Rebels in the Hills

January 11, 1994

The quixotic Mayan Indian uprising in Chiapas state in southern Mexico was foreshadowed by stories in the Mexico press of guerrillas organizing, but still a surprise. Its essence remains unknown. One or another of historic movements, besides Emiliano Zapata's Indian army, was its model. All have in common that they failed.

There have been pure Indian uprisings, unsullied by ideological outsiders, in Canada, the United States, Mexico and further south. The larger society was always more numerous, economically powerful and technologically advanced. The most recent violent uprisings in Canada and the United States were the work of very small numbers of either criminals or revolutionaries, not followed by the populations they purported to represent.

So which is the Zapatista National Liberation Army? And who is its mysterious, green-eyed or blue-eyed "Commandante Marcos"? Certainly no Mayan. Possibly Mexican, possibly not. More important, how far can the movement extend to central Mexico, and can its Indians enlist other indigenous peoples speaking other languages?

Claiming very real Indian grievances as its reason for being, the movement seized a few towns and stood off troops briefly, to seize attention and make its own existence irrefutable. Then it withdrew before army counter-attacks, to the forests and the mountains, where armored personnel vehicles cannot pursue. At this stage, to survive is to fan the myth. But that does not guarantee growth.

That this is a distraction to Mexico's political process, while the ruling Party of Revolutionary Institutions (PRI) is fending off challenges from left and right and trying to bring Mexico through NAFTA into the developed world, is undisputed.

But the harm it poses is fear of the unknown. The purpose and strength of the revolution remain unknown. As bombs go off in the slums of Mexico City, the most formidable aspect of the Zapatista National Liberation Army is that it exists. However big or small, Mexican or imported, Indian or white, Marxist or nativist, it is still out there, a brush fire that, however small, is still out of control.

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