The revolt of oppressed Indians in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas as the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect New Year's Day has roots far deeper than the elimination of tariffs between two "distant neighbors." While NAFTA is feared among Mexican peasants as still another device to rob them of their land, its impact on descendants of the Mayas in the jungles and hills near the Guatemalan border is remote.
It will take some time to sort out the details of this uprising, which took an embarrassed Mexican government by surprise. The rebels have invoked the name of Emiliano Zapata, a hero of the Mexican Revolution who led a peasant army from the south, even capturing Mexico City, during the chaotic fighting and alliances that marked that long conflict. "Land and liberty" was Zapata's battle cry, and it has long resonated among Mexico's rural poor.
Even before the bloody weekend fighting erupted, there had been tension in Chiapas and reports of clandestine guerrilla preparations modeled after Peru's Shining Path. The government President Carlos Salinas de Gortari dismissed such reports as an attempt to derail NAFTA, then under consideration in the U.S. Congress. But it was alarmed enough to send Mr. Salinas' designated successor, Luis Donaldo Colosio, to the region with lavish offers of federal aid under the aegis of his Solidarity social uplift program.
Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas, who is now appealing an order from Pope John Paul II that he resign, has been agitating for years on behalf of Indians who fear their culture and livelihood are being destroyed by rapacious ranchers and the land reform program of the Salinas government. It is a complicated situation. Indian groups practicing indigenous religions have expelled converts to Bishop Ruiz' Catholicism; government aid is both sought and feared.
As for NAFTA, it seems to have been a convenient device for rebel leaders with broader grievances. While agitation, if not rebellion, is justified in a backward region like Chiapas, free trade and Mexico's eventual breakthrough into the First World economy should be of benefit to millions of Mexicans who have never realized the promise of Zapata's revolution.