The Context for Autonomy

— Dan La Botz

MORE THAN FOUR years since it began, the Mayan Indian rebellion in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas led by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) seems as intractable a political problem as ever. Why has the Mexican government found it impossible to reach some accommodation with the indigenous people of Chiapas?

In the following article, anthropologist and advisor to the EZLN Hector Díaz-Polanco argues that the central issue is the question of political autonomy agreed to in the San Andres Larrainzar Accords of February 1996.

On January 1, 1994 a group of Mayan Indian people and other Mexicans in Chiapas rebelled against the government of President Salinas de Gortari and the North American Free Trade Agreement. President Salinas (1988–1994) unleashed an air force and army attack on the rebels, but under the pressure of the Mexican people and foreign public opinion, Salinas stopped the military attack and began negotiations with the leaders of the Chiapas Rebellion, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

In February 1995, when President Ernesto Zedillo (1994–2000) ordered a military attack on the Zapatistas, once again the Mexican people and international opinion forced the government to retreat from its military posture.

This time, the President, working with an ad hoc legislative commission of the Congress in an extraordinary session, and with the vote of all the political parties, adopted the Law for Dialogue, Conciliation and a Peace with Dignity in Chiapas. It was approved by the Congress of the Union and published in the Congressional Record, 11 March 1995.

The law recognized created three different political organizations to deal with the Chiapas Rebellion. First was the already existing Legislative Commission of Dialogue and Conciliation. Second was the Commission of Concord and Pacification or COCOPA, made up of members of all the major political parties in both houses of the Mexican Congress.

The COCOPA also had a Commission of Follow Through and Verification to see that its decisions were carried out. The COCOPA also recognized the National Mediation Commission or CONAI, made up of prestigious persons and headed by Roman Catholic of San Cristobal de las Casas, Bishop Samuel Ruiz.

In September of 1995, the government and the EZLN agreed to a format for negotiations on the basis of four working groups: 1) Indigenous rights and culture; 2) Democracy and justice; 3) Well-being and development; 4) Women’s rights. The EZLN invited scores of political leaders, independent intellectuals, academic researchers and social movement activists to join the working groups as EZLN advisors.

While the negotiations went on, the EZLN, with the support of both COCOPA and CONAI, convened National Indigenous Forum between January 3 and 8, 1996 in San Cristobal de Las Casas. That forum adopted a declaration which began, “Autonomy is the central demand ...” inspiring all the other elements of this document.

The Right to Regional Autonomy

In February of 1996 the Mexican government and the EZLN negotiated the first agreements on indigenous rights, what have come to be known as the San Andres Larrainzar Accords. Those Accords recognized the right of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas to regional political autonomy. Political regional autonomy of a multicultural character, because of the various ethnic and religious groups involved, represented an unprecedented step for the Mexican government, recognizing the right to create legal systems and new forms of property rights.

The signing of this agreement thus came as something of a surprise to the Mayan rebels, to the Mexican people and to many government officials, since government spokespersons had generally conceded the idea of cultural autonomy at a communal level, but rejected the idea of political autonomy at a regional level. The government representatives agreed that the Accords should be affirmed in amendments to the Mexican Constitution and modifications in other existing legislation.

The suggestion that the indigenous peoples of Chiapas should have the right and the power to make decisions about their form of government, law and property threatens many interests from ranchers and political bosses to some sectors of the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical or charismatic Protestant churches. The Mexican government, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and especially the powers-that-be in Chiapas were not prepared to accept the Accords.

Consequently, the Mexican government ignored the Accords, while at the same time beginning a process of what has been described a counterinsurgency or low-intensity warfare. During the last year the government’s low intensity warfare against the Zaptatistas and against the Mayan people has intensified.

There have been at least 500 political killings in Chiapas, most perpetrated against EZLN supporters and Mayan civilians. Hundreds of people have been detained or arrested; thousands have been displaced as refugees.

While the Mexican Army in every greater numbers occupied ever larger areas, ranchers and local PRI organizations created paramilitary organizations to attack the EZLN’s supporters. The result was a campaign of terror against the local activists including kidnappings, torture, and murder. These culminated in the Acteal massacre of forty-five people, most of them women and children, on December 22, 1997 by one of the PRI paramilitary groups.

Since then, however, there has been no let-up by the government in its pressure against the EZLN. The latest campaign has had several elements:

Dan La Botz is the editor of Mexican Labor News and Analysis, a bi-monthly electronic publication. It is produced in collaboration with the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), and independent Mexican Union, and the United Eletrical Workers (UE). For more information e-mail Dan La Botz at 103144(dot)2651(at)compuserve(dot)com.

ATC 74, May–June 1998