Mexico Reveals Itself

January 11, 1994|By JORGE G. CASTANEDA

Mexico City -- Before the facts are all available, assorted explanations, most of them wrong, will be offered for the appearance of Mexico's first guerrilla movement since the 1970s.

The Chiapas indigenous peasant uprising will be blamed on Guatemalans, priests, Cuauhtmoc Cardenas, the CIA, poverty, ethnic resentment and what not. It will be explained away as short-lived, localized, eccentric and exceptional.

Some of the explanations will make sense -- poverty, discrimination against indigenous peoples -- but these things have been true for centuries without provoking an armed explosion.

Other explanations will simply be self-serving, seeking to dodge the hard question that Mexico must answer: How is it that TC nation theoretically propelled into the First World by the North American Free Trade Agreement, free-market technocrats and English-speaking yuppies has suddenly been rocked by Indians -- Tzeltzals, Tzotziales, Tojolavaes, Choles -- fighting a modern army with machetes and sticks and stones as well as automatic weapons?

The answer, of course, lies not in the motivations and origins of the Chiapas revolt, but in the mistaken nature of the initial assessment: Mexico has not been, nor will it be any time soon, the modern, lily-white, middle-class and democratic society its rulers and their friends in Washington want it desperately to be.

Or, more correctly, Mexico is at least two nations: the one present at the NAFTA coming-out parties in Washington, and the one that reared its head in San Cristobal de las Casas on New Year's Day. To confuse one for the other is a major mistake; to believe that the first Mexico is more relevant to the future than the second is understandable but equally wrong.

Four points are worth making about the events in Chiapas.

* This is not, strictly speaking, an armed peasant ''Jacquerie,'' but a well-organized, partly well-armed guerrilla movement.

It has at least a thousand recruits -- the news photos and video footage testify to that -- some of whom are uniformed and carry modern weapons, some who do not.

It has a centralized command, substantial communications and logistics capability, a coherent (if archaic) political philosophy and a sophisticated sense of public relations.

It is doubtful that it can stand up to the Mexican army for long, or hold any towns or territory, but it is certainly not a spontaneous, outraged ''Indian revolt.''

* It remains a mystery how a thousand peasants could organize, train and equip themselves, plan and coordinate such a major military operation without the Mexican government doing anything about it.

It's not as if the so-called Zapatistas were a secret. As recently as last August, the weekly Proceso ran a long story on the guerrilla movement. Earlier, the daily La Jornada had reported on the first skirmishes in the town of Ocosingo.

The Mexican security machinery, corrupt and brutal as it may be, has a well-deserved reputation for efficiency. Why was nothing done to forestall the inevitable and predictable guerrilla offensive? Was the omission deliberate, and if so, who should be blamed for the hundreds of lives now lost? Or was it unintentional, an oversight, and if so, what is going on inside the federal government?

* The crisis in Chiapas is not by any means exclusively of an economic nature. The southern state is one of Mexico's poorest, and the discrimination against its destitute indigenous peoples is dramatic, but these facts alone do not account for what happened.

Indeed, Chiapas was something of a showcase for President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's much-touted Solidarity anti-poverty program: More money from the Salinas government and the World Bank was funneled into Chiapas than to any other state.

The problem is that the authoritarian, corrupt, oligarchic structures that have characterized Chiapas for decades were left untouched -- or were even strengthened.

The local authorities and the army worked with the cattle grazers in dispossessing the Indians of their communal lands. The ranchers got the land; the army and the police beat up, harassed and intimidated the indigenous landholders.

It was no coincidence that the former governor of the state of Chiapas, Patrocinio Gonzalez, famed for the human-rights violations and corruption that took place on his watch, was named Mr. Salinas' interior minister a year ago. The Salinas regime threw money (in fact, not all that much) at the local problems but left the underlying causes intact. The main problem in Chiapas is not economic but political.

* Mexico cannot go on being governed this way; this is the true lesson of the Chiapas insurrection.

In principle, if all or at least most of the country's ancestral injustices and inequalities, oppression and violence, human-rights violations and poverty could be redressed overnight or even soon, there would be less of a need for political change.

Conversely, if there were adequate channels of political expression for discontent and its ensuing demands, the urgency for addressing the nation's myriad economic and social ills would be less grave.

But neither is the case, which means that political change must occur, and soon, or more incidents such as those of the past few days will occur -- though not necessarily the same way, nor right away. As the Chiapas incident shows, predicting events in Mexico is a lousy way to make a living. But it makes no sense to make a career of pretense, just to keep a party and its bosses in power.

Jorge G. Castaneda's latest book, ''Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War,'' has just been published by Alfred A. Knopf.

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