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new internationalist
issue 253 - March 1994


Neglect in rural Chiapas: Solidaridad ('Solidarity') programme brings crumbs from the Federal President, not equity and justice.

Viva Zapata?
Uprising breaks the surface

The mountain roads of Chiapas, southern Mexico, weave through an ancient rural landscape of great beauty and apparent tranquillity. In September last year, enthralled by the grace of the place and its people, I motored gently around in a Volkswagen Beetle. Now gun battles and helicopters have left a trail of slaughter and grief.

The insurgency began on New Year's Day, to coincide with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It drew to a close with hundreds of dead, six major population centres temporarily occupied by the insurgents and the release from local jails of 179 prisoners whom the army had arrested during land disputes.

Rumour suggested that politicized refugees from the conflict in neighbouring Guatemala lay behind the uprising. But despite occasional skirmishes, the Mexican Army had been keen to deny the existence of organized opposition. The previously obscure Zapatista Army of National Liberation - named after the Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata - seems to have been able, nonetheless, to mobilize as many as 2,000 armed peasants across a wide area of the state. Slogans painted by insurgents on walls in San Cristóbal de las Casas read: 'And they said we did not exist!'

Every effort was made in official circles both inside and outside Mexico to dismiss the insurgency as an anachronistic outburst in a uniquely impoverished region of the country. It is true that indigenous people form the majority of the population in Chiapas, and this is unusual in Mexico. It is also true that the population is largely rural, which is equally untypical now that most Mexicans live in the cities. The mountainous terrain and lack of modern communications - one result of government neglect - also make Chiapas particularly suitable for guerrilla activity.

But there is no question that events here have a much wider resonance throughout the country. There are for a start more than seven million indigenous people elsewhere in Mexico who also experience discrimin- ation and injustice.

The crisis in Mexican rural life, exacerbated by cheap grain imports from the US under NAFTA, has also been caused by a return to the old system of huge landed estates and unfettered power for landowners that provoked the outbreak of revolution in 1910. It is mirrored in Mexico's industrial cities, where low wages, cuts in social programmes and spiralling unemployment have created mass destitution alongside the fourth largest number of dollar billionaires in the world. Extreme poverty, as bad as anything I have seen in Latin America, is common even in the booming industrial cities of the US/Mexico border.

The Government's response has generally been to declare such grievances to be non-existent. Much attention has focused on the authoritarian nature of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which has been in power since 1928. But since 1982 the PRI has abandoned almost every principle it originally stood for. It is this volte face - away from a tradition of state intervention towards free-market policies - that has produced deep divisions in Mexican society.

There is an unresolved paradox. The sophisticated machinery of a 'revolutionary' statist government is now being used to implement policies that in many respects resemble what the Revolution was against.

Meanwhile, in what may well prove to have been the most serious armed uprising since the Revolution, the army has once again entered the arena. In Chiapas it has for years intervened on the side of the local power élite. But after a massacre of students before the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968 the army largely withdrew from acts of civil repression, in sharp contrast to the rise of military dictatorships elsewhere in Latin America. Human-rights activists in Mexico who were anticipating an end to authoritar- ian controls based on force may now have to think again.

One indication of the seriousness of the situation in Chiapas is that few people outside the indigenous groups now have any credibility with them at all. Don Samuel Ruiz - an immensely impressive, witty and compassionate man whom I interviewed last September - has been Bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas for the past 30 years and is often cited as someone who does have their trust. He has consistently defended indigenous rights in the face of blatant discrimination and threats against his own life.

Much-maligned mediator Samuel Ruiz.

He now has the extraordinarily difficult task of mediating between the army and the insurgents, a role that will be crucial if the slaughter is not to continue and spread. The Vatican, however, under pressure from the conservative hierarchy of the Mexican Catholic Church, accused him last November of 'grave pastoral doctrinal errors' and urged him to step down. Don Samuel has written to the Vatican asking to be allowed to defend himself. His supporters worldwide are doing the same.

The political 'hot season' in Mexico leading up to presidential elections in August has become several degrees hotter. It is impossible to predict how events might now develop. But one thing is certain. The complacency that led some people to dismiss the significance of the uprising, and others to discount wider opposition to the economic and political orthodoxy behind NAFTA, has been shown up for what it was. The brutal fact is that it still takes the bloodshed of the dispossessed to do it.

David Ransom

For more background information, and an interview with Don Samuel Ruiz, see NI 251, January 1994, particularly pages 20-23.

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The rickshaw capital

The rickshaw capital The main streets and alleyways of Dhaka throng with pedal-powered cycle rickshaws. They are the bane of transport planners and drivers of motorized vehicles. But every day over 300,000 of these wobbly contraptions shift more than seven million passengers to their destinations, 70 per cent of Dhaka's commuters. Dhaka is easily the rickshaw capital of the world and the Government is fighting a losing battle trying to limit numbers. Cycle rickshaws have carved out a niche for themselves in the national economy, contributing 34 per cent of the transport sector earnings of the country, twice the contribution of the national airline Biman.

India Today, Vol 18, No 24.

Swimming in the pink

Swimming in the pink

Swimming into the pink. Men will be able to check how fertile they are with a home testing kit that goes on sale this year in the Netherlands. Adapted from a test used to check the fertility of bulls, it uses a dye which changes from deep purple in the presence of oxygen to pale pink when the oxygen falls below a certain level. Vigorous sperm burn up oxygen as they swim, so a sample of semen containing a large enough number of active sperm will change colour after a short time. It is hoped that the test will relieve many women of the distress of undergoing unpleasant investigations, by making it easier for men to check out their contribution to conception first.

New Scientist, No 1907.

Ghost in the machine
Ghost in the machine Doordarshan, the Indian government television network, is better known for ensuring a good night's sleep due to its anodyne programming than as a source of entertainment. But sometimes its gaffes can be quite exciting. Consider this - recently a well-known Hindi film was broadcast, but in a bizarrely re-edited format because orders came down to remove one of the main actors, now a spokesperson for an opposition party. His lines could be heard, but as if delivered by a phantom because his face was never seen in the film.

Michael Urlocker/Gemini News Service


‘We can live without a president, but we can't live without farmers.’

A sign held up among the 6,000 South Korean students protesting against President
Kim Young Sam's decision to open the country's rice market to imports as part of GATT.
(During his election campaign, Kim had promised not to take such a step.)

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