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Tue Feb 27 11:27:08 MST 2001
Under a New Moon, Resurgent Zapatistas Launch Risky 12 State Trek to
Mexico City for Indian Rights
Mexico Barbaro #1094
February 25, 2001
By John Ross
Reported from Chiapas, Mexico City, and the U.S.
The Denver Colorado cafe was packed to the rafters on a snowy Saturday
night, all eyes glued to the video screen where raw footage of the New
Year's eve takeover of a Chiapas military base by Zapatista rebels was
being displayed. Cheers erupted as the unarmed but ski-masked Indians
pushed aside the automatic weapons of the troops and declared the camp
Denver's Human Being Company is a bastion of solidarity for the
insurgents. Its founder, Kerry Appel, wholesales organic fair trade
coffee he buys from rebel farmers in Chiapas and markets under the
"Zapatista" label. For his efforts, Appel has twice been deported from
Mexico by hostile immigration authorities.
Notwithstanding the dangers, he is packing for another trip south to
accompany the Zapatista Army of National Liberation on its historic 3000
kilometer "March of Indian Dignity" which left San Cristobal de las
Casas in the Mayan highlands of Chiapas February 25th under a new moon
and is programmed to arrive in Mexico City on the 11th of March under a
>From a British Columbia Catholic church to an El Paso farm workers'
meeting hall, Austin Texas to Hollywood California, resurgent interest
in the Zapatista movement is cresting if a recent author's tour of the
North American West is any measure. The EZLN's role in shaping recent
Mexican history is now examined at prestigious academic forums, and
supporters flock to bookstore presentations - three new Zapatista titles
have already been released this year.
The current surge of fascination with the Zapatistas signals an amazing
bounce-back for a rebel band that less than a 100 days ago had
disappeared from public view and whose continued existence was being
questioned after five months of stony silence from its leaders. Despite
ranks riddled by desertion and no material gain to show for seven years
of feisty resistance in the jungles and highlands of Chiapas, the EZLN
has recaptured public imagination both in and outside of Mexico.
The catalyst for this sea change has been Mexico's new president Vicente
Fox who from the first paragraphs of his December 1st inaugural address
extended an olive branch to the long-embattled rebels. Although Fox has
yet to completely meet the three conditions the EZLN has demanded in
exchange for returning to peace talks with the government, he has sent a
much-debated Indian Rights & Culture law onto congress. The ostensible
reason for the Zapatistas' two week trek up to Mexico City is to lobby
that august body for passage of this landmark legislation.
Despite what promises to be a strong international presence, the
Zapatista "march of indigenous dignity" is a profoundly Indian affair
not historically distinct from the civil rights movement in the U.S.
during the 1960s, whose objectives are to achieve first class
citizenship for Mexico's 10,000,000 Indian peoples, long the victims of
a vicious - if largely unspoken - racism.
The Indian Rights law pending before congress would grant the nation's
57 distinct indigenous cultures limited autonomy over political,
judicial, cultural, agrarian, and environmental facets of their
communities and regions.
Indeed, key to the Zapatistas' resiliency in the popular imagination is
the movement's links to a half millennium of Indian resistance to
"This is a march of those who are the color of the earth" the rebels'
colorful spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos declared to 10,000 supporters
cramming the cathedral plaza of San Cristobal de las Casas on the eve of
the Zapatistas' February 24th departure. The EZLN's 1994 uprising
touched a universal nerve of white guilt at the plight of the nation's
first peoples that mobilized Mexican civil society and spread the
rebels' influence throughout the country and the world.
As the conscious vanguard of indigenous militancy, the EZLN whose ethnic
base includes five Chiapas Mayan subgroups, will follow a deeply Indian
route on their march up to the capital. From Chiapas, the Zapatista
delegation - 23 members of the rebels' general command plus its mestizo
spokesperson Marcos - will travel into Oaxaca, a state in which 16
distinct "etnias" (Indian cultures) account for nearly half the general
population, before entering the Nahua (descendants of the Aztecs)
heartland in Puebla, Veracruz, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo, Queretero, and
The EZLN leadership then heads for the Michoacan sierra, the home
grounds of the 300,000-strong Purepecha nation where the Zapatistas will
sit in session with the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), a formation
that includes representatives from most of Mexico's 57 indigenous
peoples, and one that the EZLN was instrumental in assembling five years
Before setting foot in Mexico City, the travelers will pass through
Morelos and Guerrero states to pay homage to their namesake, the
revolutionary martyr Emiliano Zapata, a Nahua farmer himself who fought
for the land of his village. The rebels will follow Zapata's old trail
through the Indian outskirts of Milpa Alta and Xochimilco before finally
touching down in Mexico City, the "Gran Tenochtitlan" of the Aztec
Despite highly publicized efforts by the Fox administration to smooth
the way, the rebels' route is fraught with dangers. Just getting out of
Chiapas, where ranchers and members of the no longer ruling
Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) are viscerally irate at the
turn-around in Zapatista fortunes, could be sticky.
Several business federations have called for the arrest of the EZLN
leaders once they leave Chiapas, pleading with President Fox that the
caravan will be bad for business. One business leader, Raul Picard of
the National Transition Chamber (CANACINTRA), even calculates that
interest rates will leap from 16% to 28% should a Zapatista be injured
or killed during the march.
Leaders of Fox's conservative National Action Party (PAN) in both houses
of congress are stridently opposed to the insurgents' appearance in
their sacrosanct chambers unless the rebels' take off their masks. The
PANista governor of Queretero through whose state the Zapatistas intend
to pass, calls the Indians "cowards" and "traitors" who deserve
execution rather than accolades.
A homophobic PAN congressman in Morelos labels Subcomandante Marcos a
"faggot" and challenges him to a fist fight - Saloman Salgado who
subsequently resigned from Fox's party, suggested that snipers will halt
the advance of the Zapatistas' march.
All along the route, the risk of provocation is latent. Four
non-EZLN-affiliated armed groups operate in the territories which the
Chiapas rebels will traverse and some like the seriously split Popular
Revolutionary Army (EPR) are not friendly.
Although President Fox has promised a police and military escort, the
EZLN asked the International Red Cross to help ferry the comandantes up
to Mexico City. When the IRC claimed that participation in a political
event was beyond its mandate, Subcomandante Marcos accused foreign
secretary Jorge Casteñeda, a former leftist, of forcing the
International Red Cross from the march and setting the rebel leadership
up for ambush.
Even if they arrive unscathed in the capital, the EZLN march is a big
gamble - they must draw crowds equal or surpassing the number of
supporters who have turned out for three previous forays up to the
capital, or risk being ignored by Congress. Even if the turn-out is
considerable, it is doubtful that the Mexican Congress, long insulated
from accountability by political impunity, will respond to the public
outcry for passage of the Indian Rights bill.
For Vicente Fox, the Zapatista march is an equally serious gamble. "I am
risking my political capital" the new president frankly told reporters
on the eve of the march for indigenous dignity. After having lavished
his attentions on the Chiapas rebels during the first hundred days of
his presidency, Fox's credibility hangs in the balance. Defeat of the
Indian Rights bill in Congress would torpedo any chance of an immediate
peace, a promise the President has repeatedly made to the Mexican
Gunfire, arrest, or a no vote in Congress are not the only hazards
facing the EZLN. The shadow of co-optation also creases their path. One
example: the nation's two-headed television monopoly, TV Azteca and
Televisa, long at war over ratings, have declared "peace" to stage a
much hyped "Concert for Paz in Chiapas" in Mexico City's biggest soccer
stadium. Apparently, the commercial opportunities presented by the
Zapatista march have encouraged the battling TV giants to overcome their
adversion towards the EZLN - Televisa and TV Azteca have spent the past
seven years vying to outdo each other in insulting the rebels.
>From the first day of the uprising, Televisa has labeled the Zapatistas
"foreigners" and TV Azteca created hand puppets to mock Marcos and
ex-San Cristobal de las Casas bishop Samuel Ruiz. A TV Azteca helicopter
blew the roof off the local school during an unauthorized landing at the
EZLN's most public outpost of La Realidad, deep in the Lacandon jungle,
and its crews have long been banned from rebel territory. Now the two
monopoly networks are waging a "sign up for peace" campaign that seems
designed to portray the EZLN as intransigent.
"I'm not the Ricky Martin of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation"
Subcomandante Marcos recently told an interviewer, confirming his
boycott of the "concert for peace." What the networks will do with an
estimated four million pesos in profits from the event, is unspecified.
But co-optation is not limited to Televisa and TV Azteca. Ironically,
although the EZLN has long been in the forefront of the battle against
globalization, the globalization of the event threatens the integrity of
the march for indigenous dignity.
Renewed international attention is bringing many luminaries to Mexico -
Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, Spanish troubadour Joaquin Sabina, former
French first lady Danielle Mitterand, and U.S. novelist Susan Sontag are
reportedly booking passage and several thousand international solidarity
workers, including 400 plus foreigners expelled from Mexico for pro-EZLN
activities under former president Ernesto Zedillo, are expected to
accompany the Indians to the capital.
Among the most noticeable: several hundred Italians, members of the
white overall-clad "White Monkeys" who were forcibly removed from the
country in 1998.
Combined with the lionizing of Marcos as an international pop idol, the
inevitable media carnival surrounding the Zapatistas could smother the
very Indian nature of this historic march.
John Ross, author of The War Against Oblivion - Zapatista Chronicles
1994-2000, the season by season saga of the Indian rebellion, will
accompany the March for Indigenous Dignity through central Mexico.
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