Few are surprised that Indians became violent

January 04, 1994|By Cox News Service

Americans who live and work in the Chiapas highlands where Mexican Indian peasants have waged a bloody four-day insurrection say the same thing.

They're not surprised that the Indians -- most of them poverty-ridden, landless, uneducated and marginally employed -- have resorted to violence as their only solution. But the Americans, mostly scholars, are astounded by the level of sophistication and wide scope of the uprising.

"What surprised me about this is that it happened all at once, all over the place," said Jan Rus, an anthropologist who works for a private foundation in San Cristobal de las Casas, one of six cities that the self-styled Zapatista National Liberation Army took over on New Year's Day.

"I knew things were heating up, but I didn't realize they had reached the boiling point," museum coordinator Susanna Paisley said yesterday from San Cristobal.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, the trade pact that is intended ultimately to remove all trade barriers between Mexico, the United States and Canada, is at the core of the discontent.

The rebels say they timed their attacks to coincide with the beginning of NAFTA, and many of them feel betrayed by Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who supported the treaty.

"The Indians are terrified of NAFTA," said Pete Brown, an anthropologist at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. "They say big government and big business are going to" hurt them.

Analysts point to the region's major corn crop -- Chiapas is the only Mexican state that exports corn -- as particularly vulnerable. U.S. corn sells at 60 percent of the Mexican price. When trade barriers come down, the cheaper U.S. corn will flood the Mexican market.

But observers agree that the conditions for rebellion have been there for a long time.

Those causes are many. About one-third of Chiapas' population of 3.2 million are Indians, descendants of the Mayans. Although Mexico prides itself as a multiethnic society that protects the rights of its indigenous people, in fact most Indians are treated as second-class citizens.

Chiapas, at the extreme southern end of Mexico, has a long history of rebellion -- first against the Spanish conquerors and later against the government or wealthy landowners.

And yet the attacks, the first such uprising in more than 20 years, go against the grain of political violence in Mexico since World War II, which has been typified by kidnappings and shoot-outs between police and drug gangs.

Most of the region's peasant Indians eke out a living by working on large plantations, owned by 10 or 15 families of European heritage.

Other Indians work as sharecroppers, raising corn on small tracts of land they don't own. But some landowners have turned much of that land over to cattle-raising, leaving the peasants without any income.

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