Documents on Mexican Politics.

Chiapas: A Message From "Deep Mexico"

by Arturo Santamaria Gomez

from CrossRoads Magazine

The author analyzes the Zapatista uprising and
its impact throughout Mexico and beyond.

     Since their rise to the summit of political power, the
new Mexican political elite, headed by Carlos Salinas de
Gortari, has trumpeted the transformation of the land of the
ancient Mayans and Aztecs into a first world country.
Cosmopolitan, rich, sophisticated, educated in the best U.S.
universities, they have promised to build a Mexico in their
own image. Surrounding themselves with yuppies and
displacing the older PRI political leadership, they have
boasted to the world that they are engaged in a radical
project to "modernize" Mexico. The adoption of NAFTA,
representing a strategic alliance with the U.S. and Canada,
was not only a practical triumph for the technocrats and
their backers but also a symbolic seal of approval for their
vision of Mexico's future.
     Opposition forces who have protested the enormous
inequalities that have continued to worsen during Salinas'
presidency have been met with lies, insults and repression.
At one point Pedro Aspe Armella, one of those "tapped" by
Salinas as the possible ruling PRI candidate for President
and currently Mexico's Secretary for Finance, called the
existence of widespread poverty and unemployment "genial
myths." The Indian-peasant uprising in Chiapas has given a
shattering response to the blindness and arrogance of
Salinas and the social groups his policies benefit.
Furthermore, the specific characteristics of the Zapatista
Army of National Liberation (EZLN), and the magnitude of
their sudden offensive, indicate that it may not be easy to
contain popular resistance within traditional channels as
Mexico's complex, new situation unfolds.
     The Zapatistas constitute a novel type of armed
political movement. They can be clearly distinguished from
previous guerrillas in Mexico as well as elsewhere in Latin
America, in terms of their ideas and military practices.
     The two best-known and most influential guerrilla
insurgencies in recent Mexican history were the National
Revolutionary Civic Association (ACNR) of Genaro V zquez
Rojas and the Party of the Poor (PP) of Lucio Caba$as
Barrientos, which arose in 1967-68 and largely disappeared
as military forces after the deaths of their leaders in 1972
and 1974. Both of these groups formed in a spontaneous
manner in the wake of government repression of civic
movements which they led in Chilpancingo and Atoyac de
Alvarez, in the southwestern coastal state of Guerrero. As a
result, the guerrillas had neither formal organization nor
military structure. They started out with little in the way
of political doctrine, and no stockpiles of military
supplies. At its height, the PP had no more than 200 armed
fighters. The ACNR had 50 to 100. Facing a huge Mexican Army
offensive (according to Marco Bellingeri, the government had
some 24,000 soldiers in Guerrero at the beginning of 1971),
Genaro V zquez and Lucio Caba$as were unable to consolidate
guerrilla columns outside of the state; nor were they
successful in setting up strong solidarity groups among
students and teachers in the major cities. Nevertheless,
both movements had impressive support from peasants in their
base areas and they generated widespread sympathy throughout
Mexico. The ACNR and the PP became revolutionary icons for
thousands of radical students and political activists,
something none of the urban and university guerrilla groups
of the time achieved.
     In conjunction with the history of Villa and Zapata in
the beginning of the century, the experience of the PP and
the ACNR demonstrates the ability of rural insurgencies to
influence Mexican politics in a manner seemingly
disproportionate to the actual size of the guerrilla armies.
The EZLN uprising promises to follow this path, as both the
Mexican Army and political forces of every stripe erupt into
a frenzy of activity. Yet in many ways, the armed movement
in Chiapas is something new.
     In particular, the modern Zapatistas represent the
fusion of a classic peasant movement with indigenous
peoples' struggles. On the one hand, the EZLN's demands for
land and protection for small farmers in Chiapas makes them
part of a long and significant current of agrarian revolt in
Mexico. On the other hand, the Zapatistas' championing of
Indians' way of life and Indian resistance to years of
exploitation, discrimination and repression links the
guerrillas to another longstanding and volatile political
dynamic. The combination of these two types of revolt
creates a potent synergy, as intersections of class struggle
and national liberation often do. Militant Indian struggles
have already proven to be crucial in radical insurgencies
throughout the hemisphere, including just across the border
from Chiapas in Guatemala. The thought that these indigenous
struggles might become the cutting edge of multi-ethnic
resistance by the victims of neoliberalism must send chills
down the backs of strategic planners in Washington as well
as Mexico City. The symbolism of Indians in Chiapas leading
the charge against NAFTA and the neoliberal agenda speaks to
the desire of many Mexicans to preserve their independence
and culture, proving the attraction of what the brilliant
anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla calls "el Mexico
Profundo" -- "Deep Mexico."
     In another break with the traditional model of
guerrilla insurgency, the EZLN has apparently rejected the
idea of leadership by a single, charismatic "caudillo." In
the early days of the insurrection, the government appeared
intent on creating a principal leader by singling out the
commander of the EZLN's military operation in San Crist"bal
de las Casas, Comandante Marcos. However, both Marcos and
other representatives of the Zapatistas speak of a
"committee" which makes decisions, rather than any
individual. This seems to indicate that the EZLN has the
political maturity and organizational structure to be able
to survive and act without a cult of personality.
     The EZLN says it is fighting for socialism, but it does
not use Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, or declare itself to be
the vanguard of the proletariat. Nor, in contrast with
recent Mexican guerrilla groups, does it demonize the
existing political parties or lay claim to state power for
itself. In fact, the Zapatistas appear to have drawn lessons
from the revolutionary processes in Central America,
especially in El Salvador and Nicaragua, where a flexible
policy of alliances and varied forms of activity proved both
useful and necessary. It is notable that the EZLN recognizes
the Mexican Political Consultation and the Congress. In San
Cristob l on January 1, the fighters called on "the powers
of the Union to make use of the constitutional right to
depose the illegitimate government of Carlos Salinas de
Gortari and his cabinet and in their place to install a
government of order to convoke elections
under equal circumstances, unlike the present illegitimate
and lopsided ones."
     Later, in a proclamation released in Mexico City on
January 6, the EZLN called on workers, the poor and the
labor movement to rise up against the "starvers of the
people." Speaking of "the disaster of neoliberal economics"
and the "violence" of poverty, hunger, sickness and
unemployment, the proclamation threatens to attack "the
nerve centers of the oligarchy," and warns "the Mexican
soldier, a young person like ourselves, that this fight will
last for many years."
     Could just be. The uprising led by the EZLN is much
larger, better planned and more extensive geographically
than any other in recent times. The ACNR and the PP were
never in a position to consider taking over cities the size
of San Cristob l (population roughly 80,000) or Ocosingo
(about 100,000). The EZLN has declared that it is not a
group of guerrillas but a regular army. This seems to be an
overestimation of their own forces. Nevertheless, it is
certain that since the Mexican Revolution in 1910, there
have never been so many insurgents under arms. The Mexican
Army claimed at one point that 400 rebels took San
Cristob l; journalistic sources speak of seeing 1,000 to
1,500. San Cristob l newspaper publisher Concepci"n
Villafuerte estimates that there may be as many as 8,000
armed guerrillas in Chiapas, including many non-Indians.
Other estimates are higher. To put this in perspective: the
armed forces of the FMLN in El Salvador never had more than
15-20,000 combatants.
     Nor is the uprising confined to Chiapas. The EZLN
seized more than 3,000 pounds of dynamite and about 1,400
blasting caps before the start of the uprising. There have
been bombings in the capital, where tens of thousands of
police are on alert. In Puebla and Michoac n two 400,000-
volt electrical lines were dynamited on January 6. That same
day, the Zapatistas declared their existence in Mexico City,
Guadalajara and the states of Morelos, Tabasco, Guerrero,
Veracr#z, San Juan Potos! and Chihuahua. All this flies in
the face of government statements that the "lawbreakers"
exist only in Chiapas.
     The Zapatistas are not "foquistas": they do not
advocate founding a small nucleus of armed fighters with the
expectation of growing in the course of confrontations with
the state. They appear to have followed what is called a
strategy of the "cold accumulation of forces" ("acumulaci"n
de fuerzas en fr!o"), which was previously used by the
Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA) in
Guatemala. ORPA, which is now part of the National
Revolutionary Unity of Guatemala (URNG) was founded in 1972
by Rodrigo Asturias, and spent "seven long years of silent
work," as Martha Harnecker reports, developing a guerrilla
organization, one which was also largely made up of Indians.
     According to Comandante Marcos, the EZLN has been in
existence for ten years. In that time, it did not launch any
type of offensive, although there were some small clashes
with the army in May of last year. It remained almost
entirely a secret from the outside world while it recruited,
trained and planned.
     Salvador Casta$eda, a former guerrilla who is now a
novelist and Director of the Center for Historical
Investigations of Armed Movements, thinks that the
Zapatistas have "an original conception of popular warfare.
There is no rigid scheme of prolonged popular war nor of
revolutionary war. The unfolding of forces indicates great
planning skills...[and] demonstrates great support from the short, a lot of politico-military capacity."
Two colleagues of Casta$eda's, also ex-guerrillas, have
written that all this adds up to the likelihood that "the
war is going to be much more prolonged than we can imagine,
it is going to be a war of attrition."
     The Mexican government initially tried to dismiss the
Zapatistas as localized "delinquents" comprising a
combination of misled young Indians and peasants on the one
hand and "a professional leadership, expert at conducting
actions of violence and terrorism, well-educated, of foreign
and domestic origin." This quickly proved to be an untenable
spin, as more facts became public and popular demand for
negotiations and a political settlement with the EZLN grew
overwhelming, even within the PRI.
     Throughout the 20th century the Mexican state has been
the most stable in Latin America. This stability was
sustained by PRI corporativism, extreme presidentialism and
a populist orientation to public spending. Mexico has not
had a coup d'etat since 1921, during which time every other
Latin American country, including Costa Rica, has endured
some type of military dictatorship. Likewise, almost all
Latin American states faced strong guerrilla movements
during the last 30-35 years. With the exception of the
Central American guerrillas, all were liquidated, reduced to
small group survival or severely weakened.
     Yet the EZLN accomplished an unprecedented set of
political victories faster than any other guerrilla movement
in the hemisphere. It is extraordinary that the most
efficient, skilled and established political regime in Latin
America saw itself obliged to recognize the EZLN's
belligerent status and seek negotiations. How was it
possible that the arrogant and perennially triumphant
Mexican president, the darling of the U.S. business elite,
had to propose a political accord with those he had just ten
days earlier called "adventurers" and "a few cow rustlers?"
     The government was put up against the wall by the force
of "deep Mexico," Indigenous Mexico, which has preserved a
cultural wisdom that cannot be assimilated by neoliberalism
and which has now awakened millions and mobilized thousands.
     Under pressure, the discourse of Salinas and Donaldo
Colosio, the PRI's presidential candidate, has begun to
incorporate the themes of poverty, justice and "clean and
democratic elections" -- all of which they ignored before
Janaury 1. But since mid-January's forced turn toward
negotiation with the EZLN, there appears to be another shift
back toward arrogance and disqualification. On January 27,
Salinas de Gortari brought together the political elite of
the PRI -- secretaries of state, governors, deputies,
senators, labor leaders and peasant officials, business
leaders, etc., -- and together they rejected the thesis that
poverty creates the conditions for violence. Salinas
declared his disgust with journalists and intellectuals who
hold this position. On January 29, in Switzerland during the
World Economic Forum, he declared that the uprising
contained only a few indigenous people and took place only
in a very restricted area in Chiapas. The rest of the
country, he assured the gathering, was in peace.
     For their part, the majority of Mexican political
opposition parties did know how to respond during the first
few days of the Chiapan rebellion. In principle, all
condemned the violence as a method of political struggle.
The first statement by Cuauhtmoc C rdenas, the PRD
presidential candidate, was ambiguous and spontaneous. He
sought to distance himself from the guerrillas and did not
want the PRD to be linked with the EZLN just because the
political analysis of both organizations is similar. Both
the PRD and the EZLN call the Salinas government
illegitimate because it came to power through fraudulent
elections; both declare that democracy does not exist in
Mexico, that the popular vote is not respected, both opposed
NAFTA, etc.
     Later, the PRD, party of the Aztec sun, issued a
political declaration more in solidarity with the indigenous
insurgents. In its "Manifesto of the National Council on the
Uprising on the State of Chiapas," published Janaury 17, the
PRD called for "political recognition of the EZLN as a
belligerent force to effect negotiations and an and political reforms.... a permanent and
effective cease fire...defense of the human rights of the
entire population of Chiapas.... complete access to the
press, the Red Cross and all humanitarian organizations in
the zones of conflict."
     The PRD believes that the Chiapas rebellion can only be
resolved with "urgent modifications of a national
character...political, economic and social reforms." In sum,
"the National Council of the Party of the Democratic
Revolution is in solidarity with the EZLN's cause and calls
on all PRD militants to use legal means to defend the rights
of the Chiapans and of all the Mexican people."
     For their part, some of the EZLN leaders have declared
that they are not opposed to the electoral struggle of the
political parties but as of this writing do not support any
of them, because, in their judgement, none of them has
raised the demands of the Mexican Indians.
     The indigenous people of Mexico have not expressed
themselves in one voice. In Chiapas itself not all
indigenous people support the Zapatistas. But there have
been declarations, demonstrations, meetings and other
political actions by Mexican Indians in open support of the
EZLN. In meetings between 450 Chiapan indigenous leaders
representing 20 organizations and the government's Special
Peace Commission, indigenous leaders have said that the
"armed conflict is the struggle of the Tojolabalesm,
Tzeltals, Tzotzils, of the indigenous people; it is just,
its is truthful (genuine) because in all the communities
there are great needs."
     From another region where there is grinding poverty and
a huge indigenous population, 300 Mixtec, Nahua and Tlapan
leaders of the Guerrero Council of 500 Years of Indigenous
Resistance sent a message to the EZLN full of poetry and
courage during January 23 demonstration:
     "In the name of our grandmothers and grandfathers and
generations sacrificed throughout time; in the name of the
sacred mountains and rivers our lands; in the name of the
blood and spirit of all the men and women of all our
history; in the name of those who never stopped struggling
for the land...In the name of shame, the shame of having
endured so much misery, death... for so long; in the name of
having had to carry our shame on our shoulders, the weight
of feeling inferior which was imposed on us since the
European invasion...
     "In the name of all this, and of the birds and
butterflies that play with our children, in the name of our
struggles and hopes to create a just and egalitarian,
society -- more humane and tolerant of diversity, more
democratic... in the name of all this, we wish to tell you
insurgent indigenous peoples of Chiapas, Tzatzals, Zoques,
Tojolabales, Tzeltals, of Mexico and the world: we recognize
your great valor to take up arms, exposing yourself to death
and struggling to give birth to a just life for all Indians
and non-Indians of Mexico."
     The principal social and political actors of the
country have all been shaken by the force of indigenous
Mexico. Since January 1, those who have been brutally
exploited for centuries are setting the political rhythm of
the country. But the outcome is not clearly visible yet.
There is still enormous resistance to democratic change and
social justice. The government and its party do not want to
let go of power. Salinas wants Mexicans and the world to
believe that the conflict is limited to a specific region of
the poorest state of Mexico. But the EZLN has a very clear
sense that it can only triumph if there is a profound
political, economic and social transformation in the entire
country. They will not lower their weapons until this has
     The Zapatista rebellion marks a turning point for
Mexico. It may provoke a strengthening of authoritarianism,
which has deep roots in both the armed forces and in
conservative social sectors. The air bombardment and state
of siege in the countryside of Chiapas is an expression of
this possibility. On the other hand, if the Mexican state
shows some political intelligence, and the EZLN some
political flexibility, the country could see the first clean
and democratic elections in its history next August 21. This
in turn could initiate a profound and progressive change in
direction for Mexico.
     It is remarkable what a powerful impact the EZLN has
had, seemingly against all odds. They have done it by
defying the conventional wisdom, and they have apparently
done it on their own. At a time when the wave of revolutions
in Central America has been receding, when few have believed
in revolutions at all, the Zapatistas have gone ahead and
started one. They have found widespread sympathy in Mexico
and abroad -- not for the war, necessarily, but for the
justice of their cause, and for the passionate demand to
break with 500 years of oppression.