Chiapas Is Mexico

Article excerpt

When masked raiders stormed into a half-dozen towns in the Mexican state of Chiapas on January 1, they raised a question that hasn't been answered yet. The baffling March 23 assassination of the ruling party's presidential candidate asked the question again. Is the Chiapas revolt merely a regional conflict--or is it the start of something big? Will Mexico return to calm, slip into chaos, or go through a period of real change? The answers may lie, of all places, in histo north of the Rio Grande, in Dixie, circa 1963.

Chiapas, at the southwestern end of Mexico, has a population of 3.5 million--about the size of a Central American republic--and its inhabitants hold several claims as the poorest in any Mexican state. A third live in homes that aren't electrified, and 40 per cent in hovels that have no running water. Two-thirds of the residents of Chiapas can't dispose of wastes through sewer pipes. A third of them are illiterate, and a third of the state's children don't attend school. Chiapas has the highest tuberculosis rate in the nation, and last year some 15,000 Chiapanecos died of malnutrition and curable ills.

The guerrillas have set up shop in the three regions of Chiapas where rural poverty is worst: in the Lacandon jungle near the Tabasco state line, in the highlands, or Los Altos, and on the border between Chiapas and Guatemala. In the Lacandon and Los Altos areas, between 45 and 50 per cent of adults can't read, and some three-quarters of the region's housekeepers sweep floors of dirt.

The indigenes in Chiapas, as elsewhere in Mexico, are mostly peasants and cottage artisans. They have a Mayan heritage in common, but are divided into four important language groups: Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Zoque, and Tojolabal. Some 32 per cent of the state's adults don't speak Spanish--and that, too, is a national record.

To put all of this into U.S. terms, Chiapas is the Mississippi of Mexico. Its indigenous areas are Dixie's black belts. The solutions that the Mexican government is proposing in Chiapas are that country's version of President Johnson's War on Poverty. Peace will return to Chiapas, the optimists believe, just as soon as desk jobs are created for the ski-masked rebels at the Office of Economic Opportunity and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"This is a local problem, in a region of extreme poverty, where there are many inhabitants of indigenous origin, on the border with Central America," President Carlos Salinas de Gortari said a few days after the outbreak.

"You must understand that our movement isn't Chiapaneco, but national.... Our objective is the solution of the principal problems of our country," rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos declares, stating the opposite of the government's case. Either the Subcomandante, like Huey Newton or Bobby Seal, has dreams of militarized grandeur--or else the government's evaluation is way off base.

Chiapas is poor, but by income statistics, Oaxaca, the state on its western edge, is poorer yet. And only statistically insignificant margins distinguish Chiapas from Guerrero, one more state removed, a state that includes Acapulco--43.1 per cent of homes lack running water in Guerrero, for example, as compared to 41.6 per cent in Chiapas. Indeed, the whole of southern Mexico and the peninsula of Yucatan cluster together on graphs.

The national figures for Mexico are not much better. For example, even in the relatively prosperous North, in the state of Nuevo Leon, whose capital is industrial Monterrey, almost 40 per cent of households lack sewer lines. About 15 per cent of the student-age population of Mexico does not attend school, and national illiteracy runs to 20 per cent. In the same way, if the indigenous population in Chiapas is relatively numerous, the national picture is different only in degree, not in kind. About 10 per cent of Mexico's population is Indian--a ratio comparable to that of the African-American population of Texas and of Alabama. …