Letter from Chiapas: Decolonization and Indigenous Struggle

By Zwarenstein, Carlyn | Canadian Dimension, November-December 2002 | Go to article overview

Letter from Chiapas: Decolonization and Indigenous Struggle


Zwarenstein, Carlyn, Canadian Dimension


I've been here in Mexico City since September visiting my partner, a Mexican labour-rights activist, and his family. Saul and I just got back from a week in Chiapas, the southern state that is Mexico's poorest. Since the mid-1990s, parts of the state have been controlled by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), a guerilla army pushing for Indigenous rights and autonomy, with constant Mexican military presence in the rest of the state. Paramilitary groups also operate in Chiapas--December 25 will be the fifth anniversary of the still un-resolved Acteal massacre, where 45 Indigenous people were killed by paramilitaries allegedly acting with government support.

Official military presence--on a good day already in the tens of thousands of soldiers--has increased dramatically since the Supreme Court recently overturned an application by 330 municipalities against a law on Indigenous rights and culture approved by the Mexican senate in April, 2001. Just as Ontario's Tenant Protection Act abolished rent control under the guise of protecting tenant rights, this new law purports to protect and promote the rights of Indigenous people in Mexico. The people themselves, and their armed representatives, the Zapatistas, disagree, pushing tensions high.

The Supreme Court decision deals a crushing blow to hopes of increased autonomy and improved justice for Indigenous people in the country, as well as halting discussion between the government and the EZLN (which had resulted in the unimplemented San Andreas accords). As the Chiapas-based Fray Bartolome de las Casas Centre for Human Rights wrote last August, the law pushes Indigenous people to the wall by confining rights to a bare minimum far less ample than outlined in the negotiated San Andreas accords.

Like Canada, present-day Mexico is built on the land and blood of its original Indigenous inhabitants. Nowhere is this more evident than here in the capital, a monster metropolis constructed by Spanish conquistadors on the ashes of the capital of the Aztec Empire (downtown you can visit the ruins of Aztec temples excavated during construction of the city's huge and sophisticated metro system). Some 500 years ago, a Spanish priest, Fray Bartolome de las Casas, documented horrible human-rights abuses, murders, enslavement and tortures perpetrated by the colonizers.

Today human-rights activists--including some I met from the eponymous Fray Bartolome Centre--work to document continuing abuses perpetrated against Indigenous people and leaders fighting for self-determination and freedom from crushing poverty. These include death threats, displacements--thousands remain displaced from their homes in more than a dozen Chiapas communities--NGO-documented (but officially uninvestigated) accusations of torture, and the Acteal massacre. …

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