By Hillel Aron
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Photo by Slobodan DimitrovThe Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and its unofficial nationwide popularity contest hit a wall last weekend — the 15-foot-high steel-and-concrete fence that divides Mexico from the United States. The fence, which separates San Diego’s Border Field State Park from the northwestern tip of Tijuana, provided the setting for a brief rally Sunday afternoon on behalf of the upcoming EZLN-sponsored consulta, or national referendum, which the rebels will hold throughout Mexico on March 21.
Four uniformed delegates of the EZLN were on hand at the beachside March 14 rally. Under rapidly clouding skies and the watchful eyes of both U.S. and Mexican border authorities, they peered through woolen pullover masks and the rusty wire-mesh fence at about 100 banner-waving and slogan-chanting supporters from the United States. The delegates were just a handful of the roughly 5,000 masked Zapatista representatives who have traveled the Mexican countryside in recent weeks, explaining the consultato as many potential voters as possible.
The location of the Sunday-afternoon rally was more than just an exercise in symbolism. For the first time in the five-year history of the armed conflict in Chiapas, Mexican-born supporters of the Zapatistas who reside outside Mexico are being asked to weigh in.
One self-described "Mexican residing abroad" is Jesus Corona, a representative of the Los Angeles–based Zapatista Front for National Liberation, who attended the border rally on the U.S. side of the fence. Waving a massive Zapatista banner and clad in a cotton tunic, a brightly colored wool serape and a leather sombrero, Corona spent more than two hours shouting slogans of support at the four Zapatista delegates who stood on the other side with several dozen U.S. and Mexican supporters.
Not all in attendance were as boisterous or upbeat as Corona. "This is a drag," remarked Michael Sabato, who was joined on the U.S. side of the fence by a female companion, Travis Loller. Along with a third American, Jeffrey Conant, the pair were permanently expelled from Chiapas last April after being arrested by Mexican authorities at a Zapatista gathering in the rural rebel village of Taniperlas. The March 14 rally came just one day before the trio’s final hearing in Mexico City took place; the judge’s decision won’t be made public for several weeks. "We can’t even go to our own trial," Sabato remarked sourly on Sunday.
Although the Zapatistas’ long and winding campaign trail ended abruptly at the U.S.-Mexico fence Sunday afternoon, preparations for the March 21 vote are continuing north of the border. Ballots cast by Mexican expatriates will be gathered with the help of the Humanitarian Law Project, a United Nations–registered nongovernmental organization that has monitored numerous elections in Mexico and other countries.
Outside of Mexico itself, nowhere does support for the EZLN run deeper than in Southern California. While American-born Zapatista backers won’t be able to vote in the consulta, numerous polling places have been established throughout the region for those who can; these include the downtown L.A. headquarters of Local 11, Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union; both the L.A. and Santa Ana offices of Hermanidad Mexicana Nacional; and the Peace Center on Third Street in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, thousands of absentee ballots are being dispersed to potential voters throughout Southern California.
The backbone of U.S. support for the EZLN’s con-sultaconsists of more than 100 so-called brigades — loosely affiliated groups that have registered via e-mail with representatives of the Zapatista leadership in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. "To become a brigade, all you have to do is fill out an application and e-mail it to the EZLN," explained Lydia Brazon, executive director of the National Coordinator of the Chiapas ’98 Coalition, an umbrella group of 65 brigades that was formed after 45 villagers were slaughtered in the hamlet of Acteal in December 1997. According to Brazon, the brigades played an active role in shaping the consulta. "There were some serious objections up here because only people living in Mexico could vote in the consulta," she explained. "The Chicanos got all upset . . . so they got that [restriction] changed by the Zapatistas." As a result, anyone who is a Mexican citizen will be permitted to vote, regardless of where they live or whether they hold an official Mexican voting certificate.
In the same vein, the referendum itself was expanded to include one of the most controversial issues on Mexico’s political agenda. The original referendum asked four basic questions, each concerning various aspects of the conflict in Chiapas. After the vociferous intervention of the U.S. brigades, however, the Zapatista leadership finally agreed to add a fifth question asking whether to allow Mexicans living outside Mexico the right to vote.
Officials in Mexico City have dismissed prior efforts to grant expatriate voting rights, but as with the rest of the Zapatista consulta, a strong turnout could force the issue. "We’re still divided by this stupid fence," said Corona, the U.S. Zapatista, pointing southward with his red banner. "But if the Mexican government doesn’t respect the [peace accords] and the rights of the indigenous people, then they are going to be hearing from us."