No Easy Peace: The Zapatistas' Tense Stalemate

By Fayyaz, Zeina | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

No Easy Peace: The Zapatistas' Tense Stalemate


Fayyaz, Zeina, Harvard International Review


On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional, EZLN) staged a violent rebellion that rocked Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost and poorest state. The EZLN mobilized some 2,000 armed peasants to occupy a chain of mountain towns in Chiapas and confront local and federal authorities, only retreating when then-President Carlos Salinas ordered 70,000 troops to the region. Tensions still simmer in Chiapas today. Since 1994, the ongoing conflict has been characterized by battles between Zapatistas and the Mexican government for political control over the state's lands and communities. The Zapatistas fight on behalf of poor and indigenous Mexicans, who, they claim, face social ostracism and exploitation under the heel of wealthy capitalists. The government, in turn, retaliates in the name of law and order. Present-day Chiapas is an unstable and violent region that Mexican officials refer to as a "tinderbox." It seems that there can be no hope for peace so long as the Zapatistas' grievances remain unaddressed.

The 1994 uprising was staged in response to the enactment of NAFTA, which broke down trade barriers between Mexico, the United States, and Canada. The EZLN protested NAFTA on the grounds that free trade would cause a huge drop in the prices of Mexican exports such as coffee and corn, advancing the interests of landowners and capitalists at the expense of the peasants in the fields. The Zapatistas feel that NAFTA has widened the rich-poor gap in Mexico, fueling their fiercely anti-globalization, anti-capitalist stance.

The EZLN declared the rebellion a success because it had raised international awareness of the class conflict in Chiapas and of NAFTA's negative repercussions. Post-rebellion, the Mexican government promised to enact land redistribution and public works programs as well as a non-discrimination policy toward indigenous peoples. But the government has made little progress in combating poverty and discrimination in the poor regions of Chiapas. Indigenous peoples earn 32 percent as much as their non-indigenous counterparts, and they also face a language barrier because of Mexico's insistence on Spanish education. More importantly, indigenous populations suffer from a decades-old trend of land dispossession, having been driven from fertile lands along the Pacific coast toward the central highlands and eastern rainforests that are less suited for agriculture.

On-and-off dialogue between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government has made little headway toward reducing the equality gap between the indigenous and non-indigenous. The two parties agreed to the San Andres Accords in 1996, which were supposed to guarantee indigenous peoples' autonomy and acknowledge their claim to the territories they used and occupied. But adherence to the Accords has been poor, and indigenous Mexicans still complain of unequal treatment. President Vicente Fox famously promised in 2000 that he would solve the conflict "in 15 minutes," but his solution stalled in negotiations, and new President Felipe Calderon has demonstrated little commitment to resolving the issue. …

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