SOUTHERN MEXICO - JANUARY 1994




On January 27, having passed through one military check-point after another, frisked and questioned repeatedly as to my destination and my reasons for coming to this area, I entered a city emptied of tourists but filled with an air of speculation and expectation. In this city the interior walls of the main cathedral are blanketed with the daily papers (beginning with January 1, 1994) making available to all who enter the numerous communiques of the EZLN, while the streets are constantly patrolled by armed forces of the Mexican Military. Along the streets close to the main plaza huge satellite transmission dishes seem to point towards the capitol - while journalists and photographers wait at the hotel Posada Diego de Mazariegos for the next press conference, discussing their mostly failed attempts to arrange a meeting in the mountains with subcommander Marcos. Along less traveled streets you might come upon one of the few remaining "pintas" (political graffiti) which serve to remind us of the recent massacres of civilians by the Mexican Military or another pinta may simply show solidarity with the cause of the Zapatistas with the initials "EZLN." [By the end of January many of the walls had been painted over but the messages are not silenced.]

On this day I entered San Cristobal de las Casas (pop. 85,000), a 16th century Spanish colonial city in the center of Chiapas, the southern most state of Mexico. Here the Mayan traditions persist in their languages, their culture, their religion, and in their relationship to the land. And it is here that the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) rose up on 1 January 1994 to confront the Mexican government and challenge the onset of neoliberalism.

For those who may be unfamiliar with 20th century Mexican history, to use the name Zapata in Mexico (as well as throughout most of Latin America) links you to the ongoing struggle of the indigenous people against the powers of state governments which seek to exploit or oppress them, and destroy their culture. Emiliano Zapata, a Nahua from the Mexican state of Morales, was a leader in the Mexican revolution (until he was assassinated in 1919) who struggled and fought to secure the rights of the indigenous in Mexico. His "Plan de Alaya," put forward in 1911, remains a model, a resonant and strident voice, for agrarian reform and traditional indigenous values - agrarian reform which confronted the owners of the large haciendas who were engaged in the take over of traditional indigenous lands in order to produce sugar cane for export, eliminating the small farms that produced crops for local consumption and making the indigenous slaves on thier own land.

The years may be different but the struggle for the indigenous remains essentially the same - the struggle to protect and maintain their communally held land known as "ejidos," and the right to live their lives as they choose upon this land. Following the revolution, the ejido system had been "secured" and protected by article 15 of the Mexican constitution, secured, that is, until 1993 when the Salinas government changed the constitution in order to conform to certain neoliberal policies of structural adjustment which are required by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). One of the tenants of "structural adjustment" requires the country to privatize all nationally held companies, resources and land - making them open to international capitalism.

Traditionally, families could hand the land down from generation to generation but they could not sell the land, the ejido could not be reduced in size (but it could increase). Through this policy of privatization, the ejidos would now be deeded individually to each family. With individual ownership the land would be open to speculators or large landowners for purchase and the "community" would thereby become fragmented and destroyed. Since the Mayan culture is rooted in the land, the elimination of the community land base would eventually effect the integrity and survival of the culture.

When the Zapatistas rose up on January 1 the federal government quickly attempted to characterize their movement as Marxist, Cuban supported, etc. The government wanted to manipulate the issues and represent the Zapatistas as "outside forces." The government did not succeed, largely in part, because immediately after the uprising the Zapatistas placed their communiques, their issues and demands, on the Internet, enabling the national and international community to understand their positions directly, without them being "filtered" by the government . The communiques, written by the spokesperson for the EZLN, subcommander Marcos, were articulate, intelligent, and at times even humorous. They clearly presented the voice of the indigenous in terms which were specific to their condition, needs and demands.

The communiques also called for the civil society to "awaken" from their sleep and recognize the implications and impact of the governments newly enacted policies on each of their lives. The assault of neoliberalism would affect everyone's life, and the time to act was now.

Since the uprising was timed to the enactment of NAFTA in Mexico on January 1, international attention was inevitable - a strategy which clearly worked to the benefit of the EZLN. The news media paid attention to the government's initial response of aerial bombing and murder of civilians. Mexico, entering the "first world" through NAFTA, was no longer able to hid their acts of impunity against their citizens. And the news media was also very interested in what the Zapatistas were saying.