Can There Be Peace?
Nestled in Sierra Madre del Sur, below the Trans-Volcanic Cordillera ranging through the southern state of Chiapas Mexico, is the colonial town San Cristobal de las Casas. It’s existence is a tribute to the quiet struggle of this hamlet since 1528. It holds the dubious historical distinction of being the most likely city to be captured by invading forces from the south. It is surrounded by spectacular and diverse landscape. Mountains tower over the Lancandona rain forest. The town’s unique culture is preserved, in part, by it’s remoteness. Much of its sixteenth and seventeenth century architecture escaped ruin. Mayan Indian women weave brilliant clothing with designs singular to their sect. The Catholic Church makes its ostentatious presence known with a large, ornate building on the square of the town. An air conditioned opera house built by the Mexican government to appease criticism of its wretched treatment of its poorest people gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “let them eat cake”.
In January1994 Indians of Chiapas calling themselves Zapatistas, after the legendary people’s revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata, carried out a daring revolt, protesting the heavy handed treatment by the government and its patrons. They captured San Cristobal de las Casas in addition to several other communities in the region. Although to a casual observer this town would appear quite peaceful, it was the site of a bloody struggle and only a few miles away from the on-going, tense stand-off after a tentative cease-fire was negotiated. Years after the two weeks of death subtle evidence remained. The scars of fire-damage still adorned the white building on the square from which sub-commandente Marcos announced the takeover and the beginning of the Zapatista revolution.
After the January revolt the Mexican government offered peace negotiations, but its act proved to be a hollow gesture. In accordance with an agreement in 1996, a proposed bill of Indian rights, known as the San Andres Accord , was tendered to then-president Zedillo by the Zapatistas but never put to a legislative vote.
The first ray of hope for a political remedy occurred when the PRI, the prevailing political party for over seventy years, lost the presidency to Vicente Fox of the PAN party. Although conservative, Fox took the position that a peace must be negotiated.
The leader and spokesman for the Indians is a mysterious and secretive man simply called Marcos. Three demands were made by Marcos as a condition of restarting the peace negotiations: troop withdrawal from seven key areas; release of Zapatista prisoners; and passage into law the San Andres Accord. Fox submitted the rights bill to Congress on December 1st, his first day in office, and soon started troop withdrawal.
In response to these actions a delegation of twenty-four commadantes left the protection of their jungle stronghold on February 24th to journey to Mexico City. The last time such a human-rights march was made to Mexico City was in 1914, lead by the man whose name they adopted, Zapata. In a dramatic candlelight ceremony in front of the ornate columns of the Catholic Church in San Cristobal, Marcos turned his AK 15 automatic rifle over to fellow Zapatista, Major Moises. The twenty-four delegates traveled unarmed, by bus twenty-one hundred miles to Mexico City for their March 12th meeting with the Mexican government.
The overwhelming entrance of these commandantes was epic in proportion. An eclectic crowd of Indians, farmers, businessmen, students, factory workers, scholars, politicians, police and many others crowded into the square in the City known as Zocalo Plaza; ironically, built on the ruins of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan which fell to Cortez in 1521. The last speech was by Marcos. He spoke elegantly, poetically, provocatively to a gathering estimated to be two hundred and fifty thousand by supporters and half that size by others. The colonial facade of the National Palace presented its unspoken presence as a backdrop for the speakers.
The movement took on a broader scope than only rights of the ten million indigenous Indians, reaching out to all people. One banner read “We are all Zapatistas”, another “No estan solos”. Marcos, to the delight of the crowd, proclaimed, “What they fear is that there is no more ‘you’ and ‘us’ because we are all the color of the earth”
In the following days the Zapatistas met considerable resistance from the legislators. They could not get the audience they wanted to argue for the passage of the San Andres Accords. Fox offered to meet with Marcos, ” . . . it’s time we meet face to face . . . “, but the offer was surprisingly declined. Marcos felt the offer was merely an attempt to upstage their efforts. Instead Marcos announced that he intended to return to his jungle stronghold if demands of an appropriate audience with Congress were not met. During this time Fox demonstrated his willingness to work out a peace pact not only with his words, but also his actions. All seven military bases were closed or being closed and Zapatista prisoners were released. In a last minute effort the Congress, after much heated debate, approved a meeting of a joint session for Wednesday, March 28th to hear the arguments of the Zapatistasas. The vote was 220 to 210. Officials in Mexico City and thirty-one states were invited to attend the special session.
This capitulation by Congress caused a dramatic conversion of life-and-death tension to tranquility among many leaders of the movement.. Even though the passage of the Indian rights bill is still problematic, Marcos has shown a personal side that he has kept to himself, hidden behind revolutionary rhetoric and a ski mask. Military intelligence has long felt that Marcos is Rafael Guillen, a former professor. In a recent interview Marcos admitted that he was the son of a middle class family. He also revealed what was always suspected. He is the leader of the military arm of the Zapatistas and not the subcommandante he called himself. His most insightful disclosure concerned his feelings about his role as a military commander. He declared that further armed conflict would be a “failure”. The man always seen with an automatic rifle crooked in his arm, a pistol in his belt, and bandoleers crossing his chest, said that traveling across Mexico unarmed was not a burden but a “relief”.
The hearing in front of Congress was mixed with new hope and disappointment. Fox’s own party boycott the meeting, turning the audience of one hundred of the six hundred and twenty-eight Congressmen and Senators into members of a committee instead of the intended joint session. Comandante Esther, a self-proclaimed poor Indian woman, spoke in behalf of the Zapatistas. Her selection is testament to the revolution-within-the-revolution. In recent history a woman could be bought as a wife for a cow or pig. Now fully half of the Central Counsel are women. Marcos’ noticeable absence was explained by the spokeswoman: “Our warriors have done their job.” For the first time President Fox was praised by the Zapatistas: “His orders have been a sign of peace.” The controversial issues before the legislature address Indian self-governing, promotion of Indian languages, promotion of Indian customs, independent judicial system, and greater land rights. Since the dramatic confrontation of Zapatista leaders with the lawmakers in the capitol, the path to resolution appears to be mired once again in ideological debate, politics and legal confusion. Led by Fox’s own party the original San Andres accords have been watered down considerably. The Zapatista rebels call the final version “an insult”. To become law, the Congressional version of the Indian Rights Bill must be ratified by the states as a constitutional amendment. The ironic twist to this political intrigue is that the Zapatistas themselves are campaigning against passage of the rights bill.
The question still remains whether anything accomplished in Mexico City will have any real effect on those who can’t read the treaty or the press releases. The mother with her child sick with a preventable disease or, the farmer forced to provide for his family working barren land take little interest in rhetoric or party platforms. Their’s is a simple quest for survival with dignity.