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
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
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
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.