Chiapas Uprising Attacks Myth of Mexican Stability

January 09, 1994|By JOHN M. McCLINTOCK

Last week Mayan Indians descended from the hills to surround, capture and kill several myths about Mexico.

In a well-coordinated attack New Year's Day, as many as 2,000 Indian soldiers captured four towns in the poor southern state of Chiapas. In so doing, the Mayan soldiers exploded Al Gore's pro-NAFTA assertion that whatever one may think about its politics, Mexico has been stable for more than 70 years.

The revolutionaries attacked on the day the North American Free Trade agreement went into effect and cited the agreement as a reason for their uprising. But it would be wrong to suppose that a pact with the devilish gringos was the primary -- or even the secondary -- reason for declaring war against a government it considers dictatorial.

The real reasons were more home-grown, having to do with years of governmental neglect, torture and murder.

Nevertheless, the revolt was the first sign that Mexico's powerless and frustrated "dispossessed" were becoming well-organized, were armed and were seeking to overthrow the government.

(Less incendiary confrontations over land claims or charges of fraudulent elections have occurred recently in the states of Oaxaca, Tabasco, Mexico, Veracruz, Yucatan, Puebla, Guerrero and Michoacan.)

In many rural states such as Chiapas, the hallowed values of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 -- with its suspicion of foreign companies and emphasis on land for peasants -- clash with the economic program of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

It is no accident that the Mayan army in Chiapas named itself after Emiliano Zapata, the half-breed revolutionary whose cry was: "Land and Liberty!"

Zapata, like the Indians, also felt betrayed; his plan to return the land to the peasants was never truly enacted.

The ultimate victors of the 1910 revolution were northern generals who were interested in placating military rivals with rewards of land. They also had an aversion to carving up large estates, because in the north large parcels were needed to survive the arid climate.

At the time of the revolution, about 45 percent to 50 percent of the population were Indians. Indeed, it was the Indians who provided most of the troops, believing that they were fighting to regain their communal lands but with little understanding of the revolution's loftier aims, such as clean elections.

Today about 10 percent of the population of 85 million is composed of purebred Indians who are still living within their traditional cultures. Purebred Indians of all types form nearly 30 percent of the population.

In their statement last week, the Indians noted that they were not only "cannon fodder" in the revolution but also in the successive wars against Spain, the United States and the French.

The statement noted that Indians in Mexico have been struggling for 500 years to regain the status and lands that were lost in the Spanish Conquest. Each time they have been betrayed.

To the Indian raiders of Chiapas, Mr. Salinas is the latest betrayer, having sold out the aims of the 1910 revolution by opening the country to foreign investors and eliminating land tenancy laws that symbolized -- but did not produce -- true land reform for the peasants.

For years, Chiapas had been treated as a kind of last frontier whose resources in oil, timber, grazing land and rich soil were up for grabs, while the Indians were treated as second-class citizens.

Today, Chiapas ranks last among Mexico's 31 states in the number of people over the age of 14 who can read (69.6), last among the states with households that have electricity (66.9 percent) and fourth from the bottom among states with houses that have running water (58.4 percent.)

It is first at one thing: land disputes, with 25 percent of the nation's title conflicts.

The Chiapas rebels in their statement described Mr. Salinas and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) as "a self-appointed band of traitors representing the most conservative and dangerous segments of our society."

The situation in Chiapas had become so polarized by September that Proceso, the Mexico City weekly journal, ran a story about a Jesuit priest who told of angry Indians undertaking military training.

The article was greeted by disbelief. After all, as Vice President Gore noted, Mexico is stable.

In a statement explaining its motives for war, the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army accused the government of not caring "that we are dying of hunger and curable diseases."

"We have nothing, absolutely nothing," said the rebel statement, "[neither] a decent roof above our heads, nor land, nor work, nor health, food nor education, without the right to freely and democratically elect our officials."

To those who know the local Maya, these charges are true, even though Mr. Salinas' anti-poverty program had given Chiapas more funds than any other state.

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