Viva Zapata! Capitalism with a Human Face

January 07, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

New York -- Among the many things I did not expect to see in this year of 1994 was Mexican peasants coming out of the jungles crying, ''Viva Zapata!'' Not in real life, anyway.

The words resonate in the imagination for someone who was in grammar school in Jersey City in 1952. ''Viva Zapata!'' came out that year, the greatest movie we had ever seen. Marlon Brando played Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican hero who was shot down after the 1910 revolution for demanding land and liberty for the great-grandparents of the young men and women who shocked the world this week with the same cries and demands in southern Mexico.

It is hard now to calculate the impact of that movie on some of the kids at Public School 11. It was one of the first things we saw or heard that gave us a clue that perhaps all things in the world were not quite as neat and fine as we were being taught they were. But, of course, nothing could have been much farther away from us than Mexico and the year 1910.

Ironically, Brando's next film, ''On the Waterfront'' in 1954, was about injustice on the docks in Hoboken, New Jersey, about two miles from P.S. 11.

Social conscience was an alien philosophy in the early 1950s, a marvelous time that was more Doris Day than Brando. All the problems of the world were supposed to have been solved. Sure, there were bad guys in Russia, in China and in North Korea, but the American way was going to take care of them just the way we took care of the Nazis. It was all a myth, of course, symbolized by the fact that P.S. 11, which stood behind a statue of Peter Stuyvesant, the first Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, has been renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.

The time was not so different from a couple of years ago when our triumph over Russian communism was hailed as the final victory of the West (us). The dominance of democracy and capitalism was hailed by some as the end of world conflict, even the end of history.

What a joke! The Zapatistas, like Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Russia, and like many of the followers of Martin Luther King Jr., in their own way cast harsh light on the problems of the dark side of Western modernity: the cruelty of free-market capitalism and the limits of democracy.

With all of the billions going to the Central Intelligence Agency (and to journalism, too), we continue to be surprised by what the world is actually like -- particularly what life is like for those Frantz Fanon called, in the 1960s, ''the wretched of the Earth.''

This time the faces of the wretched were hidden by bandannas in Mexico. Next time it will be someplace else the CIA thinks nothing is happening. One attempt to maintain totalitarian communism was to tart it up as ''communism with a human face.'' Now we need, as always, to construct capitalism with a human face -- a tamed and regulated capitalism that does not inevitably and savagely produce big winners and big losers with little in between. All the marvelous economic growth figures in the world do not necessarily equate to progress if greater wealth is distributed to fewer and fewer people. It is small comfort to the poor to be told they can eat statistics.

''Any Indian who has a tiny little hovel and one change of clothes comes to the city now and sees new cars and beautiful hotels and all of those fine things,'' said a priest, Gonzale Ituarte, in San Cristobal de las Casas, a city taken over briefly by the new Zapatistas. ''These things continue to exist at the doorway of the 21st century.''

In simpler words, one of the rebels, identifying himself only as Jesus, said: ''There is no work, no land, no education. There is no way to change that in elections.''

Certainly there has been no way in Mexican elections. The country has never been the democracy it has pretended to be; for more than 70 years it's been essentially a one-party pseudo-democracy created by the wealthy families who wanted Emiliano Zapata killed.

In the political struggle to impose the North American Free Trade Agreement, most of the U.S. business community (and President Clinton) grossly misrepresented the life and times of Mexico. The country is still run by the few families of 18th- and 19th-century European origin.

The great paradox of the little uprising this week is that the rebels claim that it was NAFTA that pushed them over the edge, that they feared the trade agreement would condemn them to new generations of hopeless poverty. If so, they moved too late. If they had rebelled a couple of months earlier, the shock of their action might have led to the defeat of NAFTA in the U.S. Congress.

Whatever happens next in Mexico, the struggle to humanize capitalism will continue in one country after another -- including the United States of America. Capitalism here was saved at least twice, by Theodore Roosevelt's ascension over the robber barons at the beginning of this century and then by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal reforms during the Great Depression 60 years ago.

Right now we need another face-lift after the upward redistribution of wealth during the 1980s. In fact, Bill Clinton's presidency will probably be judged by whether he can accomplish new humanizing reform, beginning with guaranteed health care in the richest country of this capitalistic world.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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