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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays (Dec. 30 - Jan. 4th 2004): Zapatista Autonomy by Susan Ferriss

A boy with a bandanna over his face stood guard at the gate to this village, a "Zapatista autonomous community in rebellion."

"No photographs until you get permission," an older man warned as he approached, wagging a finger. "We are not submissive Indians anymore," he added.

Beyond the gate, sympathizers of Mexico's Zapatista rebels celebrated the 472nd anniversary of the Virgin of Guadalupe with fireworks and a spirited game of basketball. Men in ceremonial clothing trotted by on horses in a tribute to the beloved Virgin.

Ten years after they rose from the jungle as a guerrilla army, the Indians of the Zapatista movement are just as convinced that they are righteous in their struggle to stop economic policies they believe threaten their survival.

The Indian rebels stunned Mexico and the world when they staged a violent uprising in the southern state of Chiapas on New Year's Day 1994. The Zapatistas' rebellion revealed a deep current of discontent among Latin America's poorest people at a critical moment in the region's conversion to free markets. The movement blossomed just as Mexico was entering into the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada.

A social movement

The Zapatistas borrowed their name from 1910 Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, who burned haciendas in his quest to recover land for Mexican peasants. Bearing a motley assortment of weapons and wearing hand-sewn uniforms and ski masks, the Zapatistas launched bold attacks on police and army troops in Chiapas. The fighting claimed at least 150 lives before a truce was reached. But scores have died since in various skirmishes and attacks, including a massacre of 45 people, mostly women and children, in the pro-Zapatista village of Acteal in 1997.

Now the Zapatistas are less a guerrilla army than a social movement.

Descendants of the ancient Maya Indians, the rebels demanded greater rights to their ancestral lands, as well as technical aid to raise and market corn and coffee. They also wanted sweeping autonomy, not just for themselves but for all of Mexico's Indians, who make up at least 12 percent of the country's population.

The Zapatistas now have voluntarily isolated themselves in Chiapas' mountains and jungles, which border Guatemala. Officially, they spurn all overtures from the Mexican government.

President Vicente Fox, who was elected in July 2000, promised dialogue with the Zapatistas and sent Congress peace accords and an Indian rights bill. When a weakened version passed and Fox accepted it, the Zapatistas, feeling betrayed, angrily announced that they would simply become autonomous anyway.

They retreated to their strongholds in poverty-stricken Chiapas.

According to a report released in September by the World Bank, a booster of free-market reforms, 70 percent of Indian homes in Chiapas have no toilet or sewage disposal. The average per capita monthly income for Indians is less than $25.

Chiapas is a state rich in cultural heritage sites, lush forests and rivers that generate electricity for the rest of Mexico. But for all the tourism and natural resources, little money trickles down to the Indians.

In an important acknowledgment, the bank's report urges Mexico to resolve social conflict and discriminatory practices in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero, southern states that are home to 25 percent of Mexico's poorest people.

Thirty-eight percent of the people in those states are Indians. And too many Indians, according to the report, are still subjected to arbitrary police detention, torture and discrimination in court proceedings.

The World Bank's recommendations are not far from what the Zapatistas say they want. The bank urges a crackdown on inefficient spending and misuse of financial resources by state authorities. It recommends that Mexican officials help residents improve their access to markets to sell their products.

In a significant policy suggestion, the bank also urges officials to help develop small cultural and ecological tourism projects -- rather than massive resorts -- so that Indians can own and operate their own businesses.

But how does Mexico pursue these suggestions when so many Indians are deeply suspicious of the government's motives?

The Zapatistas and other Indians have vowed not to cooperate with the Fox government or the Chiapas state government until the peace accords and rights bill Fox sent to Congress are approved in their original form.

In their regions of influence, Zapatista sympathizers have an official policy of rejecting all government aid. As many as two dozen of these autonomous communities, with tens of thousands of inhabitants or more, also refuse to participate in government elections. They say they have formed their own governments instead.

Rejecting aid

That's not to say the Zapatistas are feeding and clothing themselves. They farm, as always, living poorly and depending on money and aid from sympathetic Mexicans and networks in Europe, the United States and elsewhere.

Early in his presidency, Fox announced a concept called the Puebla to Panama Plan, a bid to lure investment, domestic and foreign, to southern Mexico to build factories and dams to generate electricity and thus create more jobs.

Today, more highways and paved roads cross ruggedly mountainous Chiapas, but no new dams and no surges in investment have materialized.

Fox might be disappointed by this, but many Indians aren't, according to Emilio Zebadua, a federal congressman who served until recently in Chiapas' 3-year-old state government.

"The Puebla to Panama Plan was, for [the Indians], a complete intrusion of the Mexican government, of the globalization forces, of foreign investors who wanted to exploit them and take away their resources, their water, their wood," Zebadua said. The villagers in Nuevo Yibeljoj say they are neutral but they too reject all government aid with the exception of schoolteachers. They also spurn food, health checkups and other services the Mexican military offers from bases that have been set up near Zapatista towns.

In the Zapatista community of Oventic, resistance is even stronger and residents live by strict rules. Because of heavy alcohol abuse in Chiapas, no liquor is permitted. Outsiders are required to meet a "reception commission" before they can speak with anyone.

Rebels who are trained to recognize basic illnesses staff a health clinic in Oventic that a French doctor helps keep stocked with supplies.

The Zapatistas also run their own middle school in Oventic. Children from other autonomous communities sleep in dormitories and must bring sacks of dried tortillas with them to eat.

The Mexican government doesn't recognize the Zapatistas' schools. But that's a badge of honor here.

Alejandro Ruiz, a 19-year-old instructor, explained that students receive lessons in Spanish and their own language, often focusing on why inequality exists in Chiapas and other parts of the world. Mathematics is taught using real-life experiences, such as calculating how much corn will be harvested.

"In the official schools," Ruiz said, "you learn to read, write and count. But there is nothing about the Indian communities."

In Oventic, he said, students learn about the origins of the Zapatistas. And "they learn about how much harm the government does to us."

Susan Ferriss can be contacted via e-mail at:

This article first appeared at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

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