too expensive.” (“Chiapas, cerrar la herida,” La Jornada, February 18, 1995)

In other words, this shout in the streets means that most Mexicans do not want war, that they do not agree on nor want violence; it also means that they do not believe the official propaganda presenting the Zapatista rebellion as the main cause of today’s deep economic, social and political crisis. They believe the rebellion, rather, to be one of the first and main consequences of this crisis.

Most Mexicans blame this collapse mainly on former President Salinas and his neoliberal policy, whose goal of making Mexico a First World country in six years is now seen as unreal and dangerous. They also fault the deeply corrupt PRI system, and they can see how violent some of the consequences of his system’s inevitable disintegration have already been for Mexican political life: the internal cannibalism of the PRI, manifested in the murders of Luis Donaldo Colosio and José Francisco Ruiz Massieu; the recent arrest of Raul Salinas de Gortari (the former president’s eldest brother), accused of planning Ruiz Massieu’s murder; and finally, the arrest of Mario Ruiz Massieu, the victim’s brother, who during the last year of Salinas’ regime was Mexico’s second Attorney General and who left the PRI after his brother’s death, accusing some highly placed priistas of obstructing the investigation of this case.

Chiapas: Situation Critical

For several weeks, Zedillo’s effort to dismantle the EZLN leadership has been stopped by at least two barriers: the EZLN’s non-violent response to army penetration, which allowed the civil society to take the initiative of peaceful struggle, and the fact that civil society did take this initiative by organizing a large mobilization against the war with much international support.

The threat of war has been momentarily checked. Nevertheless, the situation of the people in the Chiapas highlands and jungles has considerably worsened since February 9. “During the 120 hours in which thousands of soldiers and agents of the National Attorney’s Office (PGR) `searched’ for Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente,” reported Proceso, “the civilian population inside and outside the conflict zone suffered — according to multiple testimonies and denunciations — police and army break-ins of their homes, arrests, torture, traffic blockages, religious persecution, machine gunning and, according to the first Zapatista communiques and to some perredistas, even bombings.”

“The police and military’s methods,” Proceso added, “included an iron control of the media: From Thursday, February 9 to Wednesday the 15th, national and international reporters couldn’t enter the zones under army control, nor get any information about what was going on there.”

The paper’s reporters visited some communities inside the Ocosingo, Altamirano and Las Margaritas municipalities, where they could obtain testimony about arbitrary detentions, disappearances and tortures — electric shock, water immersion and asphyxiation. These atrocities were committed by soldiers against Indian leaders labelled as EZLN members, but in fact active in civic organizations that sympathize with Amado Avendaño, the PRD’s self-declared “governor in rebellion” for Chiapas [after that state’s election was stolen by PRI fraud –ed.].

People who were tortured were then threatened, so they wouldn’t report what they had suffered. Hunger and disease are also killing many of the 20,000 refugees, children and adults, in the jungle. Meanwhile, in the nearby Chiapas highlands and towns, the situation is becoming more polarized.

While national and international aid flows towards the jungle refugees, groups similar to the autenticos coletos have been created to fight against the government’s retreat from its hard-line position of February 9. They seek to guarantee that federal police and the army won’t leave Chiapas, and to expel bishop Don Samuel Ruiz — the main mediator since the conflict began — whom they have disliked since the sixties for his defense of the Indians, and whom they accuse of being the brains behind the Zapatista movement (“Comandante Samuel,” they call him).

Among other things, these groups have so violently attacked San Cristobal’s diocese members that not only the Mexican authorities decided to protect them; the Pope himself, understanding the danger behind these political attitudes, has unexpectedly changed his stance, declaring in the Vatican’s paper Observatore Romano his support of Ruiz’s pastoral work and his mediating role.

In the same way that the autenticos demonstrated last year against all non-coletos, under the slogan “San Cristobal for the coletos,” they now direct their attacks against democratic organizations. In a pamphlet distributed in February in the streets of San Cristobal, they called on people to denounce non-governmental organization members to the federal police — accusing them of being behind the Zapatista organization, “of living in the town’s fanciest neighborhoods” but “without having forgotten the revolution,” and of “hiding arms in their homes.”

The System at the Breaking Point

So where do we stand now, and where are we heading in the battle for democracy, taking place in the midst of the country’s worst economic, social and political crisis since the Mexican revolution of 1910? What is clear, writes our famous novelist Carlos Fuentes, is that:

“(W)e have reached the limit. The old system cannot take it any more, neither socially nor economically nor politically speaking. While it assured stability and development at the sacrifice of democratic freedom, it was tolerated and even admired. But when its harvest is made of nothing but economic crisis, instability, corruption and its actors’ impunity, what good is it? And then this question must be followed by another: What will we substitute for it?”

Three difficult challenges face Zedillo: (1) to solve the economic and financial crisis in the way least harmful in the long run by the reconstruction of Mexico’s productive plant and defense of its sovereignty; (2) to solve the PRI’s and the national political system’s crisis in the interests of democratization; (3) to truly solve the Chiapas crisis or, as Don Fernando Benitez would say, to finally heal the Chiapas wound. What are Mexico’s chances to see this government, whose first three months in power have so greatly undermined its public image among all social sectors, undertake this road?

To answer, we must first ask ourselves: Who is our new President? From what we know, he has been for quite a while part of the stratum of young neoliberal technocrats who took power after the failure of the Mexican welfare state project of the corrupt PRI politicians. He played an important role in the Salinas government, which today is universally regarded as having led the country into today’s impasse by forcing it, in an irresponsible and almost religious way, along the road of neoliberal economic policy.

Exercising no control on Salinas’ rich friends’ ambitions nor on the export of capital, in the words of Carlos Fuentes:

“(T)hat macroeconomic policy made the Salinas government live under balanced budgets, single-digit inflation, an opening up to the world and open arms to foreign investment. But that economic project simply forgot to direct capital to invest in the productive field and let it devote itself freely to speculation, submitting (and forcing Mexico to submit) to financial movements over which no government whatsoever has any control, and which in our case left as they arrived, on the wings of dark swallows. It sufficed in the sense that the political problems accumulated in Mexico and other markets offered better advantages than ours. Or as Arnold Schwarzenegger would say, “hasta la vista, baby!’” (“Salinas versus Zedillo: las faldas de la Coatlicue,” La Jornada, March 7, 1995)

Zedillo’s first two-and-a-half months in the presidential chair prove that he is either unwilling or unable, trapped as he is in the system’s complex spider web, to make any true changes on behalf of the country’s peace and sovereignty. Not only from the economic point of view (see the sidebar on the second page of this article) but also politically, Zedillo has responded negatively to the challenge of changing the system that has ruled this country for sixty-six years.

The best and most dramatic proof is the regime’s stance on Chiapas. Zedillo’s backdown from his orders to arrest Zapatista leaders doesn’t mean much: He has kept a strong police and military presence in the state (one soldier for every twenty Chiapanec inhabitants!) and, as we said before, has managed through the armed forces’ intimidation and violence to take control of the Zapatista territory as well as the Chiapas state government.

But another, no less dramatic sign of Zedillo’s decision to stick to the system’s strongest tradition, which is to make sure that power remains in the hands of the PRI-government alliance, is his erratic and awkward behavior toward Carlos Salinas. Only a few days ago, on March 2, Zedillo suddenly and unexpectedly broke what has been the “golden rule” of presidential succession since 1940.

According to this rule, the new monarch can do anything to the old one — expose him to criticism, mockery, slander, lies, contempt, jokes, and change his policies in order to control power in an absolute way — except for two things: don’t touch his money or his family. Zedillo dared to touch his precursor’s family: He ordered the arrest of former President Salinas’ brother Raul, on charges of being the brains behind the murder of Jorge Francisco Ruiz Massieu. [This essay was written just before Carlos Salinas himself apparently fled to the United States, deepening both the mystery and the crisis surrounding these state intrigues –eds.]

Up to the very latest events, we Mexicans could still ask ourselves if this step was just a desperate measure in search of credibility, of a popular image of courage and strength, or if it meant that Zedillo truly wanted to break up the government-party system. Had he perhaps found real evidence that incriminated Raul Salinas; and by convicting him, would Zedillo show the country that he would keep at whatever cost his campaign commitment to reform the judicial system, making everybody equal before the law — what he called “the only possible first step toward a more just and democratic society”?

Today we know, whatever his purposes, that Zedillo has succeeded in neither of these directions, but only in appearing as a confused, unsteady, inexperienced and weak president. First we saw Zedillo accept Carlos Salinas’ conditions for canceling his threatened hunger strike: Salinas was officially exonerated of all responsibility for the economic crisis and for obstructing the investigations of the Colosio assassination. Then on March 6, during the PRI’s 66th anniversary, we saw Zedillo subordinate the Executive power to the Party.

Towards Deadlock and War?

On March 8-9 in Congress, we then saw the priista machine’s disciplined answer to this new alliance between the President and the PRI: “yes” to the financial package, and “yes” to the Amnesty Law.

This law starts by never referring by name to either the EZLN or the National Commission for Mediation (CONAI), the only mediating body recognized by both sides. Nor is it an amnesty law — only a thirty-day temporary suspension of penal action against the Zapatistas, to be extended if Congress so decides. Those alleged Zapatistas already in prison will not benefit from the law.

With these two votes Congress has led us to a greater impasse. War is now once more knocking at our doors.

The EZLN took its decision from the beginning for self-sacrifice if necessary. In their own words: “Die to live,” “Nothing for us, everything for all.” But the large numbers of people who took the streets weeks ago do not seem to share this decision for self-sacrifice with their chant: “Everything for all.” What their slogan means is that they, as well as the Zapatistas, “want a different country, ruled by social justice and by a system built on restraints to impunity. It means the need for peace, for political and economic democracy, terms that are commonly empty but that, here and today, are as indispensable to survival as the air we breathe and the food we eat.” (Carlos Monsivais, “Are we all Indians?” La Jornada, February 17, 1995)

But it means also that today, in 1995, no one should have to die to be able to achieve democracy.

ATC 56, May-June 1995