Mexican Revolution on a Roll

March 04, 1994

Rarely has so forlorn a little rebellion succeeded so swiftly on such a grand scale as the New Year's Day uprising in southern Mexico appears to have done -- if the government's agreement with rebel leaders is to be believed.

Whether the Mayan and other poor Indians who make up the underclass of their native Chiapas state support the agreement will take some time to determine. Whether the outgoing Mexican government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari intends that it be carried out may take longer to know.

The 32-point agreement was hammered out in nine days of hard bargaining at San Cristobal de las Casas, the town that the Zapatista National Liberation Army briefly seized. A group of 19 rebels led by someone named Juan and the better known Subcomandante Marcos negotiated for the dispossessed. A leading politician, Manuel Camacho Solis, whom President Salinas had passed over in naming a successor, negotiated for the government and conceded most of the rebels' demands.

The mediator was Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, whom many consider the principal articulator of revolutionary ideology in Chiapas. Luis Donaldo Colosio, whom President Salinas did name as his successor and who is supposed to be taking over national leadership at this time, was upstaged.

The government undertakes to create autonomous Indian communities, redistrict state and local government, distribute large private land-holdings to the poor, outlaw discrimination, improve health service and education in indigenous languages and require nationwide teaching of the Indian heritage.

In some respects, the shadowy regional group was negotiating for all indigenous peoples of Mexico. By demanding fairness in the August presidential election, they championed opponents of the Party of Revolutionary Institutions (PRI) that has monopolized power in Mexico since 1929.

Although the government did not spell out electoral reforms to the Zapatistas, it was conceding them to a consortium of opposition parties in Mexico City. The two negotiations became intertwined.

What embarrasses the government about these reforms is that, after six decades of PRI revolution from above, everyone knows they are needed.

With the election approaching, Mexican politics is in confusion. Meanwhile, the Zapatistas have vanished to their villages to find out if their people approve what they have done.

Whether any large land-owner of Chiapas will allow himself to be expropriated without a fight is a matter for conjecture. It is one thing to make an agreement and quite another to carry it out.

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