December 8, 2000


Could Zapatistas Lose Out To Fox In War Of Ideas?

By Martin Espinoza

A year ago, I traveled to La Realidad, Chiapas with hundreds of activists from all over Mexico for a weekend encounter with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). The gathering was an EZLN effort to come up with ways to bridge the gap between itself and an indifferent Mexican public.

For a few days, Mexico's most dedicated activists congregated in a camp-like atmosphere that was charged with a level of electricity few organizations here besides the EZLN are capable of generating. Since ideas are a dangerous thing, it made perfect sense that the camp should be completely surrounded by the Mexican Army and its myriad military checkpoints.

Now, it seems, these checkpoints are to be dismantled and the Mexican Army withdrawn from pro-Zapatista communities, as the Mexico's President Vicente Fox takes the initial steps to make good his pre-election promise to end the six-year-old armed uprising in one of Mexico's poorest states.

Fox also promised to send to congress an Indian-rights initiative backed by the EZLN, and which the former administration quashed.

In response, Subcommander Marcos, the enigmatic, pipe-smoking leader of the Zapatistas, announced that a delegation of masked Zapatistas (including himself) will go to Mexico City to lobby congress to pass the Indian-rights bill. The move is characteristic of Zapatista theatrics.

In a matter of hours, Fox, who toppled the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in elections last July, apparently reversed the former administration's heavy-handed military posture against the EZLN. Also, Fox has said he would work toward meeting conditions set by the EZLN to restart peace talks.

On the surface, it would seem that Mexico is on the road to peace in Chiapas. But the war between the Mexican government and the EZLN is for the most part not a war fought with guns, but with ideas. The EZLN knows this only too well.

In the last six years, Indian rights have been only one part of the Zapatista struggle. Other important aspects include the economic and democratic rights of the poor all across Mexico. In terms of economic policy, the Zapatistas view Fox as being far more conservative than the PRI.

With Fox's internationally celebrated victory over Mexico's 71-year-old autocracy — which some have compared to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of Apartheid — the EZLN must have known that it was in danger of becoming irrelevant.

In fact, the average Mexican citizen views the Zapatistas as criminals, the result of an effective media campaign by the government, especially through television. Consequently, the EZLN enjoys a great deal more support beyond Mexico's borders.

What's more, the proposed projects that came out of the encounter I attended in Chiapas last year fizzled away after only a few months. The activists had failed to construct a network among themselves, let alone bridge the gap between the EZLN and the Mexican public.

At the beginning of 2000 few left-leaning Mexicans believed that Vicente Fox would actually defeat the PRI's candidate, Francisco Labastida. Most probably thought that come December they would be struggling against the same enemy and its usual "neo-liberal" economic policies. The EZLN's Marcos recently said that Fox wants to turn Mexico into a sort of hole-in-the-wall business.

Now they face a president who has the same neo-liberal policies, but is a virtual hero of international democracy. Blinded by their hero's radiance, Mexicans just might unwittingly approve the privatization of the country's electric power and oil industries, which they have vehemently opposed in the past.

It's likely that the EZLN's decision to travel to Mexico was not only an eleventh-hour move to maintain relevance in Mexico's political scene, but also an effort to give the country's reform-minded and left-wing forces a much-needed booster shot. Activists are already talking about an unprecedented show of force and support for the EZLN's Mexico City visit.

In his effort to fulfill his rather brash pre-election promise to "resolve the conflict in Chiapas in 15 minutes," Fox has made the EZLN front page news again. In some ways, Fox has opened a Pandora's Box. It remains to be seen how long the EZLN and Mexican activists can keep it open.

Martin Espinoza reports from Acambaro, Mexico.

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