Mexico's poor endure unkept promises

March 06, 1994|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Mexico City Bureau of The Sun

EMILIANO ZAPATA -- The rebels of Chiapas who shocked the Mexican government and much of the world two months ago are out among their people in the rugged hillsides of this impoverished province these days, asking whether they should accept the government deal to end the war.

In exchange for their weapons, the government has promised hospitals, roads, schools, electricity and clean water.

But the people of Chiapas have heard it all before. The Mexican government has broken promises to them for generations.

One promise came from President Carlos Salinas de Gortari five years ago, when he initiated a program called Solidarity. On paper it is an impressive program in which billions of dollars are allocated to improve the appalling living conditions of the poor throughout Mexico.

In Chiapas, the government has spent more than a half-billion dollars, making the state the largest recipient of public funds.

But the view of Solidarity from several villages in Chiapas is much less spectacular. Schools are more often closed than open. Roads remain unpaved and therefore impassable during the long rainy season. Farmers harvest their crops with sticks and machetes. Health clinics operate with insufficient supplies.

People in isolated villages such as Emiliano Zapata said they did not participate in the Zapatista uprising, but most said they shared the rebels' fury and frustration.

"We have heard on the radio that the government has sent more money to Chiapas than any other state, and we laugh," said Francisco Lopez, a frail man with the round facial features of most of the Mayan descendants who live in Chiapas.

"Where is it? If they had sent a lot of money here, there would be roads. We would have electricity and medicine and clean water," he said.

All the men of the village, some 150, squatted on the ground around him. The sun had set, and their faces were only slightly illuminated by thin white candles.

"Look around you," one of them shouted. "We have nothing."

Solidarity funds paid for the construction of a clinic just a short walk from Emiliano Zapata a few years ago. But people have found little help there.

The doctor sent by the government would call the farmers names like "dirty pigs," and would deny them the free medicine.

The doctor would scold that medicine could not help them if they did not bathe regularly, boil water before drinking it, build latrines, and sleep in beds or hammocks instead of on their dirt floors.

"Sometimes we would take fruit to the doctor so that he would help us," said Manuel Lopez, whose round belly and square black-framed glasses distinguish him from his thin neighbors. "He would say that he did not have any medicine, but I could see it on the shelf."

Jose Luis Lopez said his brother nearly died of cholera last year because the doctor refused to give him a serum to rehydrate his organs. Relatives and friends of the ill man put together their pesos to buy the serum for about $10 at a local store.

"The doctor said there was no free help for people like us because we are dirty," he said, watching his wife cut dried corn from the cob in their dirt-floor hut. "But he said the cemetery was free. He told us the government was already spending a lot of money on us."

The government provided teachers for the elementary school in a clearing of the pine trees that shade most of Emiliano Zapata. But little learning occurs there.

Every two weeks the teachers must lock up the four bare classrooms and travel by small airplane to the nearest town to get their pay checks. The government allows three days for the journey; often the teachers take five or six.

"I like school, but the teachers are gone a lot," said a 13-year-old girl, Flor, wading in the Perla River. Asked if she knew how to read, her head dropped and she mumbled, "No, not very well."

The village of dried-mud huts sits at the point where the Perla and Jatate rivers meet. But none of the water is suitable for drinking.

The Jatate River carries sewage from the town of Ocosingo, so residents generally stay away from it. However, they gather at the clear, warm water of the Perla River every afternoon to seek relief from the sun.

"The river is beautiful, but there have been animals that have died from drinking that water," said Antonio Romero Lopez. "And it is the same water we have to drink. There is nothing else."

In the afternoon, women take their children to bathe in the strong current. Men frolic in the river with their horses. Before they leave, everyone scoops up a jug of the water to quench their evening thirst. Even though most people boil the water before drinking it, illnesses persist.

'They let us suffer'

Government officials promised to provide Zapata with a clean water system. Last year, they sent pipes to the village as a sign that the work would soon begin. Now those pipes sit gathering dust in the hamlet's main meeting hall, a tall concrete structure called the Casa Grande -- the "Big House."

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