Zapatistas address Mexican Congress

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Mar 29 11:29:12 MST 2001

NY Times, March 29, 2001

Zapatista Leaders Make Their Case to Mexico's Congress


MEXICO CITY, March 28 - In an act of political theater that brought
Mexico's fledgling civil rights movement center stage, masked commanders of
the rebel Zapatistas took the floor of Congress today to defend a proposed
constitutional amendment guaranteeing new rights for the country's 10
million Indians.

For nearly two hours, rebel leaders delivered a series of passionate
speeches, their identities obscured by the black woolen ski masks they say
symbolize the facelessness of indigenous people in Mexico.

They urged a half-full chamber - many lawmakers chose to boycott the
session - to deliver the two-thirds majority vote required to pass an
Indian rights bill known as the San Andrés Accords.

Rebel leaders said the session, broadcast live on two national television
networks, formally marked the end of the Zapatistas' existence as an armed
guerrilla movement confined to the jungles of the southern state of
Chiapas, and their emergence as an open political force.

Underlining that point, the group's mysterious and media-savvy spokesman,
Subcommander Marcos, was conspicuously absent. The 23-member delegation was
led by a Mayan woman who uses the name Commander Esther.

She explained that as the Zapatistas' chief military strategist, Marcos had
no place in their peaceful presentation before Congress.

Dressed in an embroidered blouse and sandals, Commander Esther called
herself the head of a "legitimate and honest" civilian movement. She said
the Zapatistas were prepared to open talks with President Vicente Fox, whom
she praised for complying with their demands for the withdrawal of troops
from seven bases near rebel strongholds.

But she said two more demands must be met before the rebels would agree to
restart formal negotiations - suspended in 1996 - to end their
seven-year-old conflict.

"In this way, we make clear our disposition toward dialogue, toward the
building of agreements and toward achieving peace," Commander Esther said.

The rebels have demanded the release of all Zapatista prisoners. More than
80 have been freed, but the Zapatistas have said others remain in jails in
the states of Tabasco, Veracruz and Querétaro.

The rebels have also demanded the adoption of the indigenous rights
measures, agreed to in negotiations between the rebels and the government
in 1996. President Ernesto Zedillo reneged on his promise to send the bill
to Congress, and it was shelved until Mr. Fox submitted it after he took
office in December.

The rebels' appearance today was the culmination of weeks of drama
surrounding their journey from the wilderness in Chiapas to the boulevards
of Mexico City, and their struggle to win a hearing in Congress. It also
marked the beginning of a fight to pass the rights bill, which aims to
address the historic mistreatment of Mexico's Indian population, the
largest in Latin America.

Suffering the legacy of conquest and slavery, Mexico's Indians endure
disproportionate rates of illiteracy, malnutrition, infant mortality and

President Fox lobbied Congress to accept the rebel delegation and pass the
rights bill, saying Mexico's Indians had been "exploited, humiliated,
robbed and discriminated against." But his efforts were scorned by many
members of his own National Action Party. All but a handful of the party's
legislators boycotted the Zapatistas' speeches today, demonstrating that
winning passage of the law will be difficult, at best.

Lawmakers and political analysts - left, right and center - have raised
questions about the bill, which would amend the Constitution to give
indigenous communities the power of "free determination" and "autonomy as
part of the Mexican state."

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Louis Proyect
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