One fly in the ointment of the Carrasco proposal: it fails to mention the root of current tensions--the pervasive militarization of rebel base communities in the jungle and highlands of Chiapas. The EZLN has repeatedly conditioned its return to the bargaining table on the withdrawal of 36,000 Mexican army troops to positions held prior to a mammoth military advance ordered by President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon in February 1995.
Since August, Mexican troops and Tojolabal Indian rebel supporters have been standing nose to nose in a jungle village called Amador Hernandez, where the government is trying to build a road the villagers say opens up EZLN base communities in the region to army harassment. Two pro-rebel Indians were shot by army patrols in nearby San Jose de la Esperanza Aug. 25, and soldiers now use plastic truncheons and US- supplied tear gas against protesters.
The Sept. 7 government initiative professes endorsement of accords signed by the Zapatistas and Zedillo's representatives in the highland village of San Andres Sakamch'en de los Pobres on Feb. 16, 1996, one of the most far-reaching agreements on Indian rights and culture ever pacted in Latin America.
The San Andres Accords, which guaranteed a modicum of autonomy for Mexico■s 56 distinct Indian Peoples (Pueblos Indios), was subsequently vetoed by the President on the grounds that the agreement opened the door to Indian secession from the nation--rather, insist those who negotiated San Andres, the document for the first time integrates Indian people into Mexico on their own terms.
Zedillo's veto led to stagnation, increased militarization, and spiraling violence in Chiapas--the bloodshed reached epic proportions when, in December 1997, a government-affiliated paramilitary group butchered 45 pro-Zapatista Tzotzil Indians at Acteal in the highlands. Fueled by short-tempered interim Governor Roberto Albores Guillen, current tensions in the jungle, where army troops and shadowy paramilitary formations are closing in on rebel communities, have spurred fears of an Acteal rerun.
While professing support for the San Andres Accords, the "new" government offer is actually directed at moving Indian rights legislation submitted by Zedillo to the Mexican Senate in March 1998 in a thinly disguised effort to paper over worldwide condemnation of the Acteal killings. The president's measure has been frozen in committee for months because of a lack of consensus by the political parties.
Zedillo's Indian rights law, which is bitterly opposed by both the EZLN and the National Indigenous Congress, a grouping of representatives from most of the nation's Indian peoples, shrinks the San Andres Accords to village size, voids viable autonomy, and denies Indian "territoriality," as defined by the Organization of International Labor (OIT in Spanish) Convention 169, a universal norm for the self- determination of native peoples, which was ratified by Mexico nine years ago.
The EZLN has long supported a legislative version of the Indian rights accords drawn up by the COCOPA, the legislative commission that oversaw the long-dead negotiations. The COCOPA version is also backed by the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). In a historic consulta with the Mexican people, over 3,000,000 citizens voted to endorse the COCOPA interpretation in an EZLN-sponsored national referendum last Mar. 21.
Now the not-so-new Zedillo-Carrasco strategy is to move the president■s dormant Indian rights bill during the current session of the Mexican Senate, where the long-ruling (70 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) holds an overwhelming majority. Last time the administration sought to push the measure out of committee, thousands of Indians gathered before the building and blocked access in and out of the legislature.
The new twist in this old ploy is the government's offer to the EZLN to integrate the COCOPA version of San Andres in Zedillo's proposed law. Although response from the EZLN has not yet been published, COCOPA member Gilberto Lopez y Rivas, a PRD deputy who was a lead adviser to the Zapatistas during the San Andres negotiations, considers that the rebels will not be mollified by the government's "new" offer: "The agreement was signed by both the EZLN and the government and agreements are reached to be fulfilled--not renegotiated." The PRD has made it clear that it will not participate in legislative debate on San Andres unless the EZLN agrees to reopen negotiations on the accords
Moving the Indian rights debate to the Congress of the country could provide the EZLN with a platform to galvanize national attention on the issue and suggests the tantalizing spectacle of the rebels' charismatic spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos taking the podium in the Senate during a highly charged political year in which the three major parties are bracing for July 2, 2000 presidential elections.
Passage of Zedillo's Indian rights bill is all but assured by the PRI majority in the Senate, but success in the lower house, where the PRD and the conservative National Action Party (PAN) hold the edge, is not as certain. Although the PAN has often broken ranks with the leftists and voted with the PRI on substantive issues, it is a presidential year and the conservatives are trying to sell themselves to the electorate as a party of the opposition.
Other facets of the government's Sept. 7 open letter to the rebels border on the insulting. After forcing the dismemberment of the mediating body headed by retiring San Cristobal de las Casas bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia (known as the CONAI), the government is now offering to form a new mediation mechanism that will limit Church participation-- the EZLN is unlikely to take part in any new negotiations without the inclusion of representatives of the San Cristobal diocese. The government proposal is emphatic that only Mexicans will be allowed a seat at any new negotiations--a veiled reference to recent declarations by Costa Rican Nobel laureate Oscar Arias that international mediation is needed to revive peace talks.
Carrasco's open letter to the rebels also offers to investigate paramilitary activities and other human rights abuses in zones of Zapatista influence--tacit admission that up until now federal and state agencies have failed to act against such egregious violations of the Mexican Constitution. Indeed, both the Zedillo government and Governor Albores have consistently denied the existence of paramilitary formations in Chiapas--even after the horrendous massacre at Acteal.
Apparently responding to three-year-old EZLN conditions for restarting dialogue, the Zedillo government is also offering to release up to 100 Zapatista sympathizers currently imprisoned in Cerro Hueco, the maximum-security Chiapas lockup, provided they are not charged with crimes of violence. Most of the prisoners were taken in state police- federal army assaults on four EZLN self-declared autonomous municipalities during spring 1998 and include human rights observers who were trapped in the villages during the roundup.
Gathered together in La Voz de Cerro Hueco (The Voice of Cerro Hueco), the Zapatista prisoners have long been denied due process and their cases have not proceeded for months. Others are charged with new crimes allegedly committed by persons who share the same name--with a limited number of family names, Chiapas Indians are often imprisoned for the deeds of their homonyms.
"The prisoners who make up the Voice of Cerro Hueco are not criminals--they are political prisoners whose constitutional rights are being trampled on by the state of Chiapas," affirms their long-time lawyer, Miguel Angel de los Santos. The attorney fears Carrasco's initiative will only postpone the release of some of his clients, who are scheduled to go home in the next months. Dangling the Cerro Hueco prisoners as bait to lure the EZLN back to the negotiating table is probably doomed to failure. Back in 1995, after 21 alleged Zapatistas were rounded up by Zedillo's secret police, the EZLN denounced the government for taking hostages but refused to negotiate their release.
Why the Zedillo government has waited until this late date to promulgate a "new" peace offering remains impenetrably murky. Carrasco, who last spring replaced Francisco Labastida Ochoa, Zedillo's personal choice for the PRI presidential nomination, has been promising a fresh start ever since he sat down at the desk. As governor of Oaxaca, the new interior secretary once signed off on a law allowing Indians in that highly indigenous state to vote by traditional assemblies ("uses and customs") rather than by paper ballot--a key provision of the San Andres Accords as well.
But Carrasco's predilection for Indian affairs does not completely account for the sudden Zedillo government turnaround on peace talks during a presidential election year, when most observers have assumed there would be no movement on either side until the shape of the new government is defined. Perhaps, as some suggest, the PRI and the government it has stage-managed for the past seven decades simply want to take the moral high ground on the nagging Indian Question during a fiercely contested electoral year.
Or perhaps the Zedillo peace offer is really a muffled ultimatum that could culminate in the long-anticipated final offensive if the EZLN turns it down. "The government is proposing that the Zapatista negotiate with a gun to their head," Lopez y Rivas calculates. "That is not going to happen." [Author, correspondent, activist, and aging bon vivant John Ross will be on the road (Washington, DC, Philadelphia, New York City) from Sept. 20 through Oct. 4.]
======================================================================= Weekly News Update on the Americas * Nicaragua Solidarity Network of NY 339 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10012 * 212-674-9499 fax: 212-674-9139 http://home.earthlink.net/~dbwilson/wnuhome.html * firstname.lastname@example.org =======================================================================
[This number of Mexico Barbaro is being distributed free by special permission of the author. Please feel free to repost it. -DW]
John Kenneth Turner wrote MEXICO BARBARO as the Diaz dictatorship was crumbling back in 1910. John Ross reincarnates MEXICO BARBARO as the PRI dictatorship comes tumbling down nearly 90 years later. Copyright 1999 by John Ross. Please do not reproduce before end of period in head. Distributed by WEEKLY NEWS UPDATE ON THE AMERICAS. 48 articles per year; for subscription (postal or email) contact: Weekly News Update on the Americas, 339 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10012 "New" Government Peace Plan for Chiapas Is Not So New Period: Sept. 20-26, 1999, #179 MEXICO CITY