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
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
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.