The Common Good
May 1994

A Faith to Move Mountains

by Jeff Shriver | May 1994

Shaking the foundations of power in Mexico.

Winding our way up through the thick pine trees of the Chiapas highlands and past the military blockades, we arrive in the treasured colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas. The main square is awash in fresh blue and white paint, an attempt to hide the black rebel graf- fitti sprayed on public buildings only a month ago. Vege- tarian restaurants, cappuccino bars, and quaint bookstores dot the city’s cobblestone streets.

Chiapas feels more like an ideal spot for a honeymoon than the site of a guerrilla war. Indeed, it is both; San Cristóbal typifies the paradox of wealth and poverty that exist back-to-back in the rest of the state.

In early 1992, 400 Mayan Indians from the state of Chiapas marched from Palenque to Mexico City—a six-week, 625-mile walk—to petition against land evictions and local government corruption. Upon arriving on the outskirts of Mexico City, they were met with a military blockade to the city center; 100 people were arrested and several were beaten. The Indians turned back, once again frustrated and angry at a government that wouldn’t listen.

Two years later their tactics changed. Tzeltal, Tojolabal, and Tzotzil Indian farmers with communities within or around the Lacandón Rain Forest organized with a handful of urban Mexican Latinos to establish a rebel army. The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) declared civil war the first day of January 1994 in the Chiapas highlands.

Initially, Mexican authorities attempted to crush the uprising and intimidate the population, reminiscent of Central America in the 1980s. About three hours east of San Cristóbal in the small indigenous village of Morelia, the people told us of beatings, torture, and disappearances on January 6.

"They [the army] put all of us in the basketball court for eight hours," a community leader explained. "They beat us with gun butts, they kicked us with military boots. They grabbed our heads by the hair and slammed our faces into the ground." Two hundred men and young boys in all were ordered to the basketball court. Six weeks later, community members found only the bones of their three disappeared laying in a nearby cornfield.

After clashes with the army forced the rebels out of the cities, a battle of the pen intensified. A flurry of rebel communiques and press releases issued from EZLN communities in the Lacandón jungle. Subcommander Marcos, the articulate and sarcastic rebel who has achieved a kind of cult following, responded to early government statements that identified the EZLN as a political force "in formation," irrelevant to the national agenda:

What does this mean? That the misery of indigenous people does not exist but is rather "in formation"? Why did the federal government take away the agenda in our dialogue that pointedly refers to national politics? The country wants Chiapan oil, Chiapan electric energy, premium Chiapan materials, the strength of Chiapan workers, in the end, Chiapan blood, but not the opinion of indigenous Chiapans regarding the path of the country?

In just 12 days, EZLN regional and national demands won legitimacy and a cease-fire was called; the Catholic Church flipped from presumed revolution instigator to peace mediator; and the Mexican government sent the moderate Manuel Camacho Solís to negotiate directly with the rebels.

The events in Chiapas caused an uproar over the political and economic direction of Mexico. The foregone conclusion that Salinas’ neoliberal economic reforms were well-equipped to usher Mexico into the chandeliered ballroom of the first world was suddenly thrown into question. International investors wondered when peaceful social conditions, so necessary for stable business practice, would return to Mexico. In the United States, the uprising gave reason to rethink NAFTA’s effect on Mexico’s 40 million poor people.

"FOR THE FIRST TIME in the history of Latin America, there’s been an armed movement that has a different logic than the previous armed movements," said Bishop Samuel Ruiz, a small, confident man with a glowing smile. He met with us when we visited his human rights center.

"In the past, all military movements have said, ‘Since no one’s ever done justice, we will take power to do justice.’ This movement of the Zapatistas has a different logic. They don’t want the power. They want to get involved with the process of power, to allow other sectors to get involved in the process of power."

The Zapatistas have refrained from using old rhetoric of a "revolution of the proletariat," or any explicit Marxist dogma. Instead, their platform is one that makes sense to the campesino (small farmer): work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace. They have fused the energies of both indigenous resistance and protection of the small farmer’s way of life; both have been key to heightening popular participation and civilian support.

Combined with the armed uprising has been the nonviolent involvement of civilians all over Mexico. Tens of thousands march almost daily in Mexico City in support of the people in Chiapas. Citizen expulsion of government-supported mayors in small towns has become commonplace. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have played a prominent role in the peace negotiations, forming a "belt of peace" to discourage any elements of violence around the talks. CONPAZ, the recently formed San Cristóbal coalition of NGOs, performs health and human rights work, education, and indigenous economic development to "complement the work of the revolution."

With the neighboring states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Hidalgo living under almost equal levels of poverty, government corruption, and social injustice, why was the uprising so heavily concentrated in Chiapas?

Consciousness raising by the Catholic Church, many say, provided fertile soil to shake Chiapan foundations of injustice and power. In other Mexican states, the Christian ministry has not been so deeply established and resolute about its mission and role in society.

"Our concern is to make the good news of the gospel become real to the people and not only an expectation for after death," began Vicar Gonzalo Ituarte, Bishop Ruiz’s animated colleague in the diocese of San Cristóbal. "We believe that people here are not experiencing the least of the benefits of the salvation of Christ. They are not treated, especially the Indians, as human beings. This is one of the few dioceses in Latin America that has spent so many years in the work of consciousness raising—34 years."

Father Jorge Rafael Diaz Nunez is a priest in Ocosingo; his parish is the largest in all of Mexico. Diaz spoke more specifically about the process of conscientization. "Pastoral praxis here is rooted in local poverty, violations of personal integrity, and institutional injustices. Through this pastoral practice over many, many years, consciousness of local Indians has risen dramatically.

"This has been carried out by thousands of lay catechists, who are unpaid, who go out to their Indian communities and work with a reflective process through which Indians learn to express their word and feel themselves to be persons. We call it the Tijwaneh Method ["pointed" or "spicy" in Tzeltal]. If the church can be accused of anything, it is of this: of having contributed to the conscientization of the indigenous peoples," he explained.

It wasn’t exactly a silent conspiracy of conscientization, either. Father Ituarte explained, "The ‘prophet of bad news,’ Don Samuel [Bishop Ruiz], for 34 years has been telling us, ‘Something is going to happen. These people are suffering. Please do take this problem seriously,’" said Ituarte.

LAND—or the lack of it—is perhaps the most critical issue for Mexico’s rural population and a central demand of the Zapatistas.

A Mayan’s identity is bound up with the land. Vicar Ituarte underscores this: "For the Indian, the land is the mother. For example, when they are starting to prepare the harvest, they ask permission to the land. They give offerings to the land, to the Earth—mother Earth. And then they give thanks for the products. It’s a sacred relationship. They include nature as part of their lives.

"For us, it’s business. And now with the new Mexican law, they are invited to buy and sell their mother."

The "new Mexican law," as Ituarte phrased it, is the Salinas-backed, NAFTA-inspired reform of Article 27 in the Mexican Constitution, the article that guaranteed communal lands—ejidos—for campesinos. The reform, enacted in 1992, allows the ejidos to be divided, bought, and sold. Eugenio, a work-worn community leader in Chalam del Carmen, told us, "As indigenous people we see these articles as being won by the flow of blood during the Mexican Revolution. But now they are being taken away."

Land evictions have displaced indigenous people for many years. Ever since the government opened the Lacandón Rain Forest for habitation 25 years ago, landless and desperate campesinos resettled in the jungle, slashing and burning much of the forest for farming. "During the 1960s came the conquest of the jungle," Father Diaz of Ocosingo explained. "We call this the exodus, because it was the farmhands, the servants, and the sharecroppers who left the slavery of the farms to populate the jungle."

These new agricultural settlements spelled disaster for the already endangered species and the mammoth mahogany trees of the jungle, many of which had been growing before Columbus arrived on the American continent. Seventy percent of virgin rain forest intact in 1970 plummeted to only 20 percent in 1990. Population in the jungle region is expected to double by the year 2000 to almost 500,000 inhabitants.

In Morelia, a town once surrounded by the Lacandón jungle, the local catechist explained the dilemma: "We know that we should not cut down the trees. We know this not because people tell us, but because it is something we have learned from our own ancestors. From the stories of our ancestors, we know of the damages to ecology. But how are we going to eat? There is a limited amount of land."

MANIPULATION and control of the population by local authorities in Chiapas is also a chief root cause of the uprising. Our delegation’s experience in the small city of Las Margaritas provided a parable of the power structure in Chiapas.

The Chiapas governor was planning a visit, and it was the talk of the town. Las Margaritas had been occupied by the Zapatistas for a few days, and now with 8,000 war refugees crowded into this little city a big audience was expected for his speech.

Many refugees told of receiving messages from the municipal government that they must evacuate their outlying communities because they were not safe anymore. Transportation into Las Margaritas was guaranteed by the municipal president, as was food, medicine, and shelter in the camps until the fighting ceased. Though many cited fear of guerrillas as reason to leave their communities, few had actually encountered any guerrillas passing through to threaten or forcibly recruit them.

As the crowd began to gather in the town square, groups of indigenous refugees were led to the front of the stage. Several held large signs with messages of support for the governor and a continued military presence in Las Margaritas. Those carrying the signs said they had neither written the messages nor understood what they meant. One refugee held his sign for all to see—upside-down—for the entire event.

Applause interrupted the governor’s speech countless times, led by a man on stage who drew the response of the sign-holding refugees. Three introductory speeches to the governor (including one from a member of the local Pres-byterian church) offered support for government policies and pledges to maintain a military presence in Las Margari-tas.

About 15 minutes later, a group of a hundred people began to gather around the Catholic church; they soon made their way to the front door of the municipal building. A short woman with a strong voice led the gathering.

"Don’t stay quiet!" she shouted. "The people must rise up!" A petition signed by 600 people demanding the removal of the municipal president was pressed into my hand as I approached this new gathering.

"We want freedom of expression. But look above there. They are filming us," the woman continued, gesturing toward the balcony where two men pointed video cameras at the crowd. "We want to express how we feel. But the whole town is afraid to speak out for fear of the municipal president."

Was she fearful of the Zapatistas?

"They don’t give us fear because they say what we are saying. We are all people struggling, struggling against injustice. I do not want blood. But I want peace; peace with justice."

ANY EFFORTS AT REFORM seem unlikely without a fundamental shakeup of the local power structure. "Chiapas functions more like a ranch than a state. Everything is completely controlled," Mario Tejado Busarol, a Mexican social anthropologist told me as he described his 10-year work experience in the state. Chiapans, like other Mexicans, don’t differentiate much between PRI as a political party and the government; PRI is the government.

While liberation is the driving force of the local Catholic theology, a different brand of theology in many Chiapas evangelical churches often feeds the region’s power structure. (Chiapas has the highest concentration of evangelicals in any Mexican state—16 percent of the total population and nearly 25 percent of the indigenous population.)

Louis Scott, academic dean of the Centro de Estudios Superiores de Integración Cristiana in Mexico City and author of Salt of the Earth, a study of evangelicals in Mexico, explains that the large Pentecostal and Presbyterian churches have taught a fundamentalist dispensational theology. He writes:

Classic dispensationalism teaches that during the church age the world will become worse and worse, and consequently the church should withdraw from political involvement in order to remain pure and to wait for the Lord’s second coming....The mission of the church is similar to that of a lifeboat used to save a few individuals before the ship [society] sinks.

There are also the caciques to contend with, the local term for the town’s wealthy, land-owning civilians. The caciques have a mass of economic, political, and fire power and a long history of corruption in Chiapas.

Oscar Guillen, a tall, light-skinned man with gold chains, a red pickup, and shiny cowboy boots, sat behind a large desk and described his ranch, which was being occupied by the Zapatistas outside of Ocosingo. "There are no latifundios [large landholdings] in Chiapas, and there doesn’t exist any more land to divide up. Two hundred hectares is sufficient to take care of only one family." (Many Indian families we observed lived and farmed on little more than one-half hectare.)

"This [the uprising] is a mystery," Guillen said. "We don’t know the cause of their fighting. Indians live happily, they are not marginalized. They have corn and tortillas; that’s all they need."

AS WE GO to press, peace talks with the Zapatistas have resulted in rapid, far-reaching government concessions never seen before in any Latin American guerrilla movement. Autonomous forms of indigenous government have been discussed. Housing, hospital and road construction, electricity, and potable water will be developed in the indigenous communities from which the Zapatistas arose.

Amazingly, EZLN rebels have been allowed to keep their weapons until national reforms are met to their satisfaction. The Mexican government has also agreed to review for a 90-day period the effects of NAFTA on the indigenous population. With the indigenous flavor of the uprising calling attention to the Mayan people, their longstanding traditions and unique way of life may be able to help shape the direction of the country.

And yet on March 24, Luis Donaldo Colosio, predicted future president, was assassinated—causing political turmoil and bringing the peace talks to a standstill. The kidnapping of a Mexican billionaire has heightened the feeling of uncertainty.

In the face of all these events, the issue of violence arises, and our group struggled with it. Had it not been for a violent uprising, would we even be here calling attention to these problems? If Indian peasants hadn’t resorted to the language of violence for the government to hear their claims, would their communities be on the verge of receiving housing, health clinics, electricity, and clean water? Would NAFTA’s effect on the poor even be spotlighted?

Undeniably, the foundation of church-based conscientization work, the nonviolent efforts of thousands of Mexicans, and international pressure have turned a regional guerrilla conflict into a national plea for justice. Genuine democratic participation has proven to be a driving force in swaying the path of the country. If allowed to continue, Mexico may soon see its first fair elections in 70 years—despite Colosio’s absence. Optimism must be tempered with realism. The peace-negotiated development projects initiated in some indigenous communities are a good beginning. However, if the system that deprived the communities of these basic necessities in the first place is not addressed, such development is a short-lived panacea and will only lead to further marginalization and desperation. Within the new political space, the continuous, nonviolent efforts of civilians will be crucial.

The Zapatistas lit a fire under neoliberal economics; they exposed its neglect of the poor for all to see. The Chiapas reality demonstrates that economic growth—the yardstick of success in the neoliberal minds behind NAFTA—can no longer be the exclusive measure of progress. The costs of making poor people self-supporting and protecting the splendor of the environment may create "unfavorable" short-term financial results. Yet if the neoliberal model endures unabated, Chiapas will certainly not be the last site of guerrilla uprisings or full-scale armed revolution.

With cautious hope, Mexico treads carefully toward a new chapter in its history.

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