Inside a Community in Resistance in Chiapas

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The video clips on this page were shot in August 1998, in one of the communities which has continued to offer staunch support for the uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). A Mexican anthropologist, Xóchitl Leyva Solano, studying for her Ph.D. in Manchester, has been working with the people of this community to produce a history of their village, told in their own words, in the Tzeltal Maya language. In the second clip, we see and hear her checking the Spanish translation of some of the Tzeltal text with one of the sons of a community leader, who is a teacher. As is often the case in such anthropological projects, different members of the community offer different and conflicting accounts of their history, and the final text is aiming to reflect these different ways of telling the story. The form of the final publication will have to be approved by the community assembly. This, then, is an example of how anthropologists today are trying to establish a new type of collaborative relationship with the people they study, based on a new type of dialogue.

This village has maintained a strong communal organisation, and has prevented the army from interfering in its internal affairs, though it is subject to constant surveillance because the main road passes straight through it (interest in traffic on the road is evident in the first clip, and the noise of a passing army patrol intrudes in the second). It remains staunchly Catholic and has been visited by both Bishop Samuel Ruiz and the adjunct Bishop of Chiapas. Its affairs are managed by communal assemblies, which can meet several times a day. Women play an important role in community affairs and Doña Anita, the senior woman is this household, has taken courses on both women’s rights and human rights. Despite the enormous problems the people now faced, with the rains failing to add to the problems caused by the counter-insurgency tactics of the government, this community was still determined to fight for a better future whatever the cost.

Some additional background information on the Chiapas conflict

When the Zapatista uprising surprised the world in January, 1994, the initial response of the Mexican government was to claim that it was the work of outside agitators — either Marxist guerrillas inspired by the Cubans or (equally left-wing) priests following the line of Liberation Theory. The bishop of Chiapas, Samuel Ruíz, was indeed an early convert to Liberation Theology, and the lay catechists his diocese recruited in the area where the Zapatista rebellion broke out sympathised with the emerging armed movement. But to understand the Chiapas revolt, we have to understand what was peculiar about the region where it broke out, the Las Cañadas region of the Lacandón jungle (selva). This was an area colonised by peasants moving in from the Central Highlands of Chiapas. These peasants came from a variety of different ethnic groups, but what they had in common was a past history of semi-slavery on plantations owned by non-Indians (ladinos). This helped to promote solidarity among people of diverse ethnic origins as they settled down together in the new communities in the jungle: the plantation owners were the common enemy, and their migration was seen as a kind of "exodus" in the biblical sense: the catechists worked on this metaphor as they taught them the ideas of Liberation Theology. The people of the Selva were granted ejidos under the land reform legislation, and different ejidos joined together in unions to try to get more help from the government to improve production and increase their access to markets.

There were, however, serious constraints on long-term rural development in Las Cañadas:

The Chiapas rebellion of 1994 was therefore the result of a combination of circumstances. A group of indigenous people with a strong sense of historical grievance were subjected to the influence of Liberation Theology and an incoming group of guerilla organisers whose origins date back to the urban student movement of the late 1960s. But the original government claim that the uprising was the work of an unholy alliance of radical priests and Sixties student leftists is not a sustainable charge. The top leadership of the movement in the Clandestine Revolutionary Council is indigenous, and the charismatic mestizo leader Marcos is used as a spokesperson for the benefit of specific kinds of audiences. The EZLN grew out of a much longer history of development of indigenous peasant organisations.

Nevertheless, it is important to understand the specific character of the EZLN movement as an indigenous movement. The rebellion took place on the day the NAFTA treaty was ratified, a day which had significance for all Mexicans who had suffered from neoliberal economic policies and were worried about what further suffering the NAFTA would bring. It was a day which raised issues about national sovereignty and democracy — the NAFTA had been pushed through with little consultation even of Mexican business interests, and it represented a U-turn for a country which had always pursued a policy of protecting the national economy. The original Zapatista proclamation did not just speak to the specific rights of indigenous people: it spoke to the rights of working class people and women in general, and called for democracy and clean elections.

But the EZLN approach to indigenous rights issues is not one which seeks to isolate indigenous people from non-indigenous people. This is most evident in their proposals for indigenous autonomy. After the government’s initial attempt to crush the rebellion with the army failed, the EZLN was invited to enter into a "dialogue" with the state which resulted in a series of proposals to modify the Mexican constitution. The indigenous side demanded that the state recognise the right of indigenous peoples to "self-determination" by allowing them to administer their affairs in their own way. The government side has persistently tried to represent this as a demand for separatism from the national state, the "creation of nations within nations" or even "a regime of reservations". In fact what the Zapatistas were demanding was that indigenous communities be freed from domination by non-indian elites: that they be free to choose their political representatives in whatever way they see fit, and that those representatives should have an equal voice to the representatives of other groups in regional society. In other words, this is a demand for democratisation of Mexican political life from the bottom-up, linked to earlier demands for municipal democracy. Such demands are, in fact, widespread in Chiapas, not just in the Selva. After the Zapatista rebellion, many communities seized the opportunity to try to kick out long established local bosses, and alliances were formed to democratise municipal life between groups affiliated to rival political parties and peasant organisations.

In the case of Chiapas, few indigenous people want to create separate enclaves for people from different ethnic groups. The fact that the population of Las Cañadas is itself ethnically mixed has already broken down many of the barriers between different Maya groups and between Mayas and poor mestizos. So the idea is to create multi-ethnic regions with more power devolved to local government. In Chiapas, the principle division is between rich landowners and poorer peasants: the agrarian reform was never fully implemented in this state because the regional elite was able to limit the interventions of the national state in its affairs. The reforming government of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40) (see Mexican History Since 1810 and Mexican Land Reform) did attempt to reduce the power of the regional elite by promoting a new generation of indigenous peasant leaders. These were bilingual Indians, often school teachers, who were once again a generation of youth eager to contest the authority of elders. But the problem was that these new leaders converted themselves into a new generation of village bosses or caciques. They used their control of village politics to enrich themselves and violently repressed political rivals. They also developed new alliances with the non-Indian state elite. So the reforming thrust of the Cárdenas administration was short-lived and the Chiapaneco elite continued to defy the national state. The unity among peasants promoted by the persistent agrarian problems of Chiapas and the opposition between big landowners and peasants has therefore been strengthened by a continuous popular struggle against arbitrary boss rule.

The government side in the Chiapas peace negotiations has paid no serious attention to EZLN demands for land redistribution and the expropriation of the state’s many illegal latifundios. Throughout the negotiations, now broken off, the army conducted a low-intensity war against the Zapatista base communities, using tactics it probably learned from the Guatemalan military. For example, water holes were poisoned and crops and houses destroyed to make people dependent on army feeding stations. Peasants who had invaded landed estates outside the Selva in 1994-95 were evicted by heavily armed "white guards" supported by state and federal troops. There were many deaths in these evictions, and an equally large number of assassinations of peasant community activists. But the situation deteriorated further in December, 1997, after a paramilitary group massacred women and children in the community of Acteal. It was subsequently revealed in the Mexican press that the military had included the strengthening of paramilitary groups in its initial counter-insurgency plan of 1994. They have clearly received guns and training from the army. Some of them are recognised officially as "rural development organisations" and are run by regional politicians affiliated with the ruling PRI party. The great advantage of using paramilitaries to fight the state’s "dirty wars" it is that their actions are eminently "deniable" and never "officially sanctioned".

Since the massacre at Acteal, the number of troops in Chiapas has been greatly increased. There is constant harassment of the local population at roadblocks and through helicopter surveillance. Curiously, the presence of perhaps a third of Mexico’s national military force in the region has not increased personal security. Trucks and buses no longer travel the dirt road from the Selva to Ocosingo at night for fear of armed robbery, something that never happened in the days when the peasant communities of Las Cañadas themselves took care of security. The official line is that the robbers are "Zapatistas". The paramilitaries are mostly recruited from poor and landless families, and being a member of one of these organisations is attractive to young men who see a chance of becoming a "someone" in carrying a modern weapon and gaining authority. The official counter-insurgency strategy is to slowly establish strategic control over the region, through a grid of military roads, isolating the Zapatistas in jungle redoubts and cutting them off from their supporters in the established peasant communities. But it has also included an unofficial strategy of fostering divisions within and between the communities themselves, not only by fostering the development of paramilitary bands, but by encouraging splits between Catholics and Protestants. This is a potentially dangerous game to play, since it may harden divisions to the point at which a peaceful settlement may become impossible.