Mexico Galvanized by Chiapas Uprising: Several Social Strata Challenge Old Corruption

Article excerpt

MEXICO CITY, Mexico -- The Jan. 1 uprising of the EZLN, the Zapatista National Liberation Front, is reaching far beyond the jungles and highlands of Mexico's southern Chiapas state, arousing new hopes from within Mexico' popular movements and among the grass-roots poor.

Political analysts, members of the Catholic church, academics, popular leaders and street vendors alike say events in Chiapas have prompted a nationwide impulse that could eventually loosen the ironclad grip of the PRI, the Revolutionary Institutional Party, which has ruled Mexico with corrupt and hard-line tactics for 70 years.

"This was like a missile hitting the heart of the political class in Mexico City. It's a historic defiance," said Adolfo Aguilar, campaign leader for the opposition Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD), in an interview with the Mexican daily Excelsior.

Mexican historian and journalist Francisco Guerrero put it just as bluntly: "It's a fact. Mexico today is a different country than it was before Jan. 1."

One one hand, a breakdown is occurring from within the political system. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has scrambled to appease public opinion and moderates in his own party by shuffling a variety of cabinet and political posts. The highest-level switch was the dismissal of Interior Minister Patrocinio Gonzalez, notorious for having been one of the most repressive governors who ever reigned in impoverished Chiapas.

Salinas replaced Gonzalez with Jorge Carpizo, a former attorney general and human rights commission leader who is not a member of the PRI.

"Salinas had to appoint someone who had credibility, even if this is the first time since 1928 that such an important post has been filled by a non-PRI member," Guerrero said.

Salinas also yanked landowner Elmer Setzer from the governorship of Chiapas. Indigenous leaders from the Chamul del Carmen communities in Chiapas denounced Setzer as one of the most repressive ranchers in the area. And Salinas appointed former Mexico City Mayor Manuel Camacho, a respected moderate whom many call the PRI's prime "negotiator," to represent the government at the negotiating table with the Zapatistas.

Activity has reached far beyond the political elites, however. Lawyers are calling for the popular election of judges in a nation where judicial authorities have been notoriously corrupted by the PRI for decades. And Catholics lobbying for greater religious freedom within the church are demanding the resignation of papal nuncio Geronimo Prigione. A Vatican hard-liner, Prigione recently attempted to oust Samuel Ruiz, a candidate for the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize and the bishop of the Chiapan diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, the heart of the Zapatista uprising.

La Jornada, a newspaper known for its scathing criticism of the PRI, has almost doubled circulation in the past six weeks. And protests and sit-ins have livened Mexico City's Zocalo, or central square, almost every day since the Zapatista uprising. The plaza-goers, who demand a stop to repression and respect for constitutional freedoms, "participate of their own free will and not because a party leader told them to," said Emilio Icaza of CENCOS, an ecumenical think-tank.

Guerrero said, "People are no longer afraid of the government. Even the press has let go of its fear of the government. And people have even lost respect of the nuncio!"

This thrust of energy is also stirring the grassroots. Analysts say people from church, political and popular movements are joining to take the political fate of their country back into their own hands. The rumblings at all levels take on special importance with presidential elections approaching in August.

"This has brought a new hope to independent organizations. And it isn't just hope: We are really moving. We are finding ways to wind up our batteries again," said Yolanda Pinales, a street vendor who also works at a community center for poor women. …