Revolutionary Appeals

Chiapas tells the old story of peasant Indians used by urban intellecturals.


The anonymous masked leaders of the rebellious Zapatistas, as well as a number of sympathetic Mexican analysts, have attempted to portray the Chiapas revolt as a spontaneous, grassroots reaction to the constitutional and market-based economic reforms instituted by the Salinas administration. In the wake of the revolt, these people have called for a repudiation of the very policies that have energized the Mexican economy and set the stage for a more fully functioning democracy.

While the Mexican intelligentsia has largely toed the left-of-center line, there are significant exceptions, such as commentators Arturo Warman, Enrique Krauze, and Héctor Aguilar Camín, who are attempting to articulate a more balanced understanding of the crisis. The leftist interpretation of events, they point out, is lacking both nuance and an understanding of regional history. Perhaps the highest-profile dissenter among Mexican intellectuals is Octavio Paz, the 1990 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He finds it significant that the Chiapas revolt and the assassination of the PRI's Luis Donaldo Colosio, though probably unrelated to one another, coincide with a Mexican political climate that has reached levels of discord unseen for over half a century.

Paz lays much of the blame for that climate at the feet of Mexican intellectuals, many of whom keep writing outmoded "apologies for the use of violence." They have, says Paz, forgotten the great political lesson of the 20th century: The only way to achieve a more just, more liberal society is to further democracy, not authoritarian socialism. Paz believes that many of the demands of the Indian communities—such as land reform, establishing education and health programs, and ending the practice of caci-quismo, in which local political bosses grant favors in exchange for personal allegiance—should be satisfied within existing legal parameters. He therefore condemns the armed uprising as an interruption of Mexico's ongoing political and economic liberalization.

Paz has identified a division within the PRI between hard-liners and conciliators. He warns against violent approaches, which would only produce more casualties, further divide a troubled nation, and create sympathy for the rebels. And indeed, after the initial skirmishes, the government has chosen the conciliatory road by declaring a unilateral cease-fire and granting amnesty (which the rebels rejected in a sarcastic letter published by the press). The government has also created an ad-hoc national commission composed of opposition party members and unaffiliated citizens, as well as government representatives, to improve the conditions of the communities.

Central to Paz's analysis is a recognition that the identity and interests of the comandantes, the leaders of the Zapatistas, do not always coincide with those of the rank-and-file Indians. The comandantes' speeches betray them as intellectuals, not unschooled peasants, something even admiring authors such as José Agustín concede. Paz's point is further confirmed, I think, by the comandantes' revealingly over-anxious populist explanation for sporting masks: They want to "share the masses' anonymity." A more likely explanation is that they are not themselves Indian, an inconvenient fact that would undermine their authority as spokesmen for oppressed natives.

Pioneered in Latin America by the Cuban Marxists, the term comandante was later adopted by the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. But Mexican observers have drawn connections between the Zapatistas and Latin America's highest-profile revolutionary group, Peru's Shining Path. Both groups repeat familiar Marxist programs: anti-individualism (evident in the Zapatistas' proud claims to having a "collective" leadership), expropriation of the landowners' property, economic equalization, and an "end to capitalism and the bourgeoisie." To the standard question—how can they persist in trying to implement socialist solutions in view of the repeated instances of mass misery and colossal crimes brought about by socialism since 1917?—both give the same standard answer: "Our socialism will be different."

Both groups also idealize a pre-Hispanic past. This idealization, of course, has no factual basis: The Incas destroyed earlier Peruvian cultures, replacing their religions with the convenient belief that the Incas descended from the gods. Similarly, the Mexica (the actual name of the Aztecs) were universally hated by other Indian nations, whose understandable desire to stop serving as taxpayers, slaves, and sacrificial victims was a crucial factor in Cortés's victory.

There are significant differences, however, between the Zapatistas and Shining Path. One is that the Zapatistas' claims to want democracy for Mexico have gained them acceptability and access to the national and international media. This tactic is more reminiscent of the early Cuban revolution and the Sandinistas than the more brutal—but also more honest—Shining Path. Along with the pointed use of comandantes, this savvier approach makes me suspect that the Zapatistas' ideology and perhaps even their armaments (whose mysterious financing suspicious observers have wondered about) might in fact have more to do with Cuba and the still Sandinista-controlled Nicaraguan army than with Shining Path.

The one clear similarity between the Zapatistas and Shining Path is that both groups have an urban, intellectual leadership and an Indian following. The gulf between the Zapatista comandantes and the Indian communities they purportedly represent shows up most concretely in the divergent demands the two groups make and in the limited native support given to the rebels. The comandantes' proclamations include urban and national goals, among them the creation of a socialist country. By contrast, the Indians are traditionalists interested in issues directly affecting their local area.

And despite their populist rhetoric, it is clear that there was no broad-based support for the Zapatistas in Chiapas—the revolt managed to take over only four municipalities. The majority of local peasant organizations have not joined the insurrection, and some have even captured Zapatistas. In the towns of Ocosingo and Altamirano, for instance, armed residents forced the rebels to withdraw. In Oxchuc, the Tzeltal Indians will not allow the return of the comandantes. A bitter Zapatista told a Mexican paper of his unhappy experience in Oxchuc: "When I saw them [the residents of Oxchuc] I thought that they were our comrades, but I changed my mind when 15 of them beat me up."

But although the Zapatistas have only limited support among the Indians, they enjoy ample support among a Mexican intelligentsia traditionally jealous of the superior standard of living of the commercial middle class. In a country often accused of dictatorship, newspapers, magazines, and even government-owned TV stations have given wide and often sympathetic publicity to the comandantes' manifestoes. These supporters have defended killings by the Zapatistas while condemning killings by the army and justified the kidnappings and forced conscriptions of young Indians by the rebels while denouncing the government's incarceration of Zapatistas.

The press has also been quick to connect the uprising with Salinas's economic reforms: His "neoliberalism" has failed; his constitutional changes are wrong because now private investors can buy peasant land; NAFTA will make things even worse. The rich will continue to get richer and the poor poorer.

This last assessment has a familiar ring and indicates the ideological slant of much of the commentary on the revolt. In the 19th century, Karl Marx argued that widening income gaps in 19th-century European and American capitalist economies would create the conditions for proletarian revolution. Since his colossally wrong prediction, of course, people who have become rich in those countries are indeed better off. But so are those who have remained poor, because their standard of living is now not only higher than that of the 19th-century poor but frequently higher than that of the 19th-century not-so-poor. To be sure, Mexico is much farther from capitalism than the United States or Western Europe. Its bureaucratized economy stands somewhere between them and Mussolini's Italy. But its distance from truly free markets is precisely its problem.

The media, however, have no monopoly on leftist sympathies for the Zapatistas. The Catholic bishop of Chiapas believes that one positive outcome of the revolt will be a "transitional Mexican government which will establish the grounds for `true' democracy in Mexico." This desideratum is in fact one of the Zapatista demands which Paz finds not even worth discussing, since it amounts to rejecting the ongoing electoral process and surrendering to the comandantes' "argument by force." The fact is Mexico has been building the foundations of a more open electoral process for years now, long before the Chiapas revolt.

Equally uninformed is the bishop's view that among the beneficial cultural consequences of the revolt will be the recognition of the Indians' "ancestral values…after 500 years of oppression." Statements like this echo the hard-left, redistributionist "liberation theology" preached in Chiapas since the late 1960s. They also echo the pro-Zapatista statements of priest, poet, liberation theologian, and Sandinista functionary Ernesto Cardenal. The work of this "religious left" should not be ignored in any thorough explanation of the revolt.

But what makes the bishop's embrace of the revolutionary agenda so out of touch is that it overlooks the fact that, precisely in the cultural realm, the Mexican government has far from neglected the Indian. Throughout most of the 20th century, the government has vigorously promoted the Indian past as essential to Mexico's national pride and cultural heritage—would that such attention to the native culture were accompanied by an equal regard for the well-being of the remaining natives! The bishop overlooks, too, that a true recovery of "ancestral values" in Mexico would be incompatible with the existence of the bishop himself. In a pre-Hispanic Mexico, there would simply be no room for Catholic priests, except perhaps as sacrificial victims.

Like the good bishop, the governor of Chiapas supports "agrarian reform" and is unencumbered by a knowledge of history. If the "conditions" for the reform are not sufficiently favorable now, he has told the press, the government must then create them by "brushing aside" the "minor differences" standing in the way. Among the minor differences he would brush aside could conceivably be the reluctance of cattle ranchers to have their land taken away.

The awkward truth for the governor is that past Mexican agrarian reforms seriously hurt productivity. In the 1920s and '30s, expropriation ruined many farmers and cattlemen. Land redistribution disrupted production, especially among cattle ranchers, who suddenly found themselves without land on which to raise their cattle. The inefficiency of the agricultural cooperatives was the reason the PRI government of Lázaro Cárdenas, which had redistributed almost half of all arable land and nationalized major enterprises, abruptly changed its policies in 1938. The party protected landowners from further expropriation, and a year later chose as presidential candidate a moderate Catholic rather than an avowed socialist.

This is not to say there are no problems in Chiapas. There is no question that local unhappiness with the political status quo helped recruit soldiers for the Zapatistas, but it seems that inequalities alone do not explain the revolt. Another explanation is that the comandantes by their own admission, prepared for the uprising for more than 10 years. But there are other factors beyond the control of either the Zapatistas or the government.

Immigration from neighboring regions (including Guatemala) added to the notorious Mexican demographic explosion over the past decade and greatly strained local resources. In fact, the population growth in Chiapas between 1980 and 1990 was double the national rate. In addition, international coffee prices, the main pillar of the local economy, collapsed in 1991. They have yet to recover, adversely affecting more than 60,000 peasant growers. International meat prices have also declined, and cattle raising is the area's second major source of income. To combat deforestation, the government implemented a moratorium on timber harvesting. While the ban might save trees, it also eviscerates Chiapas's third major source of wealth. The state continues to rank below the national average by every possible living standard.

Racial discord also contributes to the region's problems. In neighboring Yucatan, an uprising from 1847 to 1850 tried to exterminate the whites and return to the pre-Hispanic past; in Chiapas the Tzeltal Indians rebelled in 1712 and 1869. Chiapas lacks the degree of miscegenation that grants other Mexican states a measure of racial harmony. One sees whites on the one hand and Indians on the other, with only a few mestizos in between. Cattlemen are white and sometimes behave like overlords. And since cattle require a great deal of land, cattlemen own large properties. Most peasants are Indian. They farm small plots that, until Salinas's constitutional reforms passed, they could not even sell; and such farming is much less profitable than cattle.

Nor is official neglect a sufficient explanation for the revolt. Since 1985 the government has granted land to 40,000 peasant families and created 400 new agrarian commons. In the past five years, the National Solidarity Program has pumped a great deal of money into Chiapas. A good example is a government loan of 200,000 new pesos granted in 1993 to the Peasant Organization Emiliano Zapata. By the end of the year, most peasants were sufficiently well off to begin repaying the loan. Ninety Indians, however, argued against repayment and then killed the head of the organization, who favored complying with the agreement.

Interestingly, much of the government aid went to areas now occupied by the Zapatistas. Obviously the government's efforts have not been enough. But perhaps the revolt could also be explained as yet another case of an upheaval following a period of comparative economic and political liberalization complicated by the peculiar interests of a resentful intellectual class. This is how historians such as Simon Schama and, much earlier, François Guizot explained the French Revolution.

Explaining the past is easier than predicting the future. Mexico can become a Peru, but that is not inevitable. A clean election should be a sufficient prelude to ending the crisis now facing the country. Then the problems of the Indian communities should be addressed, though not at the expense of property owners who are productive members of the Mexican economy.

Clean elections and granting the more reasonable Indian demands would take away much of the high ground from the armed-to-the-teeth comandantes, who want socialism through turmoil because they fear democratic contests that their outmoded ideology might not win. The revolt and the murder would then be only another chapter in a long, painful process of modernization, whereby Mexico could eventually achieve the prosperity of such formerly backward economies as Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Chile.

Darío Fernández-Morera is an associate professor of comparative literature and Hispanic studies at Northwestern University.