Peace in Chiapas will not be achieved simply by resolving conflicts. Peace also requires medicine, land to harvest, schools, tools for working, etc. - in sum, the means to ensure a dignified life for all people.

By Margarita Vargas Canales

September 1999

A little more than five years ago, the Zapatista movement came to public light in Chiapas. For the first time in many years, people raised their voices to denounce the extreme poverty, abandonment and conditions in which thousands of Mexicans live. They brought attention to that other Mexico; the one that our leaders and many other Mexicans have refused to recognise since colonial times.

Government officials have emphasised the armed nature of the movement. They have even characterised it as terrorist. At the same time, they have sought to resolve the problem by increasing the budget for the state of Chiapas in general, and for key municipalities in particular.

In the logic of those in power today, if they confront armed guerrillas, they will have to fight them with arms. At the same time, if their demands are primarily better living conditions, they will have to give them more resources. These simplistic responses illustrate the government's lack of understanding of the Zapatista movement.

Certainly, the Zapatista struggle is not a movement of peaceful resistance. But the government's characterisation of the Zapatistas as terrorists is not acceptable. It is an attempt to manipulate public opinion and distort the public's image of the movement.

Two recent events demonstrate the perspectives and evolution of the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) and what it could come to be in the near future: the citizen consultation held on 21 March and the second gathering with Mexican civil society held on 7-10 May, in which more than 2,000 people from 32 states participated. Through these acts in collaboration with Mexican civil society, the Zapatista movement has shown that weapons are not the only means of political participation they know how to use.

With respect to the EZLN's demands, Sub-commander Marcos has stated clearly and precisely on numerous occasions, 'We didn't rise up just to obtain schools, credits and CONASUPO (National Council of Basic Foods) stores for ourselves. We rose up for a better country; a country that, among other things, recognises our rights as indigenous people, respects us, and treats us as citizens and not as beggars.' It is clear that the Zapatista demands go far beyond better economic conditions and infrastructure.

But the panorama does not seem promising for the Zapatistas. Paramilitary groups have stepped up their activities, while the military advances on Zapatista regions like Montes Azules. The danger of new confrontations, or worse, the possibility of more massacres like that of Acteal, is real. At the same time, the mediation of COCOPA (Commission for Concordance and Peace) appears to be at an impasse and dialogue and debate no longer seem to be potential negotiating tools.

Once again, the government's proposals don't address the underlying problems. The government presented a proposal for redistricting in the state, which included the addition of seven new municipalities in a preliminary stage, bringing the number to 20 after one year.

The objective is supposedly to distribute resources in a more equitable manner and improve the living conditions of the inhabitants of these regions. In reality, it is an attempt to weaken and divide municipalities that have openly supported the Zapatistas and to ensure that the state government in Tuxtla Gutierrez has greater control over geographically removed regions where it has little access.

The government's other proposal is the Law of Amnesty for the Disarmament of Civil Groups in Chiapas. The law, which was promoted as an attempt to pacify the region, has received a great deal of propaganda, above all in the press, which has touted its effectiveness by announcing the desertion of dozens of Zapatistas. But this law is just another attempt to weaken the Zapatista insurgency. How is it possible that the government offers an amnesty to civil groups that want to disarm while it continues to secretly arm more and more of these civil organisations that act as paramilitary groups?

We believe that Chiapas represents an opportunity for Mexico to seek a profound transition, precisely because it was Chiapas that woke the conscience of many Mexicans. Zapatismo is not limited to the indigenous question, although that is its priority.

The Zapatista movement for change integrates other sectors and struggles, for example through its contact and consultation with civil society. It has a broader vision, understanding that the problems in Chiapas are not limited to that state; they occur in many regions of Mexico. This formation of a more integral movement could represent an opportunity for the EZLN to become a political party with a considerable number of supporters.

Seen from another perspective, the government is seeking to minimise what is going on in Chiapas. It pretends that its new project will cause people to forget and will 'pacify' the great national problems that are so present in this region. The comments of the PRI's presidential candidate, Francisco Labastida Ochoa, are illustrative: 'What we seek is the solution to the conflict, not peace, since there isn't a war in the state.'

In Chiapas there is a war and peace will not be achieved simply by resolving conflicts. Peace also requires medicine, land to harvest, schools, tools for working, etc. In sum, what is needed is the means to ensure a dignified life for all people.

More than five years have passed since the start of the ELZN uprising. How many more years and how many new Zapatistas do we need before we realise that things can and must change? And how must these changes come about?

There are a thousand different responses to that question, but we could begin by recognising that the other exists and that there are many ways to address our problems. To the extent that the actors in the Chiapas conflict and average Mexicans are open to the debate of ideas, the differences among us, and dialogue as a negotiating tool, our future will begin to move toward more solid paths. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Margarita Aurora Vargas Canales is a member of the Citizen Diplomacy Programme at DECA, Equipo Pueblo. The above article first appeared in The Other Side of Mexico 64 (May-June 1999, 'Chiapas at Five Years: How Many More?).