The Chiapas uprising to the rescue

The ratification of NAFTA was a devastating blow to Project Piaxtla and the farmworkers organization. With it came the imminent danger of losing the land and the health gains for which they had struggled during the last 20 years. Throughout Mexico, campesino groups staged protests against the dissolution of the ejido system and the signing of NAFTA. But as usual, the PRI and President Salinas turned a deaf ear.

However, at the beginning of 1994 an unprecedented turn of events was triggered by the uprising of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Chiapas, Mexico's poorest and most southern state. The uprising was symbolically launched on January 1, 1994, the day that NAFTA went into effect. Described as "one of the most unexpected, brilliantly staged peasant uprisings in living memory," the mini-revolution has forced Mexico's ruling party to respond seriously to popular demand for social justice.

It is too early to know the long-term results of this mini-war waged by Mexico's poorest, most exploited indigenous people. But as things look now, the uprising may have done more to defend the rights and health of the country's people than any event since the Mexican Revolution 80 years ago. For one, the Chiapas insurrection has helped the Piaxtla health team and farmworkers in far off Sinaloa to retain the gains of their 20 year struggle for land and health.

At the start of the Zapatista uprising, the Mexican Army responded with brutal collective punishment, attacking, bombing, and destroying entire Indian villages. But throughout the nation, the majority of citizens (70% of the population according to polls) and much of the national press sided with the rebels. The EZLN's clear demands for land rights and social justice, voiced eloquently by the mysterious sub-comandante Marcos, struck a sympathetic chord with millions of campesinos. Fearing a possible national revolt (or possible overturn of the PRI in forthcoming national elections), the Mexican government was forced to call off the army--and eventually to capitulate to some of the Zapatista's demands.

The Zapatistas' demands called on the government to uphold the statutes of the original 1917 Mexican Constitution, especially those that protect the rights of the common citizen. This included both restoration and honest implementation of the agrarian reform program which, due to institutionalized corruption, had never effectively reached the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. They called for reinstatement of the ejido system to protect the land rights of small farmers. They demanded fair, genuinely democratic elections and an end to discrimination against indigenous people and the poor. And they called for a minimum wage high enough for poor people to adequately feed their children and for an end to institutionalized corruption and graft. The EZLN made it clear they did not want to take over and run the government. They simply wanted it cleaned up, to make it more representative of and accountable to the people.

At the bargaining table, President Salinas offered to pardon the Zapatistas if they gave up their weapons and called off the insurrection. However, sub-comandante Marcos--his face, as ever, masked in a ski-cap--publicly replied:

Why do we have to be pardoned? What are we going to be pardoned for? For not dying of hunger? For not being silent in our misery? For not humbly accepting our historic role of being the despised and outcast? For carrying guns into battle rather than bows and arrows? For being Mexicans? For being primarily indigenous peoples? For having called on the people of Mexico to struggle, in all possible ways, for that which belongs to them? For having fought for liberty, democracy, and justice? For not giving up? For not selling out?

Who must ask for pardon and who must grant it?

Those who for years and years have satisfied themselves at full tables, while death sat beside us so regularly that we finally stopped being afraid of it?

Or should we ask pardon from the dead, our dead, those who died 'natural' deaths from 'natural' causes like measles, whooping cough, dengue, cholera, typhoid, tetanus, pneumonia, malaria and other lovely gastrointestinal and lung diseases? Our dead--the majority dead, the democratically dead--dying from sorrow because nobody did anything, because the dead, our dead, went just like that, without anyone even counting them, without anyone saying "ENOUGH ALREADY," which would at least have given some meaning to their deaths, a meaning that no one ever sought for them, the forever dead, who are now dying again, but this time in order to live?

Among the various concessions that Salinas made to the EZLN, at least two may have a substantial impact on the people's health:

First, Salinas agreed to a fairer, more open election process with greater accountability to the public. Although the PRI won the national elections again in August, 1994, the electoral process is now under more critical public scrutiny, and the possibility of a more accountable and representative government in the future is somewhat increased. Already opposition parties have won elections in some municipalities and states.

Second, Salinas agreed to partly reinstate the land reform and ejido system which he had dismantled in preparation for NAFTA. He signed a presidential decree whereby the members of previously existing ejidos could decide by vote to keep or dissolve their ejidal structure. The government, of course, continues its propaganda to induce campesinos to dissolve their ejidos. But throughout Mexico, many small farmers--inspired by the clear thinking and just demands of the EZLN in Chiapas--are electing to keep their ejidos.

Among these, in the Sierra Madre of Sinaloa, the community of Ajoya and many surrounding communities have voted strongly to keep the ejido. Roberto Fajardo, health activist of Project Piaxtla and leader of the farm workers' organization, is delighted. He and others had feared that the villagers' 20 year struggle for land and health had been irrevocably lost. Roberto is first to acknowledge that the "barefoot revolutionaries" in Chiapas have given a new lease on life and possibilities for a healthier future to the children of Sinaloa's Sierra Madre.

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