Chiapas

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri May 4 17:12:35 MDT 2001


Julio Huato:
>Luis Echeverría funeled funds and organized a large bureacracy aimed to 
>revive the ejido and the comunidad (and boost the PRI) with public funds.  
>Many of the ejidos were Marcos and the EZLN emerged were formed during this 
>period.  They were given land in the Lacandona Jungle as Echeverría hated 
>the latifundistas in Chiapas and wanted to punish them.  (In that particular 
>case, it would have helped immensely if Echeverría had carried out a full 
>confiscation and distribution of the land from those latifundistas to the 
>Indians, which are of the old precapitalist type.  Echeverría didn't dare in 
>this case touch the best land, which he did in Sonora.)  It didn't work 
>either.  The goods traditional agriculture produced were getting very cheap 
>in the foreign markets and they were just easier to import. 

Julio has written a very long post and it is directed to Nestor. So I will
of course allow Nestor to deal with the substance of it. However, I do want
to deal with the question of land and whether the Mexican government wanted
"to revive the ejido." If this was the case, we are in a poor position to
understand the Zapatista revolt which revolves around land hunger, by all
accounts. (The "ejido" is a land title that generally applies to Indian
communities. If you respect the claims of an ejido, it means that you
responding to the demand for land.)

While the Mexican Revolution, extending on and off for some decades
following 1910, delivered the most substantial land reform in Latin
American history, it never broke from the capitalist system. So the
contradictions of the capitalist system have attacked the land claims of
the indigenous peoples and the peasants, no matter how sweeping the various
land reform acts. In Peru and Guatemala, semi-feudalism confronted the
largely Indian peasantry. In Mexico, it has instead been the undiluted
machinations of capitalism itself.

In 1914, as a consequence of the original Zapata revolution, debt slavery
became illegal in Mexico. Even though this semi-feudal institution
disappeared, the naked forces of capitalism continued to kept the peasant
oppressed. The most notable example was the ability of non-Indians to
purchase communal lands owned by impoverished Indian communities in the
highlands of southern Mexico. In their place, cattle ranches and coffee
plantations soon appeared. Now that the landless peasant had to earn his
wage, he had no choice except to work for the capitalist rancher or farmer.
The formal debt slavery may have disappeared, but the Indian farmhand
stayed tied to the "padron."

A new upsurge in the Mexican Revolution took place in the 1930s during the
administration of President Lazaro Cardenas, father of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas.
Responding to the plight of the peasants who never received the full land
benefit of land in 1914, he enacted a new agrarian reform. Cardenas, like
FDR, had no committment to total social transformation. His reforms, like
our own New Deal, served to stabilize the capitalist system itself. By
co-opting the Mexican peasantry, as FDR was attempting to do vis-à-vis the
American working-class, Cardenas hoped to reduce social inequality and
boost confidence in the social system in one fell swoop.

His main concern was to help Mexico recuperate from the devastating effects
of the 1929 crash. The Great Depression curtailed demand for Mexican
exports, which resulted in the loss of foreign capital that the bourgeoisie
required for industrial development. Cardenas put forward an alternate
development model. He instituted a six-year plan that would replace
export-oriented agriculture with new domestic industrialization based on
peasant production of cheap food. In order to free up land for the
production of foodstuffs for the internal market, the government began to
expropriate land from stagnant commercial estates. The state turned land
over to ejidos, which the largely Indian peasant communities controlled.
Chiapas benefited substantially from this land reform and a base for the
governing PRI party that extended well into the 1960s.

Even though the powerful PRI party had committed itself to land reform,
there were serious obstacles to its implementation in Chiapas. The main
problem is that it sometimes took years for the government agencies to
adjudicate land claims. The endemic lack of democracy in Mexico means that
corruption and favoritism often determines who gets land. The review
process is also a frustrating bureaucratic experience.

"According to one study, land claims involved some twenty-two different
government groups and public agencies and a twenty-seven-step process
requiring almost two years of bureaucratic effort, if the claim was
unopposed. In Chiapas, according to the same study, it took an average of
more than seven years for the federal government to approve claims that had
already been provisionally accepted by state authorities. It is
understandable that being to 'hurry up and wait' caused strain between
peasants in eastern Chiapas, who have generated hundreds of claims in
recent decades, and agrarian officials." (George Collier, "Basta!: Land and
the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas")

We can compare the process to securing an apartment in public housing in
New York City, where you have to have influential friends in the
bureaucracy. In the meantime, you have to either live on the streets or on
the couches of friends. Picture that process in the context of a tenfold
economic misery and you might understand what was causing the Chiapas
peasantry to turn to armed struggle. Not only would you not have a place to
live, neither would you have food to eat since you lacked land to grow your
own and the cash to buy any in the stores.

Before they picked up the gun, they organized themselves into aboveground,
legal protest groups. The most significant example was the Indigenous
Congress that met in 1974 in order to codify Mayan demands. This Congress
met at almost the same exact time as a similar gathering taking place in
Nicaragua to promote Miskitu interests during the Somoza regime. In both
Mexico and Nicaragua, the Church played a key role in bringing Indian
activists together. In Mexico, stepped up activity soon followed as
catechists met with indigenous leaders throughout Chiapas. Since Chiapas
was home to many Protestant sects as well, the activists decided to create
a nonsectarian movement. This led them to found Popular Politics in 1978,
which gradually began to reduce the role of the church-based catechists.

In a by now depressing pattern, the Marxist movement in Mexico did not
greet the mobilization of indigenous peoples with universal acclaim. George
A. Collier comments that "many intellectuals denied the political potential
of the country's indigenous peoples and claimed that they were not worth
organizing because they represented an anachronistic, regressive sector of
society that impeded the development of the proletarian class consciousness
needed to overthrow capitalism." In other words, they were dogmatic Marxists.

Other left-leaning intellectuals disagreed. Arturo Warman, author of We
Come to Object: The Peasants of Morelos and the National State," argued
that peasant production, spurred by Lazaro Cardenas's agrarian reform in
the 1930s, had been indispensable to the development of Mexico's urban
economy by providing cheap food and thus enabling industry to keep wages
low." Alain de Janvry concluded that peasants were really semiproletarians
because they also sold their labor in the cities on a seasonal or part-time
basis. What was presumably lacking in their scholarship, however, was an
engagement with the indigenous as opposed to class interests of the
peasants. This economic reductionism was not as deadly as that of their
ideological foes, but was still a hindrance to a deeper understanding and a
poor guide to action.

What finally drove the Chiapas peasantry to the point of revolt was
ironically the oil-boom of the 1970s. Capitalist (and vulgar Marxist)
development models assume that as wage labor and capitalist agriculture
displace subsistence agriculture, the result will be benign. Smiling
factory workers will enjoy the bounties of consumer goods at their local
grocery. Many peasants went to work in the oil and related construction
industries in southern Mexico in this period, but the results were
increasing misery. The way in which this took place is a telling case study
of why capitalism is an irrational system.

After OPEC raised oil prices in 1972, the Mexican government decided to
expand production for the export market. In a world glutted by
petrodollars, it found it easy to finance the expansion of oil production
and ambitious infrastructure projects. The government completed two major
hydroelectric power projects in Chiapas. As the oil economy heated up, the
southeastern portion of the country began to supply Mexico with half of its
hydroelectric power and much of the oil for export.

During this same period, Mexican agriculture went into a steep decline as
the country experienced what some development economists refer to as oil
syndrome, or Dutch disease. This refers to how export booms, oil in
particular, undermine other sectors of a country's economy. The Dutch
experienced this phenomenon when North Sea gas development caused other
branches of the economy to wither. There is nothing that finance capital
loves better than a quick buck. In Mexico's case, while oil-centric
industry expanded from 27 percent of the GDP in 1965 to 38 percent in 1982,
the agricultural share fell by half.

A radical transformation of social relations in the countryside was taking
place behind this rather dry set of statistics. Farmworkers left the
countryside in huge numbers to take up employment in Mexico City or the
United States. During the presidency of Luis Echeverria (1970-76),
agriculture shifted from basic staples like corn to export crops such as
fruit and beef. When 1980 arrived, Mexico was importing 25 percent of its
corn.

Some of the Chiapas peasantry was fortunate enough to land jobs in the new
oil and construction industries. The entry of these people into the wage
economy spawned a new class of upwardly mobile businessmen in the region.
When a construction worker invested his wages into a trucking, retail or
construction company, it became possible to move up rapidly in the humble
Chiapas economic hierarchy. That many of these new entrepreneurs were
Indians themselves did not lessen the class oppression as the rich took
advantage of the poor in the changing economy.

The biggest changes occurred in agriculture, however. Peasants who invested
their wages in "improved" farming techniques transformed the landscape of
Chiapas as they discovered the dubious benefits of pesticides and
herbicides. This meant that fewer peasants could produce more commodities
for the export market, but the old communal ties began to break down as
class differences divided wealthy peasants from the "redundant" ones. This
process was extreme in the region of Zinacanteco, as Collier describes:

"The chemically intensive, but not labor intensive, method of farming also
undermined the social organization of many peasant hamlets by removing a
certain safety net of mutual dependence that kept young and poor people who
needed food bound to their older and wealthier neighbors who, when weeding
and cultivating had been done by hand, needed people to help them. Prior to
the 1980s, Zinacantan had been a place where the disadvantaged could count
on others for their basic livelihoods as long as they were willing to help
out with corn production. But as maize cultivation was displaced from its
once central place in Zinacanteco life, the poor found themselves utterly
marginalized; their labor in the fields was no longer required and they
lacked any way of earning the money necessary to buy food."

The final blow came in 1992 when the Mexican government decided to end the
agrarian reform conclusively. The oil boom had ended and Mexico went into a
steep debt-based crisis. The PRI made a decision that agricultural exports
could help lift Mexico out of the Depression. Thus it brought to an end to
the land reform policies that had been a core principle of the ruling party
for half a century. This had a devastating effect in Chiapas, where
landless peasants now saw no way out of their misery. An intellectual who
had moved to Chiapas to help organize the peasantry along militant
class-struggle lines spoke for the peasants when he stated that only armed
struggle could change things. His name was Marcos and he said:

"[The government] really screwed us, now that they destroyed Article 27
[the legal basis for land distribution], 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. What can we do? We did everything legal that we
could do so far as elections and organizations were concerned, and to no
avail." 


Louis Proyect
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