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The Zapatistas Are Back

AP/Wide World

SAN ANDRES SAKAMCH’EN DE LOS POBRES, MEXICO — The big house on the muddy plaza here is locked and forlorn, its innards gutted and its back patio converted into a town toilet, an appropriate metaphor for what has happened to the 40 pages of agreements signed on the premises February 16, 1996, between the representatives of President Ernesto Zedillo and 17 leaders of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN).

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 consulta fulfills 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.

Down at the grassroots, the brigades, often eight to 10 neighbors or work- or classmates, with fanciful names like "Sub Speedies" or "The Beetle of Tlanepantla," are reminiscent of the cell-like "affinity groups" favored by protesters during the U.S. anti-nuclear-power movement of the 1980s. The brigades form a network that is taking the consulta to the plazas of the country and that will be responsible for supervising and tabulating the votes — in addition to welcoming, protecting, feeding and housing nearly 6,000 representatives from Zapatista villages.

With the brigades in place, thousands of the rebels set out last week from the five EZLN redoubts known as "Aguascalientes" to spread the news of the consulta. The Zapatista invasion, destined for Mexico’s nearly 2,500 municipalities, is expected to last 10 days. With over a fifth of the electorate concentrated in Mexico City, the capital will play host to hundreds of the insurgents, their third visit to the megalopolis.

In 1996, Comandante Ramona became the first EZLN leader to break out of the military encirclement of Zapatista villages, when she flew to the capital for the founding of the National Indigenous Congress, and the next year, 1,111 mostly masked villagers came up to the big city to reiterate their demand for the implementation of the San Andres accords. Now, once again, the subtext of the Zapatistas’ visit is to make "San Andres" a reality.

The EZLN consulta reaches out beyond Mexico’s borders to an international constituency that, to the great irritation of the Zedillo government, has become a pillar of the rebels’ support base. According to a late February communiqué from Subcomandante Marcos, the consulta will be carried out in 30 countries on five continents, and the polls will reach from pole to pole (at least from Norway to Patagonia). Irish supporters will set up a polling place in Dublin so that even ex-President Carlos Salinas, a Zapatista nemesis, can vote. Chicano activists in the U.S., for whom the Zapatistas have become the icon of the ’90s, earned special commendation from Subcomandante Marcos for spreading the consulta into the barrios of North America.

The EZLN’s international constituency has expressly been warned by Zedillo’s peace coordinator, Emilio Rabasa, not to take part in the consulta on Mexican soil or risk expulsion — two Italians were tossed out of the country in February for teaching in EZLN-run schools, considered by the government to be interference in Mexico’s domestic politics.

For the rebels, the consulta and the mobilization of their representatives are huge gambles. Just getting the Zapatistas out of the jungle is fraught with suspense. Although EZLN members are protected from detention by the Law of Reconciliation, four Zapatistas traveling through the Lacandon in February were stopped at military roadblocks, beaten and jailed. When EZLN supporters have ventured into neutral villages to spread notice of the consulta, Mexican troops have appeared under the pretext of heading off supposed rebel attacks. At least one paramilitary-run anti-consulta unit has been formed in the conflict zone, reports La Jornada’s Hermann Bellinghausen.

And while the Zapatistas are on the road, trouble is brewing back home. Chiapas Governor Roberto Albores says he intends to sign off on the creation of eight new municipalities that infringe territorially on Zapatista "auton-omous" municipalities, an imposition that exacerbates tensions in the conflict zone. When Albores moved to dismantle four EZLN autonomias last spring, 10 local residents were killed and hundreds of rebels taken prisoner.

The political gamble the EZLN is taking on the consulta may outweigh the threat to its members’ physical integrity. In a real sense, the consulta represents the Zapatista response to a high-octane political year during which all attentions are riveted on who the nation’s three leading political parties will nominate as their presidential candidates in the July 2000 election. The EZLN is betting that the consulta will prove an attractive alternative to Mexican politics as usual, but the San Andres accords are little understood and not a primary concern for a lot of Mexicans. The result could be an apathetic turnout in many regions — and if the numbers are not significantly greater than the million-plus votes tabulated in 1995, EZLN political fortunes will be sorely bruised.

But the Zapatistas may have had little choice. Keeping their demand for the implementation of the San Andres accords alive until a new president is selected is crucial to Zapatista political survival. And there are intangibles on the plus side: In addition to strengthening EZLN support throughout the nation and the world, the Zapatista consulta generates chamba ("work") for their base.

 

Turning out millions of votes for the EZLN would keep Zedillo’s feet to the fire, but it may not be enough to make "San Andres" a reality. Under the rebels’ guiding principle of mandar obediciendo, a big vote will obligate Mexican legislators to incorporate the agreements on indigenous autonomy into the constitution. But the concept of "governing by obeying the will of the people" does not have a lot of scratch with the nation’s venal politicos and will meet with stiff resistance in ruling circles. As Interior Secretary Francisco Labastida scoffed when the EZLN first issued the call for the consulta, "Laws are not made in the jungle."

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