New Perspectives Quarterly (NPQ), Spring 1994, Vol. 11, No. 2. Chiapas: Latin America's First Post-Communist Rebellion Carlos Fuentes One of Mexico's most prominent novelists and a member of the official Mexican Commission for Human Rights, Carlos Fuentes is author, most recently, of Return to Mexico: Journeys Behind the Mask. Subcommandante Marcos, the spokesman of the Chiapas rebels, has said that Fuentes is his favorite writer. Fuentes spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels shortly after the draft settlement between the Mexican government and the Chiapas rebels was signed. NPQ -- The Chiapas revolt has revealed the deep multicultural rifts that had been masked by official glorification of Mexico's pre- Hispanic past. In the United States, there are civil rights laws for dealing with racial conflict in a multicultural society. What kind of framework does Mexico need now that the Chiapas revolt has spotlighted the issue? CARLOS FUENTES -- We have always congratulated ourselves in Mexico on our extraordinary Indian culture which we display in museums and through imposing monuments along our boulevards. We say we are proud of being the descendants of that culture. The Mexican Revolution made an attempt to respect the identity of the Indian communities of Mexico, recognizing and protecting them and their languages in the constitution. In actual practice, however, we have treated the Indians with more cruelty, perhaps, than Cortez. In Chiapas, in particular, there was a tradition of self- government among the several Indian peoples that endured up until the last 20 or 30 years. A succession of rapacious governors allied to equally rapacious land owners and cattle barons has since destroyed the autonomy of the Indian people, taking their land and driving them to desperation and poverty. The events of Chiapas have reminded us that Mexico is a multiethnic, multicultural country. Mexico has the desire to be, and regards itself, as a mestizo, or mixed race, country. But this does not mean that we can simply put aside the fact that there are 10 million Indians in Mexico who speak 42 languages and have alternative cultures and values. They are not barbarians or uncivilized people. They are simply people with another culture. The challenge for mestizo Mexico after Chiapas is to come to grips with this multicultural and multiethnic reality with stricter laws and protections for the indigenous cultures. NPQ -- The draft settlement between the Mexican government and the Chiapas rebels calls for new anti-discrimination laws, like those in the U.S., for the Indians. But will such laws mean anything more than the empty guarantees in the Mexican constitution? FUENTES -- Certainly the existence of such laws will mean that the country as a whole will become more sensitized to the issue of discrimination. But this is how the question of the alternative culture of the Indians is intimately linked to the question of democracy in Chiapas: If the people of Chiapas, for the first time, have the right to elect their own leaders -- people they have confidence in -- then there will be an end to discrimination. Without democracy, a law against discrimination would be meaningless. Law and its practice cannot be separated from effective democracy in Chiapas. NPQ -- Another element of the draft settlement would guarantee that the Indians of Chiapas would be able to teach and speak their own language in their local schools and in local media. But won't that have the effect of retarding their political integration into modern Mexico by emphasizing their separateness from the Spanish-speaking mestizo mainstream? FUENTES -- In this respect we have to rethink what modernity means. If modernity is seen to be homogeneous and exclusive of alternative cultures then it is not really modernity at all. If we want only a modernity as defined in our large cosmopolitan cities, it is a false modernity. Modernity must be inclusive of plurality. Especially in a world that tends toward uniformity, it is healthy to remember that there are other people that have alternative values, alternative ways of life, alternative languages. Recently in Los Angeles I inaugurated the National Conference on Bilingual Education in the United States. How can I defend bilingualism in Spanish and English as something that enriches the U.S. and not defend multilingualism that enriches my own country, Mexico? In Oaxaca (a state in southern Mexico) a couple of years ago I saw how that state's government allowed the indigenous Indians to speak in their own language on TV. That allowed a wealth of myths, memories and aspirations to come through that would have otherwise remained lost in silence. This should be done for the nation as a whole. The problem for the U.S., for Mexico or for Spain -- for any multicultural country -- is to accept that multiculturalism is enriching as long as everyone's rights are equally protected under the law. NPQ -- Where there is intercultural conflict in a society, there is usually an economic overlay. Chiapas is situated, one might say, between backward Central America and the North American Free Trade zone. FUENTES -- Mexico today has one foot in Central America and the other foot in North America. NPQ -- The Chiapas revolt, lest we forget, was launched on January 1, the day the NAFTA agreement took effect. Aren't the rebels quite right that there is no way a peasant growing corn on his little plot of land in southern Mexico is going to compete with agribusiness from Nebraska in a free North American marketplace? FUENTES -- But maybe fruit from the Mexican tropics and winter vegetables can compete in U.S. markets? I believe the two economies can be complementary in many respects; trade after all is not a zero-sum exercise. In any event, there is a deeper point to be drawn from Chiapas: People who have been traditionally exploited would rather go on being exploited than become marginalized. They will not be left out altogether and become non-persons in a non-economy. This is what would happen if the global market-type technocrats were to take over the Chiapas economy. The world economy simply cannot be organized in an enduring way if it only incorporates 30 percent of the world's inhabitants, leaving the remaining 70 percent -- some have called them the "lumpenplanet" -- to dwell or die in destitution. NPQ -- The demand of the Chiapas rebels for more democracy in all of Mexico has had great resonance through the whole country. To what extent is reform in Chiapas linked to democratization for Mexico as a whole? FUENTES -- Many people with cloudy minds in Mexico responded to what happened in Chiapas by saying, "Here we go again, these rebels are part of the old Sandinista-Castroite-Marxist-Leninist legacy. Is this what we want for Mexico?" The rebels proved exactly the contrary: Rather than the last rebellion of that type, this was the first post-communist rebellion in Latin America. For the rebels, the demand for democracy was central. They understood that all their other demands having to do with economic reform and laws against discrimination will not be realized if the people of Chiapas do not have the right to elect their own leaders. Now, you cannot have this kind of democracy in Chiapas when you have the undemocratic system we have in Mexico today. And you cannot have a democratic system in Mexico if you don't have local democracy in a poor and backward place like Chiapas. The two are inseparable. NPQ -- Everyone was sure that, after the massacre of protesting students in the Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City during the 1968 Olympics, Mexico would have to move toward democracy. It didn't. Why will the Chiapas revolt have any more of a lasting impact on democratization? FUENTES -- 1968 provoked a succession of Mexican governments to at least try to save the system from collapsing into a South American-type dictatorship. Now the issue is no longer to save the system, but to save the country. And that can only happen through full scale democratization, including in Chiapas. The effect of Chiapas has been to show us as a nation that our problems can be solved through negotiation rather than force. This, it has to be said, is to the credit of Carlos Salinas, Mexico's president. He could have taken the trigger-happy path of repression that is the usual temptation of authoritarian governments. But he didn't. It must be understood that it would suffice for the rebel leader from Chiapas, Subcommandante Marcos, to give the signal and there would be two, three, many Chiapas-like revolts across Mexico -- in Chihuahua, in Michoacn, in Oaxaca, in Puebla, Hidalgo and Guerrero. Yet, The Mexican army is barely capable of handling a revolt in Chiapas, no less five or six throughout the country. So, the government had to take a different tack, and the rebels know this. And now the government has to deliver on its promises or it could face a much wider spread revolt. Finally, the Chiapas revolt forced all the political parties contending in the presidential elections coming up in August -- including the ruling PRI and the main opposition parties of the right and left -- the PAN (National Action Party) and the PRD (Party of Democratic Revolution headed by Cuahtemoc Cardenas) to agree on a series of measures that promise to make the 1994 elections the most open in Mexican history. The aim, mainly, is to make the electoral authorities independent of the ruling PRI and government, penalize electoral fraud and make sure the media access is fair. This electoral pact has prepared the way for President Salinas to campaign for democratic reform in Mexico the way he campaigned for NAFTA. If he takes up the challenge, he will go down in history not as the man who negotiated a trade agreement or was badly tainted by Chiapas, but as the man who brought democracy to Mexico. NPQ -- Would a defeat in the upcoming elections of the PRI candidate hand-picked by Salinas -- Luis Donaldo Colosio -- be an indication that democracy has fknally come to Mexico? FUENTES -- There are many in Mexico who are saying precisely this: The proof of democracy in Mexico is that Colosio and the PRI will lose the election. That is not proof of anything. What we need is a system by which we can admit there is democracy in Mexico, even if the PRI wins. The electoral process must be credible. NPQ -- Up until recently most Mexican intellectuals, and certainly Mexico's presidents, have opposed the presence of international observers for the Mexican elections as outside interference. Now you agree to this, and, reportedly, so does Salinas. What has happened? FUENTES -- I hope that is true of President Salinas. I believe that international observers are an essential element for the credibility of the election in August. If the elections are not credible, believe me, there will be bloodshed in Mexico. There will be violence; there will be a security problem for the United States. The election can be certified as credible by observers such as Adolfo Suarez, who shepherded the democratic transition in Spain; Patricio Aylwin, the former Chilean president who ushered in democracy there; and Raul Alfonsin, the former Argentine president who took over from the colonels. Pierre Trudeau, the former prime minister of Canada might be another likely person. There is one limit: No U.S. observers, especially former presidents, thank you, for the obvious historical reasons. NPQ -- Because of the NAFTA accord, the U.S. Congress as well as North American civil society -- for example the America's Watch human rights group, the U.S.media and so on -- have, de facto, become key players in Mexican internal politics. Now what happens in Chiapas is a matter for the U.S. Congress that can revoke NAFTA. Isn't this North American spotlight a good thing for democracy in Mexico? FUENTES -- Absolutely. This was my dispute with many Mexican critics who opposed NAFTA. I said to them it is better to be part of the world scene than to remain isolated from it. There will be problems, but there is also a silver lining: Mexico will be forced to be more responsible internationally for its internal conduct regarding the Indians, human rights and democracy in general. Because of NAFTA, Mexico now has an oversight on policies from human rights to labor rights to the environment that it never had before. That is all to the good. NPQ -- Mexico in its own way, as much as Russia, today encapsulates the central issues of the post-Cold War era. It is a country struggling to establish democracy while coping with two contradictory pulls -- cultural self-determination demanded by the likes of the Chiapas Indians on the one hand, and integration into the world market, exemplified by NAFTA, on the other. Isn't Mexico's predicament that of much of the world today? FUENTES -- Yes, I think so. We have all become mirrors of the struggle between the global village and the local village, between economic integration on the world scale and loyalty to community, memory, tradition. For all the material appeal of free worldwide commerce, the fact is that no one lives in the macroeconomy. We live our actual daily existence, in our own way, in the local village. Because Mexico has such a powerful Indian past and present, the contradictory pulls will be more dramatized. But in other places, if it is not Indians that will dramatize this conflict, it will be immigrants who are the bearers of different cultures entering Germany, France and Britain; it will be the large Third World underclass in the U.S. that is shut out of the global village every bit as much as the Indians of Chiapas.