Saturday, January 11, 2014

 

Zapatista rebels mark 20 years but continue to battle same problems

Mexico City (AFP) - When the masked Subcomandante Marcos emerged in Mexico's southern mountains with his band of Zapatista rebels on January 1, 1994, they demanded change for the destitute indigenous people of Chiapas.

 Subcomandante Marcos signs autographs during the opening of a meeting between Zapatista rebels and representatives of non-governmental organizations on May 8,1999, in La Realidad

But 20 years later, the pipe-smoking revolutionary and his comrades have retreated to remote communities, the media spotlight has dimmed and Chiapas remains Mexico's poorest state.
The Zapatistas will mark their rebellion's anniversary with fiestas in their villages on Wednesday, but not with the same attention they received when they first burst into the scene.

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The mysterious Marcos, who used to greet journalists in his jungle hideouts for interviews, has shunned the media, choosing instead to make occasional statements on his movement's website.
His latest missive on December 28 was a rambling, 3,250-word statement that cites the classic "Moby Dick," questions the veracity of biographies and rails against the Mexican presidents of the past 20 years.
"In December 2013, it is just as cold as 20 years ago, and today, like back then, the same flag protects us: that of rebellion," Marcos wrote.
Taking its name from 1910 revolution hero Emiliano Zapata, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) appeared the same day that the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force.


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Many in Mexico at the time desperately feared free trade with the United States would crush traditional lifestyles and farming -- potentially upending cornerstones of traditional society.
But the emergence of thousands of leftist rebels on New Year's Day 1994 caught the government of then president Carlos Salinas de Gortari off guard.

The army was deployed and dozens died in a 12-day battle that led to a ceasefire and a peace pact two years later.

Fast-forward to January 1, 2014: Mexico boasts a thriving manufacturing sector and a growing middle-class fuelled by massive trade with the United States and Canada under NAFTA.

An old enemy of Marcos -- the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that was ousted in 2000 after ruling Mexico for 71 years like a single-party state -- returned to power in 2012.

The new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, has pledged to lead a new, democratic PRI, even launching his "Crusade Against Hunger" campaign in Chiapas.

But despite the gains from NAFTA, Latin America's second biggest economy remains mired in massive poverty affecting almost half of 116 million Mexicans.
The situation in Chiapas, meanwhile, has barely budged. A crushing three quarters of the state's 4.8 million people living in poverty and one third in extreme poverty.
The Zapatistas say the government has failed to fulfil the promises of the peace pact.
They say their demands for land rights, housing, employment and education have been ignored along with their call for constitutional reform to grant them autonomy.
In 2001, the Congress passed constitutional reform to give indigenous communities more rights. But the legislation lacked the autonomy demanded by the EZLN, leading the Zapatistas to suspend dialogue with the government.



Tired of waiting for the government to act, the Zapatistas have created their own autonomous justice, health and education systems in five municipalities they dubbed "caracoles," or shells.

Jaime Martinez Veloz, the government's commissioner for Dialogue with Indigenous People, said he was confident Pena Nieto's administration would revive the reform in 2014 to grant them the autonomy they want.
"The root causes of the conflict are the same, and we are convinced that they must be addressed by the Mexican state," Martinez Veloz told AFP.

But critics say the Zapatistas have done little themselves to improve the lot of their communities.
"Poverty in areas dominated by the EZLN remains at the same level or worse. The respectable life that Zapatismo promised does not even exist in the territories that Zapatismo has controled since 1994," columnist Sergio Sarmiento wrote in Reforma newspaper.

Marcos answered critics in his last missive by pointing to this year's "Little Zapatista School" program, which invited visitors to learn about the EZLN's education, health and politico-economic programs.
Martinez Veloz defended the Zapatistas, saying they have undertaken several social programs despite scant funding.
"Many people have tried to distort reality, saying the Zapatistas have had state and government resources at their disposal," he said.


"The Mexican state has a direct responsibility for poverty in the country, in indigenous populations. The Zapatistas have nothing to do with that." source
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