Odon de Buen, Remarks on Chiapas
Everyone thought that the headline news in Mexico for the New Year were going to
be about NAFTA, about the integration of Mexico to modernity, about markets and
products, about our relationship with the North. Who could imagine that the news
was going to come from the south, from deep within the soul and land of Mexico,
that they were going to be about a rebellion of the poorest, about Indian people
that are willing to die with a gun in their hands just for the right to be
It was a surprise and it wasn't. It was a surprise because it was a large number
of armed people, because they are organized, and because their main purpose is to
overthrow the federal government. It wasn't a surprise because we in Mexico know
very well how Indian people are treated, because we know that Chiapas is a
beautiful and wealthy state where the law only works for the very rich, for
those who own cattle ranches, for those who own coffee plantations, and not for
those that work in them.
At this point there is war in Chiapas and it was started, it seems, by the
rebels. The army has responded but not in full force. The government seems to
be willing to negotiate a peaceful settlement and has asked the Catholic church
to mediate. But there are already many deaths (officially 57) and the vicious
circle of violence may have just started.
What does all this mean? Well, I cannot easily tell but my first thoughts are
that it complicates things for Salinas and its government in a very political
year; Mexico has presidential elections this summer. It complicates things for
Salinas because it cannot use extreme violence; this would take votes from
Colosio (the PRI's candidate). It also shows a defeat of his basic social
strategy, which has been to target (under the so-called "Solidaridad" program)
poor communities; the fact that some of those that have been the target of his
programs are those uprising is not a good sign. In this same direction, the
political campaign of Colosio (who was in charge of Solidaridad) was based on
the structure established through Solidaridad and the fact that it may have
failed is not very good news at this point in the campaign.
I don't think that the uprising will get too far; it will probably diminish
quickly either by negotiations or by war. What I think is that the greatest
impact of the uprising is already clear and that everything else will be
marginal: eighty years after the revolution started, and when it is about to
incorporate itself to the "big league", Mexico demonstrates that it is many
countries and some of them are still living as if it was some centuries ago.
Today, while some Mexicans are looking forward to get NAFTA duty-free American
goods at the corner store, others are looking for a basic good that is not part
of NAFTA: social justice.
CHIAPAS (II) (1/9/94)
It took less than a week to get Mexico back twenty years.
A week has gone by since the rebel occupation of San Cristobal de las Casas and
what seemed like an adventure by a large group of Indians is now a war. Mexico
is now facing a situation not seen since the Mexican revolution and seems to
have gathered momentum into the darkness of political violence.
But, at the same time that there has been a battle with guns, a battle of
information is now occurring in Mexican newspapers that has been uncovering
things that have been hidden under the rug. One of them (which I would call the
most important) has been the knowledge by Mexico's government of the existence
of the army of rebels since, at least, the summer of last year. What happened?
Well, the NAFTA negotiations were more important and the war was being fought at
low scale. One of the main questions Mexican newspapers have been asking is why
the secretary of internal affairs, who left his job as the governor of Chiapas
to take that post in the federal government, didn't know about the rebels. It
seems that one of his main jobs in his new post (which he took a year ago) was
precisely to keep this from being openly known, and it seems that he did a great
job. He is now, however, an obstacle to the any political solution to the
conflict, and his downfall is soon to happen.
Other things that have come up during the week is that the leadership of the
rebels may, very possibly, be formed by survivors of old armed movements which
belong to the same generation as Salinas, which is the generation was marked by
the events of 1968.
For those who don't know, 1968 was the year when Mexico faced its first
political crisis since the end of the revolution (1928), a crisis that had the
form of a student movement that ended on the 2nd of October in the Plaza of the
Three Cultures (it had a pyramid, a church, and a new and large government
housing project), located in Tlatelolco. That day, in a series of events that
have not been clarified, a large massacre, which involved the army, took place
and more than 300 people died. This date, which had its 25th anniversary last
year, has been the turning point of modern Mexico. The Olympic games started 12
days later but that day changed the life of a whole generation. Carlos Salinas
de Gortari was at the time a student at the National University as were many
that ended up dead, in prison, in exile, or in living a clandestine life.
In the 1970's, after Luis Echeverria became president and after a new student
massacre on the 10th of June of 1971, many of those that decided that democracy
was not possible in Mexico tried to follow the steps of the great Latin American
hero of the time, namely Che Guevara. What followed was a secret and dirty war,
a war that lasted several years, a war that was fought with kidnappings and bank
assaults. Many, both on the government and guerrilla sides, died, many times
executed in cold blood by the opposing force.
The defeat of those groups by the government and the political reforms of the
late 1970s brought many of those active since 1968 (either peacefully or through
violence) into political parties. Those are who, in 1988, gathered forces behind
Cuauhtemoc Cardenas and almost defeated (many say Cardenas won) Carlos Salinas
and his party in the presidential election. But others decided to remain
clandestine and took to the part of the country where the contradictions of the
system are greater: Chiapas.
Many from the 1968 generation, even some of those that opposed the government
and talked in Marxist terms, are now part of Salinas's party and government;
they are men in their late forties and early fifties. News reports talk about
men in their fifties as part those leading the army that occupied San Cristobal
de las Casas on the 1st of January. It would not be a great surprise to know,
when things clarify, that some of those leading those Indians were old
classmates of Carlos Salinas and, as a dark and obscene college prank of
national dimensions, decided to ruin Salinas' walk into the future as the man
who brought Mexico into the First World by bringing into his New Year's party
those who live in the darkest side of Mexico: the poor Indians of Chiapas.
The great challenge in Mexico at this point is to get the peace back.
Unfortunately the government seems to have taken the military option, which is
the option that may turn down the fire but also help extend it. Some urban
guerrilla groups that were thought to have disappeared have resurfaced and want
to become actors of this tragedy through acts of terrorism in Mexico City.
These terrorist acts, which have not resulted in the loss of human lives, have
caused great uncomfort among those who live in the center of the economic and
political life of Mexico. The great fear is that Mexico becomes like Peru, where
senseless violence takes the lives of many that don't even know what is going
Carlos Salinas (and Mexico with him) has already lost the facade that made NAFTA
possible. But that was only a facade. What he (Carlos Salinas) has now is a great
challenge and opportunity: to demonstrate the world that Mexico can solve its
problems with peace, even those that present themselves in a violent fashion.
The army of the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN) is large, but
not large enough to defeat the Mexican Army. Attempting to destroy the rebels
through massive war operations can only give too much power to those whose
solution to problems is institutional violence. An option of this type will
resonate all through the country and into Mexican communities across the border:
it may build support towards a cause that may have been, otherwise, lost,
particularly among the millions who don't find leadership in a system that has
cheated them in their attempts for a better life.
There may be no choice for Salinas and his government but to act as the
catalyzer of Mexican society towards the expansion of what may be the cure and
the vaccination: democracy. Accepting the moral power of citizens out of the
traditional power system and using it to create a barrier to the violence of the
EZLN may be a way out of the cycle of death and violence. The result may be,
however, the beginning of the end of a political class that has dominated the
country for more than sixty years. It may be too much ask.
CHIAPAS (III) (1/10/94)
Carlos Salinas seems to have taken the political path towards the peace in
Chiapas and bring back the country twenty years after having gone back that much
in a week.
Maybe driven by the reaction of the stock market (which fell 6% in one session)
to the developments of the weekend (two bombs in Mexico City and the
continuation of the confrontation in Chiapas), but most probably driven by the
strong drive of public opinion in and outside Mexico, president Salinas has
brought in the star negotiator of the Mexican government into the scene: Manuel
Manuel Camacho, an academic turned politician whose father was a military man,
is the man that came in (as secretary of urban development) to negotiate with
the groups affected in the last great Mexican tragedy which was the 1985 Mexico
City earthquake. Camacho, a man that has written extensively about Mexico's
political system, was one of the strongest competitors for the PRI nomination to
the presidency and his nomination would have meant a sign by Salinas that he was
ready to bring real political reform. Camacho was the candidate of Mexico's
intellectuals and he had their support: he supports the idea that the state will
become stronger by respecting the will of the people.
The way that Salinas brought Camacho into the picture and the changes that
resulted in the government are very significant. First, he got rid of his cousin
(he is married to a cousin of his father) as secretary of internal affairs and
brought in Dr. Jorge Carpizo (the head of Mexico's FBI and former chancellor of
the national university) to take his place. As Camacho had taken the post of
secretary of foreign relations when he lost the nomination to Colosio, he left
that post and a renown diplomat, Manuel Tello.
What is the interpretation? As I wrote in my previous note, Salinas had a
military and a political option. It seemed that Salinas was going for the
military one. But, by bringing in Camacho (and old friend and confidant) as head
of a Peace Commission for Chiapas he brings the strongest and most credible PRI
politician to work as the catalyzer of a political solution. Salinas is
attempting to solve the problem using a man that is part of the system and
choosing Camacho he has chosen the best man for the job.
There are, of course, other things that have to be analyzed. One of them is the
role of Colosio in these changes. Tradition establishes that any changes in the
president's cabinet after the PRI's presidential nomination are either decided
or negotiated by or with the candidate. How does having a former competitor in
such an important role affect Colosio's strength? It seems that the need for
peace in a peaceful manner is the main objective at this point. Colosio may have
accepted this because, without stability, there will not be an election for him
Something else that has still to be clarified is why the rebels were able to
move in into San Cristobal in such great numbers in a region that has been
militarized for so long. New information and analyzes transform the whole
picture in ways that support very Maquiavelic scenarios: the Indians clearly
have had the leadership of radicals but very probably these radicals also had
strings attached to them. I even wonder (and excuse me if I offend sensitivities
by saying this) if the whole thing was done by someone that wants to sell the
rights of the whole thing to American TV. No, not that: powerful forces are on
the move and it may all be happening inside the palace. Could it be that a move
of peons has meant a jaquemate (?) to the king?
Date: Fri, 18 Feb 94 18:15:17 PST
From: email@example.com (Odon de Buen)
Subject: Re: Remarks on Chiapas
Alan Sanstad requested a comment on Sub-Comandante Marcos.
Here is it..
ON COMANDANTE MARCOS (2/12/94)
"El Sub-Comandante Marcos" is the new national icon. Since the
January 1st occupation of San Cristobal de las Casas by the
Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN), this white blue-eyed man and
his mask have become the new symbol of revolution all over Mexico.
As the main speaker during the occupation, the sender of many letters to the
Mexican press, and the voice of the EZLN for an TV interview in the middle of
the Lacandona jungle for one of Mexico's cable TV networks (which, in tape
version, is becomeing a collector's item), the "sud-Marcos" has
reignited the revolutionary imagination of many revolutionary "wanna-be" men and
Mexico has a tradition of masks and masked heroes. The Anthropology Museum has
many masks, the most famous made of green jade; the artisan markets have masks
from North, South, East, and West of Mexico; one of the most popular movie
heroes of the poor is "El Santo", the "luchador" (wrestler) of the golden mask,
the hero of dozens of (pretty cheap) movies; and there is "Superbarrio" the
masked man with the big "S" on his chest, the defender of those who rent their
living space in the old, ran-out downtown houses of Mexico City.
Marcos is a new masked hero but he is not an "hijo del pueblo" (a son of the
people). He is a son of privilege that decided (according to his interview) to
dedicate his life to be with those who have nothing. But logic tells us that
without people like him a movement of the type he is in couldn't have had the
success it has had. The timing of the occupation (right at the time NAFTA came
into effect), the use of the media, the military strategy, and the incredible
effect that such a relatively small operation had on Mexico's present can only
result from minds that have been in the city, that have read newspapers, that
have operated in an urban environment. The indians may now the jungle very well
to survive in it, they may have the problems that give them courage to fight to
death, but they don't have the formally educated minds that can deal with the
press or know how to give a big blow with a small hit to a regime that was
supposed to be stronger than ever.
With a sharp and cultivated mind, smoking tobacco from a pipe made out of a corn
cob (during the TV interview), "sud-Marcos" is the man of
the moment. A sex symbol for some, a new "Che"
for others, and one of two people (according to linguist that analyzed his
speech and his letters), this man has taken, in my perspective, too much of the
attention that should be going to those that are part of the background in the
televised interview: the indians.
He says that he is not the leader, that the leaders are the heads of the indian
communities. He is just "one of army". This may be the truth, but , for many he
is the leader and the fact that he is the only face and mind of an indian
movement may work in favor of certain things but not for others. On one side,
that a "handsome" white man gets so much attention as a hero may inspire other
people like him (white, urban, middle class) to support a movement that is of
dark, rural, small people On the other side, however, it may make the movement
suspicious to those it should be trying to "mobilize" the indians.
What is next for Marcos is not clear. Negotiations are on the way and several
hundred media people are on their way to register the images, the voices, the
words, the ideas, and every detail of what may be a big media event in some city
in Chiapas. Will Marcos be there? Will he uncover his face? Will he be alone?
Will there be other masked people with him? Will they be indians or will they be
white, middle class, urbanites turned guerrilleros?
We shall soon have an answer and it may be, as this whole thing has had, a few