Documents on Mexican Politics.

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
	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,
	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
	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
	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
	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
	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
	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
	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 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.