Zapatismo Resurgent: Land and Autonomy in Chiapas

September 25, 2007

Economic restructuring, embraced by Mexico's leaders after its 1982 crisis of external debt, has reached deeply into the Mexican countryside. In 1992, the Mexican government rewrote Article 27, the agrarian reform section of the Mexican Constitution, bringing an end to the land reform policies that shaped the government's relationship to the peasantry for half a century.[1] In Chiapas, where many land claims had yet to be resolved after languishing in the state bureaucracy for years, the repeal of land reform legislation robbed many peasants not just of the possibility of gaining a piece of land, but, quite simply, of hope.[2] In a 1994 interview, Subcomandante Marcos indicated that the change in Article 27 was the straw that broke the camel's back in persuading the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) to take up arms:

[The government] really screwed us, now that they destroyed Article 27, for which Zapata and his Revolution fought. Salinas de Gortari arrived on the scene with his lackeys, and his groups, and in a flash they destroyed it. We and our families have been sold down the river, or you could say that they stole our pants and sold them off. What can we do? We did everything legal that we could so far as elections and organizations were concerned, and to no avail.[3]

Imagine the rage that built up in the settlement of El Carrizal, where peasants had waited in vain over 11 years for government resolution of their claim to lands. El Carrizal is a community made up of former resident workers from the ranch of San Rafael near Ocosingo. In 1983, these workers learned that the land they had worked for many years as hired hands was going to be sold to other peasants, leaving them without either work or a place to live. They hastily initiated a claim of their own for San Rafael, which for two years went unheeded. In 1985, they went on strike, moved their homes to a site they could defend from expected reprisals, and renewed their claim. Once again it languished, opposed both by ranchers and by other peasant smallholders who coveted the land. Meanwhile, violence broke out. In August of 1988, El Carrizal was burned to the ground by a group of armed men who are said to have acted under the direction of ranchers in cahoots with local police and the army. With support from the Emiliano Zapata Peasant Organization (OCEZ), the El Carrizal peasants marched to San Cristóbal de las Casas, where they camped in protest in the central plaza in front of the San Nicolás church, demanding that agrarian authorities grant their claim. Early in 1989, the government affirmed El Carrizal's legal status pending resolution of the land claim and oversaw rebuilding of the settlement, but violence against El Carrizal continued. When New York Times journalist Anthony DePalma interviewed El Carrizal leaders in February 1994—one month after the Zapatista uprising—they still awaited government resolution of their claim.[4]

The case of El Carrizal poignantly illustrates one of the most troubling aspects of land reform—the fact that the government has sometimes taken years to recognize claims on which peasants' livelihoods depend. Once a community submitted a petition for land, petitioners often had to wait several years before the government recognized their provisional right to occupy and use the land. The process was arduous. State review boards scrutinized the eligibility of the group to ensure it was actually comprised of at least 20 peasant households. They also scrutinized any documented claims to prior ties to the land in question. Then officials surveyed land within a 4.3 mile radius of the community to determine its "affectability"—was it susceptible to expropriation or available for donation to the claimants, or were there competing claims? Finally, state-level authorities recommended to federal superiors whether a grant should be awarded. At that point, claimants were sometimes authorized to use land on a provisional basis. But they had still to wait for a federal review of their claim. If their claim was accepted, they awaited a presidential decree and the actual granting of title before the land was legally theirs. Needless to say, the process was often held up by countervailing claims from landowners and, occasionally, other peasant groups.

According to one study, land claims involved some 22 different government groups and public agencies and a 27-step process requiring almost two years of bureaucratic effort—if the claim was unopposed.[5] In Chiapas, according to the same study, it took an average of just over seven years for the federal government to approve claims that had already been provisionally accepted by state authorities. It is understandable that being forced to "hurry up and wait" caused tremendous strain between peasants in eastern Chiapas, who have generated hundreds of claims in recent decades, and agrarian officials. Yet it is worth noting that claims from Las Margaritas and Ocosingo, the heartland of the Zapatista movement, have actually been resolved from one to two years faster, on average, than elsewhere in Chiapas.[6]

When the Zapatistas launched their rebellion on New Years Day, 1994, Mexico was synonymous with "economic modernization." Indeed, the North American press heralded the election of Harvard-educated Carlos Salinas de Gortari, portraying him as an enlightened technocrat who would lead Mexico into a new economic era. Like leaders of other countries faced with the burden of massive debt restructuring, Salinas de Gortari and the Mexican government chose to pursue the course most favored by foreign debt holders: capitalistic reform. Breaking the social pact with peasants, workers and Mexican business elites that the government had forged after the Revolution, especially in the 1930s, the ruling party began eliminating social programs, privatizing state industries, removing price controls and courting international investment. These measures were applauded by many, but exacted a deep toll on Mexico's poor, especially the rural poor who had been the traditional backbone of support for the government.

It was against this backdrop that Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas burst onto the scene. With their unusual blend of Internet sophistication and rural guerrilla tactics, they drew international attention to the plight of those at the losing end of Mexico's economic globalization, particularly the indigenous groups who were losing both their livelihood and their hopes for self-determination.

In the six years that have passed since the Chiapas rebellion broke out, Zapatismo has come to symbolize the new indigenous rights movement in Mexico. Yet when I began research in Mexico 39 years ago, Emiliano Zapata, although a popular hero in central Mexico, was hardly known among indigenous people in Chiapas.[7] They did remember Venustiano Carranza and Pancho Villa, whose forces were active in Chiapas at the time of the Mexican Revolution. But they thought of agrarian reform (which was won in 1917 by Mexico's original Zapatistas but was not implemented in Chiapas until after 1934) as a government program to benefit them as campesinos. Each year on April 10, the anniversary of Zapata's assassination, the national government would memorialize Zapata as a symbol of Mexico's institutionalized revolutionary commitment, not to Indians per se, but to peasants. These days, no one thinks of Zapata without thinking of Chiapas and Mexico's new indigenous movement. How did this remarkable conceptual change come about?

When activists such as Marcos' predecessors turned to the countryside (as well as to urban barrios) after the government crushed the student movement in 1968, they began to protagonize Zapatismo in areas where Zapata had never acted—in Chiapas and other parts of the country—as a way of holding the national state accountable for fulfilling the agrarian reform inscribed in the law but never completed. In Chiapas, Zapatismo grew after the Indigenous Congress of 1974, as indigenous communities allied themselves with peasants in national organizations such as the OCEZ. Yet even the activists most involved with indigenous populations referred to themselves as campesinistas. Now, after Salinas' 1992 abrogation of agrarian reform and the 1994 Zapatista rebellion, the ruling party has lost virtually any credible claim to Emiliano Zapata as one of its heroes.[8] Zapatismo now symbolizes the demands for fundamental reform of the Mexican state, especially on behalf of indigenous people.

This important symbolic shift is one of many that the Zapatista rebellion has helped consolidate. Before neoliberalism, indigenous groups represented themselves as peasants because most national programs directed to the countryside were for peasants, not for Indians. Mexico's Indian programs, notably those of the National Indianist Institute (INI), were designed more to assimilate indigenous people into the peasantry rather than to help them as Indians. But with economic restructuring, land became more important to economic planners as a market commodity and peasants became more important as a mobile and increasingly transnational labor force. The government thus decided it no longer needed to fund the programs that supported peasants. As resources for rural support dried up, indigenous people found little basis for continuing to represent themselves as peasants rather than to act as distinct and worthy in their own right.[9]

The end of the Cold War also contributed to a conceptual shift in the new indigenous movement because it seemed to invalidate the analysis of Mexican society in terms of Marxist or socialist concepts of class struggle. Much activism on behalf of peasants against the national state had been based on such analysis. Support for indigenous activism, by contrast, reflects the analysis of society in terms of identity and plurality, a new kind of analysis that responds to the world-wide emergence of demands by minority groups for representation and rights.[10]

"Rights" activism became important in Mexico in the 1980s when the universal human rights movement began to protest the repression that the Mexican government had applied to its own urban and rural dissidents after 1968, which occurred even as the country became a haven for those suffering human rights violations under authoritarian regimes such as Pinochet's Chile.[11] Private citizens set up the Mexican Academy for Human Rights in 1984. They argued that Mexico, as a signatory to the UN Charter, had a legal and moral obligation to conform to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and they called on the international community to put pressure on Mexico to do so. Human rights advocacy began to gain ground in Mexico after Amnesty International called attention to repression in rural Mexico that resulted in hundreds of unwarranted jailings, including that of Chiapas journalist Jorge E. Hernández Aguilar, who had written many articles on agrarian injustice and whom Amnesty International identified as a "prisoner of conscience."[12]

In the decade that followed, human rights organizations spread all over Mexico (by 1990 at least 13 were active in Chiapas), pressing Mexico for both electoral and judicial reform. Prisoners began hunger strikes to demand review of their cases, and a distinct concern for indigenous prisoners emerged. For example, in Chiapas in 1987, the Committee for the Defense of Indigenous Liberty (CDLI) pointed out that most of the victims of rural repression in Chiapas were indigenous and that indigenous people make up the majority of the prison population in Chiapas (as is true of African Americans among the prison populations of the United States). The CDLI was particularly strong in northern Chiapas, contributing to new activism on behalf of indigenous rights.

While this activism for indigenous collective rights was new, it built on earlier indigenous rights concerns. As early as the 1950s, INI had pressed for fair treatment of indigenous people before the law. Programs of bilingual education in the 1970s and 1980s prefigured later demands for linguistic rights, which Maya nationalists in neighboring Guatemala began to demand in the late 1980s.[13] Prominent Mexicans such as Guillermo Bonfil had called in the 1980s for a pluricultural Mexico to accord indigenous people greater political participation and recognition.[14] But in the 1990s, for the first time, indigenous collective rights were being treated as distinct from citizenship rights or general human rights and thus deserving of separate legal recognition—another symbolic and conceptual shift.[15]

In 1990, Mexico ratified additions to the International Labor Organization (ILO) charter, including Conventions 107 and 169, which accord specific collective rights to cultural and ethnic minorities and require nation states to protect their indigenous communities. Convention 169 had provided a strong legal basis for indigenous groups in Guatemala to demand protection of cultural rights after the Guatemalan war wound down in the 1980s. In Mexico it helped activists pressure the government to revise Article 4 of the Mexican Constitution in 1992 to recognize Indians for the first time as part of a pluricultural nation and to accord them rights. As the year of the Columbian Quincentennial, 1992 also brought hemisphere-wide indigenous activism to bear on Mexicans organizing for indigenous rights. Indigenous groups from around the nation formed the Mexican Committee for "500 Years of Indigenous, Black and Popular Resistance" and contributed to marches on behalf of indigenous rights, including the Xi Nich (Ants) march from northern Chiapas to Mexico City.[16]

The movements from peasant to indigenous concerns, from class to identity, and from individual human rights to indigenous collective rights have all been apparent within the Zapatista movement itself. The Zapatista movement grew out of decades of peasant organizing. When the Zapatistas first called for revolution on January 1, 1994, they used the rhetoric of socialism to appeal for support from other parts of the country, urban as well as rural, that have less indigenous representation and activism than Chiapas. On behalf of Mexico's indigenous and non-indigenous poor, they demanded land, work, housing, nutrition, health, education, liberty, democracy, peace and justice. These points provided the basis for negotiation with government representative Camacho Solís before the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio in March 1994. Later, after rejecting the Camacho accords, the Zapatistas convoked their first Aguascalientes convention to promote a national movement for constitutional reform. But when the Second Aguascalientes convention from November 2-4, 1994 drew a disappointing turnout, the Zapatistas began to heed the calls of indigenous groups elsewhere in Chiapas and Mexico, such as the Chiapas State Indigenous Peasant Council (CEOIC) and the Indigenous Peoples Independent Front (FIPI), who, together with non-indigenous scholars and writers working as advisors, called for more explicitly indigenous demands, notably collective rights of "autonomy."[17] In December 1994, the Zapatistas announced that they were setting up 37 autonomous municipalities in the regions of Chiapas under their control.[18] [See "A Day in a Zapatista Autonomous Community" by Tim Russo, also in Vol 33 No 5, March/April 2000]

"Autonomy" hardly existed as a concept in rural Chiapas before 1994. Mexican law accords certain kinds of autonomy to universities, to labor unions, to the municipio libre, and to the recently-formed National Human Rights Commission (CNDH). In some parts of the Americas, indigenous communities have legally recognized tribal governments and enjoy some autonomy within state law (as in the United States), and others form part of autonomous regions (the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua, for example), but not in Mexico. It is true that indigenous communities in Mexico enjoy a certain degree of de facto autonomy in the practices of customary law inherited from the colonial era. The government has also found it convenient to allow them to run some of their internal affairs under traditional authorities. In the 1980s, some indigenous communities held up their right to usos y costumbres (usual and customary practices, but also supposedly "traditional" and culturally distinctive practices). But the idea of legally recognized collective rights of "autonomy" was little known until the indigenous rights movement gained momentum in the 1990s.[19]

Now, six years after the Chiapas uprising began, "autonomy" has become the central demand of the Zapatista movement. Autonomy was the central basis of the San Andrés accords negotiated with the government on February 16, 1996 but subsequently rejected by Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. Autonomy has continued to be what the Zapatistas have turned to the world to hold the Mexican government accountable for through Zapatista-organized referenda. In conjunction with their supporters in Mexico and other parts of the world the Zapatistas convoked a Consulta (referendum) on autonomy on March 21, 1999, which won support from more than three million balloters in Mexico and other parts of the world for demands that the Mexican government honor the accords.[20]

There are many provisions of the San Andrés accords, but the fundamental agreement is for a new, constitutionally based "social pact" recognizing indigenous pueblos as having collective rights within a framework of autonomy. The agreement provided a framework for consideration of other issues in future negotiations: legislation to recognize indigenous economic, political and social rights as collective rights. It calls for judicial reform to recognize indigenous norms as different and at the same time legitimate. Indigenous culture is to be promoted, together with education and training that respects and uses indigenous traditional knowledge. The accords recognize the need for new laws, both state and federal, to implement the agreements. Under the accords, indigenous people are to be key actors in forging the new relation to the state, defining themselves as groups, organizing themselves within a framework of state and national government, and managing many aspects of their own internal governance and administration.[21]

Autonomy, as defined in the San Andrés accords, is a lofty agenda for Mexico's new indigenous movement. But what are the chances that the government will grant it? And what are the prospects for the movement? I believe that the answers to these questions may lie in the profound structural changes that Mexico continues to undergo as a consequence of neoliberalism. The changes give rise both to pessimism and optimism for the movement's future.

As the world has changed, so has Mexico. Where the international labor movement has failed to find ways of confronting the daunting transnational mobility of capital and industry, the new indigenous movement has at least succeeded in building transnational networks to stave off and in some cases reverse the forces that threaten indigenous peoples. The new indigenous movement's revindication of collective rights and autonomy has been acknowledged by the world. It may yet bear fruit.

George A. Collier is Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus at Stanford University, where he has also served as Chair of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Latin American Studies. He is the author of several books, including Fields of the Tzotzil: The Ecological Bases of Tradition in Highland Chiapas (University of Texas Press, 1975), and Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas (Food First, 1999). This article is based on excerpts from Basta! and is reprinted with permission from the publishers. Basta! may be purchased by calling 1 (800) 243-0138.

1. For a concise yet thorough summary of the changes made in Article 27 and the Agrarian Code, see Wayne A. Cornelius, "The Politics and Economics of Reforming the Ejido Sector in Mexico: An Overview and Research Agenda," LASA Forum, Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 3-10.
2. Gary H. Gossen, "Comments on the Zapatista Movement," Cultural Survival Quarterly, No. 18 (1994), p. 20.
3. Tiempo (San Cristóbal de Las Casas), January 20, 1994, p. 3.
4. New York Times, February 27, 1994, p. 6.
5. María Eugenia Reyes Ramos, El reparto de tierras y la pólitica agraria en Chiapas, 1914-1988 (Mexico City: UNAM, 1992), pp. 101-102.
6. In Las Margaritas and Ocosingo, claims were resolved in 5.6 years and 5.79 years respectively, on average, as compared to 7.36 years for Chiapas as a whole. Reyes Ramos, El reparto de tierras y la pólitica agraria en Chiapas, 1914-1988, pp. 150-151.
7. For more on Zapata and his popular legacy for the peasants of central Mexico, see John Womack Jr., Zapata and the Mexican Revolution (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1969); and Arturo Warman, "We Come to Object:" The Peasants of Morelos and the National State; translated by Stephen K. Ault (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980).
8. After 1994, the government removed Zapata's portrait from the ten peso bill in Mexican currency, perhaps so as to mute attention to the Zapatistas in Chiapas.
9. See Luis Hernández Navarro, Chiapas: La nueva lucha india (Madrid: Talasa, 1998), p. 11.
10. For more on the emergence of identity in the new global order, see Manuel Castells, The Power of Identity. Vol. 2 of The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997).
11. See Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998).
12. Amnesty International, Mexico: Human Rights in Rural Areas (London: Amnesty International, 1986).
13. Kay B. Warren, Indigenous Movements and Their Critics: Pan-Maya Activism in Guatemala (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).
14. Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, México profundo: Una civilización negada (Mexico City: Grijalbo, 1990). Also, the presence of several thousand Guatemalan indigenous refugees in camps along the Chiapas border in the 1980s contributed to concern for indigenous rights. For a discussion of the reception of human rights discourse among indigenous refugees resettled near San Cristóbal de Las Casas, see Christine Kovic, Walking with One Heart: Human Rights and the Catholic Church among the Maya of Highland Chiapas, Ph.D. dissertation, City University of New York (1997).
15. A Forum for Rights of Indigenous Peoples was convoked in Matías Romero, Oaxaca in 1989. See Luis Hernández Navarro and Ramón Vera Herrera, eds., Acuerdos de San Andrés (Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 1998).
16. For background on the indigenous organizing of the 1970s and 1980s and its relation to the Zapatista movement, see Margarito Ruiz Hernández and Araceli Burguete Cal y Mayor, "Chiapas: Organización y lucha indígena al final del milenio (1974-1998)," Asuntos Indígenas, No. 3 (1998).
17. The government destroyed this convention center in 1995, but the Zapatistas simply moved their "Aguascalientes" to other locations, such as Oventik (near Simojovel), La Realidad (in the Lacandon Jungle), three other locations in Zapatista territory and even the San Francisco Bay area. Aguascalientes has become a symbolic location that can move from place to place as a forum for meeting with civilians, similar to "town hall" meetings in the United States.
18. For the role of FIPI, CEOIC and other organizations in bringing autonomy to the center of the Zapatista agenda, see Margarito Ruiz Hernández and Araceli Burguete Cal y Mayor, "Chiapas: Organización y lucha indígena al final del milenio (1974-1998)."
19. Autonomy had been an important goal of the 1991 Second Continental Meeting of Indigenous, Black and Popular Resistance, in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, involving representatives of 51 ethnic groups from all over the Americas. See Kay B. Warren, Indigenous Movements and Their Critics.
20. For the most useful discussion of the San Andrés accords, see Luis Hernández Navarro and Ramón Vera Herrera, eds., Acuerdos de San Andrés.
21. For a discussion on autonomy see Aracely Burguete Cal y Mayor, "Remunicipalización en Chiapas: Los retos," CEMOS Memoria, Vol. 114 (1998), pp. 14-25; Aracely Burguete Cal y Mayor, ed., México: Experiencias de Autonomía Indígena, (Copenhagen and Guatemala City: IWGIA: Ediciones Cholsamaj, 1999); Héctor Díaz Polanco, Autonomía regional: La autodeterminación de los pueblos indios (Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1991); and La rebelión zapatista y la autonomía (Mexico City: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1997); Xóchitl Leyva, Mercedes Olivera and Aracely Burguete, "Los pasos atrás en la Ley Albores," in supplement to La Jornada (Mexico City), March 28, 1999.

Tags: peasantry, Zapatistas, rural politics, social movements, autonomy, Mexico

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