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U.S. activists seem strangely silent about Chiapas.

By Tim Vanderpool

APRIL 27, 1998:  IT WAS DECEMBER 31, 1993, twilight of another corporate banner year. Wall Street was bullish, the White House was compliant, and the country's global marketeers were giddily breaking ground for an unprecedented, cross-border harvest called the North American Free Trade Agreement.

As a whole, life in the boardroom was quite rosy. And business relations between the United States and Mexico--long marked by peevishness, bruised sensitivities and outright aggression--had never been better. Tomorrow, NAFTA would begin busting through trade barriers, wrenching down tariffs, and flushing Mexico with technical innovation. Thousands of jobs and billions in investment would follow. At the same time, American business could begin loosening Mexico's fierce protectionist grip over its own vast markets.

Finally, the two long-squabbling neighbors were standing hand-in-hand on the brink of a New World Order.

Or so it seemed.

But in the remote, mountainous, nearly-forgotten Mexican state of Chiapas, changes were afoot that would shake the fledgling international architecture to its foundations. Led by a charismatic intellectual called Subcommandante Marcos, a makeshift force of several hundred Indian peasants, modern-day descendants of the ancient Maya and Olmec cultures, were poised for revolt in their rugged region bordering Guatemala.

When the dust cleared they would have taken the mountains by storm, peeling away Mexico's fragile facade of political and economic progress. And they would demonstrate that huge notions like NAFTA were of little benefit to the country's poverty-stricken majority.

They called themselves the Zapatista Army of National Liberation Army (EZLN), after the popular peasant hero of the Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata. And at dawn on January 1, 1994--the very day NAFTA took effect--they seized San Cristóbal de las Casas, a colonial city deep in the heart of Chiapas. Not surprisingly, the Mexican government responded with brutal indignation. The area was sealed off, human rights monitors were turned away, and the ensuing 12-day siege left scores dead on both sides. The rebels eventually retreated once more to the hills, but their point had been made.

International pressure then forced the government to negotiate, eventually resulting in an interim pact called the Law for Peace in Chiapas. The accord recognized the Zapatistas as a legitimate "non-conformist" group, and promised reforms throughout the region. It also officially ended all military operations against the rebels, and opened the door for change.

Four years later, NAFTA remains an experiment. But in the short-term, it's had a cataclysmic effect on the Mexican economy, as thousands of small, family-owned businesses are displaced by multi-national companies. American-style marketing has strengthened its foothold, and most major Mexican cities now have a Taco Bell.

Even in Chiapas, foreign investors are surveying the state's vast reserves of oil and lumber, threatening even more displacement of the area's indigenous residents. Meanwhile, the government has stalled talks with the rebels. Under Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, the Mexican Army has continued its policy of intimidation and attack, invading countless Indian communities with near impunity, and allegedly funding a growing wave of ruthless paramilitary forces.

This atmosphere resulted in a massacre in Acteal, a small Chiapas hamlet where 45 unarmed Zapatista sympathizers, mostly women and children, were gunned down with government-issue weapons in late December. The marauders came from a neighboring village, but ultimate responsibility is suspected to reach high into the Mexican government.

So today Chiapas remains in a defacto state of war, its jungles teeming with military units, terrified peasants, and squads of armed criminals.

IN 1994, LONGTIME political activist Cecilia Rodriguez traveled from her Los Angeles home to San Cristobal as part of a human rights delegation. The army refused the group entry, but 18 months later she returned. Following a personal meeting with Subcommandante Marcos, she was appointed U.S. representative for the EZLN, and coordinator of the National Commission for Democracy in Mexico.

Since then, Rodriguez has visited Chiapas many times. And she has felt the lawless region's brutality firsthand: In 1995, while enroute to a Zapatista village, she was gang-raped by a band of paramilitary thugs.

On March 25, Rodriguez spoke on the UA campus. Earlier in the day she'd joined a protest outside the Mexican Consulate on South Sixth Avenue, and that night she lashed out at the government's growing record of human rights abuses in Chiapas, describing the Acteal massacre as an event "that opened a great many hearts.

"But the important thing to understand is that there have been many deaths," she told the crowd, "there has been a history of suffering." The Zapatistas hope to give voice to the dead, she said, and "keep talking about new human relationships, new political relationships, and a new way of being, one that has wholeheartedly rejected the future that has been mapped out for Mexico by the (International Monetary Fund), by the World Bank, by NAFTA, by the United States, by Wall Street."

Sitting in a downtown Tucson coffee shop a few days later, Rodriguez discussed the Zapatista's ongoing fight in the face of inconsistent international, support. She took American human rights groups to task for their uncharacteristic timidity over the issue, called American media coverage of Chiapas a disgrace, and described the Zapatista's place in the history of Latin American armed struggle.

"We've had to deal with a low-intensity war for a long time," she said. "At this point, we feel the process (in Chiapas) is at a critical juncture, and that we have to be able to exert at least double the pressure as before. We need to remind people what the Zapatistas are fighting for."

Ironically, few deny the reality of vast economic disparity and inequality in Chiapas, she said, or the way it colors all of Mexican society.

"Generally, even the Zapatistas' enemies acknowledge them as having a genuine issue," she said. "And a lot support we've gotten is from the middle class in Mexico, which is rapidly disappearing because of NAFTA. We've also gotten support from farmers. Some of them are tomato growers and avocado growers. They have small parcels of land. They can't compete. and they can't find their way out of their problems.

"I think there's an identification with the Zapatistas, but I also think there's a sense that something's really wrong with Mexico, and things cannot continue that way."

On the other side are "all the Wall Street interests, the people who want to take the mines, take the lumber, take the oil and farm the land."

It sounds like garden-variety exploitation, Latin American style. But Rodriguez said the Zapatistas want to respond through reform rather than full-blown revolution. "They've said they don't feel they are the ones who will facilitate a revolution in Mexico. They're perhaps the entryway to that process, because a lot of new things need to be created, new agreements, new proposals. And for something new to be born it takes time, and Zapatistas feel they may not have that much time."

Meanwhile, the Mexican Army controls Chiapas with a heavy hand, she said, "using Acteal as an excuse. At one point, everyone was saying the army had 50,000 troops there. Now the estimate is that there are 70,000. Now they have many more checkpoints. They had stopped having them, but now the rationale is that they are searching for weapons belonging to the paramilitaries, and that they are going to disarm everybody, including the Zapatistas."

Taking the Zapatista's guns would be a direct violation of the Law for Peace, she said.

And so the delicate boundary between heightened tension and direct warfare grows slimmer by the day, she said. "What the military does is destroy the ability of the communities to conduct business."

In addition, she said the army uses paramilitary gangs to carry out its dirty work, often pitting Indians against one another. "It's not hard to do. Young men have grown up on the streets doing day jobs, petty thievery. The government has taken those kind of people who have been completely disconnected from their communities, and given them a position of power that is unquestioned. No one says anything to the paramilitaries, not the soldiers, not the police. They have carte blanche. It's a very powerful position to be in, in their eyes, after being in misery since they came into existence."

Those armed bands are then used as proxy instigators, she said, allowing the army to avoid direct confrontation with the Zapatistas, and the international criticism--and investor nervousness--that would result.

"If the government reacts militarily, they're going to lose everything," she said. "They're going to lose the little bit of legitimacy they still have. And it's going to destabilize the economic interests, because the line of the Mexican government is that the Zapatistas are not a problem."

The picture isn't much prettier beyond Mexico's borders, she said, where support has wavered. "In terms of the U.S. human rights organizations, there's a lot of policy issues involved, military and economic issues. Human rights organizations on this side of the border hesitate because of that.

"They've been hesitant to participate all these four years, even though they've been the ones documenting mounting levels of abuse. But they're less aggressive, maybe because they think they might be exaggerating (the situation), or that they'll be seen as not neutral.

"I just think they feel the fires too close, with all the human rights violations that immigrants face here," she said. "That fragments the issue. Americans want to say 'Over here is the immigration issue,' and they want to separate that from the human rights violations. Then 'Over here is the drug war, and over here, separate from that, is NAFTA.'"

Ultimately, "It's too bad the human rights groups haven't been able to verbalize a coherent position," she said, "because if they were more aggressive, they could have twice the impact here."

AT THE SAME time, she called media coverage of the Chiapas struggle "extremely bad," with growing levels of distortion reminiscent of the CIA's Central American misinformation campaigns of the 1970s and '80s. "I think that's going to happen more and more," Rodriguez said.

Even The New York Times misrepresents the situation, she said. "They did a good story about the Acteal massacre, and then a couple weeks ago they did another story, and whole line of it was that the Zapatistas were intransigent. They had photos showing these unarmed Zapatistas facing a row of tanks. Then they showed an unarmed man talking to these policemen all dressed in riot gear. They were very dramatic pictures that said the complete opposite of what was in the story. It seemed very strange to me.

"The story was very much the official government line, which is strange, because it was by the same woman who had written article about the massacre. I don't know if she writes and it gets censored or doctored. I'm not sure how it happens. But overall, coverage of the Zapatistas has been very bad."

Never has the need for responsible coverage been more critical, she said. "The political pressure from our allies is what can shift the balance. The Mexican government made a very significant mistake with the massacre at Acteal. It awoke a lot of people who were indifferent, or ignorant of the issue. It got the churches involved, got people taking positions on it who haven't before. The pressure has come from people who are just outraged."

And Rodriguez said there have been other displays of concern. "For example, on January 12 of this year we had actions in support of the Zapatistas in 45 cities across the United States. Now we need to sustain it, and make it larger. That's kind of the challenge in front of us.

Such outside support is crucial, she said, "because the Mexican government obviously doesn't give a damn about its own people. It is a government that has disconnected from its own people, a government that is cosmetic in the sense that it just uses Mexico as a launching pad--a government that's in the pockets of other people, other interests."


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