By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The San Andres accords, as they have come to be called, would have guaranteed limited constitutional autonomy to the nation’s indigenous peoples. Reached after many months of arduous negotiation, the agreements granted to Mexico’s 800 Indian-majority municipalities or counties local control over their own territory, natural resources, and justice and educational systems, in addition to legitimizing the selection of officials by traditional assembly rather than party politics.
But the agreements had a short life span, vetoed by Zedillo seven months after they were inked, on grounds that their conversion into law would have encouraged the secession of Mexico’s Indians from the national union and paved the path to a Bosnia-type dilemma in Chiapas. The EZLN responded by breaking off peace talks; all hopes of an early settlement to the long-simmering conflict were effectively dashed.
In the years since, pressing the mal gobierno ("bad government") to live up to the accords has become the focal point of the rebels’ cause. At the same time, hostilities have persisted: In the interval since the masked rebels and Zedillo’s representatives last met in August 1996, 138 Indians have been killed in the conflict zone, including 46 Tzotzil supporters of the Zapatistas at nearby Acteal. Another 15,000 have been displaced from their land, and 300 foreign human-rights observers have been expelled from the country.
On March 21, the first day of spring, the EZLN will seek to break the political stalemate and resurrect the moribund agreement by staging a national — and international — plebiscite under the rubric of "Recognition of the Rights of Indigenous People and the End of the War of Extermination." The consulta asks participants four questions:
Should the Indians be included in Mexico’s national project and take an active part in building the new nation? (Few will vote no on this one.)
Should peace be achieved through dialogue and the Mexican military be returned to barracks? (There are 60,000 troops currently encamped in the conflict zone.)
Should the government obey the will of the people and abide by the results of the consultation? (Mandar obediciendo — governing by obeying the will of the people — is a Zapatista leadership principle.)
And most importantly: Should indigenous rights be recognized in the Mexican Constitution in accordance with the interpretation of the San Andres accords offered by the legislative commission that oversaw the peace talks? (Zedillo’s own interpretation of the agreements has been mired in Congress since he first promulgated the initiative last March.)
A fifth question has been added for those who will cast a ballot outside Mexico: Should Mexicans living outside Mexico have the right to participate and vote in Mexican elections? (Obtaining the vote in time for the 2000 presidential election here is a galvanizing issue for Mexicans living in the U.S.)
Since 1993, when the Alianza Civica (Civil Alliance) held a consultation in Mexico City’s Zocalo plaza on whether or not that metropolis should become the nation’s 32nd state, Mexicans have been utilizing consultas to introduce a new school of participatory politics. While consultas are constitutionally sanctioned, their outcomes are nonbinding — they are used primarily as a political tool to pressure entrenched government forces. This past summer, the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) rounded up more than 3 million ballots for a referendum asking the citizenry if it was willing to accept Ernesto Zedillo’s $65 billion bank bailout — 97 percent said no. The PRD next plans to ask Mexicans if they agree with Zedillo’s proposed privatization of the nation’s electricity industry.
In 1995, the EZLN carried out its first consulta, seeking input on its own future direction. A majority of 1.3 million voters called upon the rebels to lay down their arms and transform their army into an independent political organization. As the Zapatistas point out, the campaign for the new consultafulfills the commitments of the previous public referendum: the transformation of this idiosyncratic guerrilla force into a political organization.
In standard EZLN style, the current campaign has spread like the ripples from a pebble tossed into a pool. The first waves appeared last July when, after months of stony silence at the government’s failure to honor the San Andres accords, the EZLN issued the Fifth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, calling upon its supporters to promote a popular referendum on indigenous rights throughout the land.
To promote the consulta, the Zapatistas offered to send representatives to every municipality in Mexico. According to organizers, the response to the call has been enthusiastic. At last count (late February), more than 800 get-out-the-vote brigades had been registered in more than half of the 32 Mexican states. The phones at the consulta’s San Cristobal offices have been ringing off the hook — both numbers (967-81013 and 967-82159) feature a recorded message from Subcomandante Marcos, the EZLN’s charismatic spokesperson.