The Common Good
May-June 1995

For Want of Fertile Land

by David Batstone | May-June 1995

Chiapas unrest is international in scope.

Sunday once marked a sleepy end of the week in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a historic town situated high in the mountains of Chiapas in Southern Mexico. It was God's day, the day of rest.

Not any more. Everyone is in "unrest" in Chiapas at present, seven days a week. Even God is said to be on the move.

On Sunday, February 19, 1995, more than 500 ranchers and business leaders marched on the cathedral of San Cristóbal and attacked a sizable crowd of churchgoers, mostly of Maya descent. The angry demonstrators pelted them with rocks and eggs. According to eye witnesses, six elderly indigenous women saying rosary in front of the church door were among the first hit. Blood ran down the back of 90-year-old Joaquina Pineda, struck in the back of the head by a hurling object.

Most of the indigenous were there to protect their bishop. Word had spread during the morning Mass that Chiapas' powerful landowners were planning a march on the cathedral to pressure (or capture, some say) Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who resides and works on the site. So when demonstrators arrived carrying banners demanding Ruiz's resignation, they met the bishop's supporters, standing silently, preventing them from entering the cathedral.

The Catholic Church and Bishop Samuel Ruiz have been a lightning rod of controversy ever since rebels took over four towns in Chiapas on New Year's Day 1994, the beginning of Mexico's first armed insurgency in nearly two decades.

Local ranchers commonly refer to Ruiz as "el obispo rojo" ("the red bishop"), charging that he has fanned the flames of discontentment among poor peasants by preaching class struggle. The Mexican government, too, while agreeing to allow him to serve as chief mediator in its conflict with the Zapatistas, implicate him in being a primary force behind the rebellion.

Bishop Ruiz, long used to being underestimated by Mexico's power brokers, ironically is now a victim of their exaggeration. He attributes his current high profile as one more case of racism: "They are God's people, every one of them-just as much as a white person is. But 1,000 Indians do not matter when one white person speaks out."

RUIZ WAS NAMED BISHOP of San Cristóbal de las Casas, with oversight for surrounding rural areas, in 1960. Early in his tenure, he made it clear that it was a Christian responsibility to put the church's resources at the service of the indigenous people. Throughout the 1960s he trained pastoral workers (priests, religious men and women, lay catechism teachers) to organize peasant cooperatives, taught that Indian culture and traditions were beautiful and should be preserved, and announced that radical egalitarianism was the only solution to the social sin that beset Chiapas.

Ruiz and his pastoral team concentrated much of their efforts in Las Cañadas, a number of settlements lying in the Lacandón rain forest near the border with Guatemala. They translated the biblical book of Exodus into the Tzeltal language and taught a messianic message of deliverance.

Initially, it seemed like the kingdom of God indeed had arrived in the Lacandón jungle. Since the settlements were so isolated, corrupt governmental institutions left them alone, the land was fertile, and there was plenty of space for everyone.

But paradise was short-lived. Landless peasants from throughout Chiapas continued to stream into the region, as did Maya refugees from Guatemala who fled their army's genocidal effort to eradicate Guatemalan guerrillas. To make matters worse, the jungle land was practically unsuitable for corn farming, the staple of Maya life, and within a few years the soil began to lose its fertility.

The severe tensions in Chiapas caused by the maldistribution of arable land were not unique in Mexico during the 1960s and 1970s. The intensity of church work among peasants in an isolated community was. In addition to religious organizing, a number of politically radical groups helped form a "union of unions" among the settlements. The mix of Maya wisdom that no one person should be above any other, the church's goal of empowering all members of a community, and the political organizers' belief in social mobilization translated into a dynamic revolutionary force. But it was by no means a guerrilla army.

Subcommandante Marcos, by his own account, arrived in Chiapas in 1983 with several other companions, all of whom were convinced that change in Mexican society would never be won through the ballot box. They called themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), named after Emiliano Zapata, the peasant leader of Mexico's 1917 revolution.

In the early 1980s, the majority of peasants in Las Cañadas still believed that community building, compassionate practices, and political action could solve their social crises. Even up until 1985 the EZLN had only 12 members.

Within a few years, however, at least three major political events deflated the optimism of Chiapas' peasantry: (1) the central government's passivity after the international collapse of coffee prices in 1989; (2) an amendment to Mexico's Constitution in 1992 that made peasant control of land vulnerable; and (3) discussions of a trade agreement with the United States (NAFTA) that would dramatically increase the flow of cheap food imports against which they could not compete.

Beginning in 1989 a majority of the settlements in Las Cañadas voted to invite the armed outsiders to start training them in the use of arms, and the EZLN began to swell by the end of 1992. "We, the dead of hunger, the ones with no name, the ones with no face" is how the Zapatista rebels began referring to themselves. They felt desperate, angry, and neglected. Four years later they went to war.

FOR SIX MONTHS LEADING up to the New Year's Day rebellion, Ruiz had been aware that the Zapatistas, the ranks of which were now filled with members of the religious base communities, were on the brink of declaring war. He worked arduously to convince them that violence would only turn on itself.

Ruiz is convinced that a "spiral of violence," once unleashed, creates deep social rifts that are not easily resolved even once the weapons stop firing. Several of the Maya leaders told Ruiz that the social conditions did not allow any other path. Surely they had no chance against the Mexican army, they agreed, but at least armed resistance might open up a space for a different kind of negotiation. Ruiz was torn by his beliefs in self-determination, for people to choose their own way, and nonviolence.

Immediately after the initial offensive of the Zapatista front, Bishop Ruiz reiterated his support for Chiapas' indigenous population despite the fact many of them had rejected his nonviolent path. "I have heard people in the plaza say, 'Those damned Indians, I hate them now more than ever,'" he told a crowd gathered for Sunday Mass. "But our brothers and sisters living under oppression have given up hope....They have made a call, a scream, about their condition."

At the same time, Ruiz made an urgent plea for negotiations toward a prolonged cease-fire that would also treat the subject of land distribution. By February, government representatives and Zapatista leaders met in the San Cristóbal cathedral, with Ruiz as mediator. Little was resolved in the way of land distribution, but an armed truce was reached that lasted for nearly a year.

By the end of the year relations began to fray. In December, the Mexican army began building up troops, and the Zapatistas responded by blocking roads, claiming several towns under their control, and declaring that war was imminent.

Desperate to stop renewed hostilities that he feared would lead to the massacre of innocent indigenous villages, the 70-year-old Ruiz began a hunger strike. Ruiz had fasted for only two weeks when both sides agreed to return to the negotiating table. Many political observers compared Ruiz's act to the role Gandhi once played in India.

But other pressures were being placed as well on the new Mexican president, Ernesto Zedillo, to resolve the crisis militarily. The international finance community, whose security in Mexico was the fundamental purpose of the NAFTA agreement, was getting impatient. Nearly a week after Ruiz ended his fast, an internal memo circulated at Chase Manhattan Bank, which has billions of dollars at risk in Mexico via its "Emerging Markets Group," advising, "The government will have to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and security policy."

In a dramatic move to break the stalemate in Chiapas, Zedillo ordered troops and federal police agents into rebel territory in early February 1995, ostensibly to arrest rebel commanders. Ruiz rather saw it as an effort to gain effective military control over areas supportive of the Zapatista movement. "This [offensive] is opting for a solution of war," he said.

MEXICAN SOLDIERS, who on the night of the invasion were ordered to hassle groups critical of the army's presence in the region, got a surprise when they showed up at a human rights office in San Cristóbal at midnight. Not only did they find as expected human rights workers from the local community, but also a handful of gringos, notebooks and pens in hand. The soldiers made a quick search for weapons and left.

The North Americans were members of Servicio Internacional para la Paz (SIPAZ), a team of nonviolent guardians who had traveled to Chiapas for this very purpose. Ruiz, wise to the international elements of the conflict, had called on a number of religious and humanitarian organizations for help.

The first SIPAZ team had been in the country only a few days when the February invasion of Chiapas began. It was baptism by fire. After the military arrived at both of San Cristóbal's human rights offices on the night of the invasion, the local Chiapas staff asked the SIPAZ team if they could spend the night in their quarters in another part of town for reasons of safety. The military returned an hour later, ransacking the office and taking files. "It was like the McCarthy era but people were coming after you with guns," reported SIPAZ co-coordinator David Hartsough.

SIPAZ wants to play an active role in promoting conditions that would make a dialogue in the region possible. The broader conflict in Chiapas is over land. Indian communities carried out more than 2,000 occupations of idle land last year alone. The private ranchers who own the property rarely hesitate to evict them with violence, often with their own paramilitary forces. SIPAZ plans to explore ways that "common ground" might be found in these disputes.

Ruiz is now convinced that, due to the pressures of foreign investors, it will take an international effort to convince the Mexican government to return to the road of negotiation. "They are more concerned here about image and coverup than the actual problems in the area. Instead of saying, 'Why did this happen?' they say, 'This will make us look bad.'"

The late-20th century has served as a stage for the globalization of production, distribution, and exchange. In that historical context, many peace activists have come to the conclusion that the cliché "Think globally, act locally" now may need adjusting. Transnational conflicts demand transnational responses. n

DAVID BATSTONE is professor of religion and culture at the University of San Francisco, and the author, most recently, of New Visions for the Americas (Fortress Press, 1993).

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