Chiapas: An Uprising Born of Despair

By Renner, Michael | World Watch, January-February 1997 | Go to article overview

Chiapas: An Uprising Born of Despair


Renner, Michael, World Watch


In Mexico, as in many developing societies, millions of people are trapped in a crucible of poverty, poisoned environments, and violent political repression. The Zapatista revolt shows why the fate of such people has become a pressing political challenge the world over.

On New Year's Day 1994, a group of towns in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, was seized by a ragtag peasant army composed mainly of indigenous Mayan people. Two weeks and at least 145 deaths later, the government had forced the Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional, or EZLN) to retreat to its jungle strongholds in the eastern portion of the state. That New Year's Day also marked the coming into force of the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA, the treaty intended to integrate Mexico, the United States, and Canada into a unified trading bloc.

In a sense, NAFTA and the EZLN are the forces that define modern Mexico. Resolving the tensions of that troubled society will require a view broad enough to embrace both the rarefied world of international finance, and dirt-poor towns where most people don't even have access to proper latrines. Dealing with the tensions in places like Chiapas is a matter of prime international importance: the poverty, environmental degradation, and social inequities that underlie Mexico's troubles can be found throughout the developing world.

Worldwide, about 1.3 billion people, or 23 percent of the global population, live in poverty, according to the United Nations. At least 600 million of these people live in "absolute poverty" - a condition only several hundred calorics a day away from the slide into starvation. Some 1.2 billion people are landless or do not have access to enough land to feed themselves. At least 400 million people live in ecologically fragile areas - areas where drought, deforestation, pollution, and other forms of environmental degradation are putting increasing numbers of livelihoods at risk. Some 120 million people are unemployed, while another 700 million are working long hours for next to nothing. Today, the richest 20 percent of the world's people have 150 times the income of the poorest 20 percent - a disparity that, to varying degrees, can be found in virtually every country.

The Zapatistas present a genuine challenge to the Mexican version of this predicament - but the challenge is really political, not military. They take their name and their basic ideology from Emiliano Zapata, the leader of a peasant army during the Mexican Revolution of 1911 to 1917. After his assassination in 1919, Zapata became a figure of mythic proportions and a source of inspiration for Mexican campesinos, as small-scale farmers and farm laborers are called. The Zapatistas' ideals can perhaps best be summed up in a slogan they adopted from that earlier peasant army: "the land belongs to those who work it." But despite their rhetoric, the Zapatistas are not revolutionary in the usual sense of the term. In contrast to most Latin American guerrilla movements, the EZLN has insisted from its inception that it has no interest in overthrowing, the government. It sees itself as involved in a desperate struggle for democracy - and its leaders have a clear record of practicing what they preach. At every turn of events they have taken pains to consult with their supporters. In its talks with the government, for instance, the EZLN has made a point of having proposed agreements ratified by its constituency.

Even in Mexico, few people had heard of the EZLN before January 1994, but the movement dates back to at least 1983. In the poor communities of eastern Chiapas, people have long been keenly aware that the deck is stacked against them. Enormous economic inequalities, a political system that is almost completely unaccountable to its poorer constituents, desperate poverty, and the degradation of the land: these are facts of life in Chiapas, and to growing numbers of the poor, they made a strong case for the EZLN. …

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