Autonomy and Global Capital in Chiapas

By Yvonne Sorovacu

Halfway up the hillside stairs to the Church of San Cristobal de las Casas someone has scrawled a tag on the plaster wall, “Zapata.” His mark is all over this place. “Viva Zapata!” walls downtown scream. He is almost not a man any more. If the people of Mexico exhumed his corpse, they would expect to find “Libertad y Tierra” (land and liberty), the ideals failed by the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, buried in the fertile ground. The promises and hopes of those early decades of the 20th century are still vital and mentioning the name Emiliano Zapata is like conjuring all the promise and optimism of the Revolution. At the end of the Mexican Revolution, in 1920, Mexico was left with a constitution that had lofty provisions for the freedom and rights of people within its borders. Like many other constitutions, its promises were never fulfilled for the majority of the people it governed, because they were controlled by an undemocratic body of privileged men who had a very narrow idea of who was entitled to “Land and Liberty.”

Now, eighty years after the end of the Revolution, a people’s army, named after one of the people’s most hallowed icons, is waiting, along with their supporters, for the freedoms of that constitution to be actualized.

Since the 1996 signing of the San Andres Accords, the Mexican government has made no sincere attempts at fulfilling the agreements it made with the Zapatista’s and civil society. Newly elected PAN (National Action Party) president, Vincente Fox, has been quoted as saying that he will “work out the problem in fifteen minutes,” and that he wants to meet with Zapatista figure Subcommandante Marcos. Fox says he wishes to open up the dialogue between the government and the coalition of indigenous peoples and their supporters, who are represented in the San Andres Accords. A lot of speculation is being made about the era of democracy that Fox’s election represents. Although Fox’s victory does mark the first time the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) has lost the presidency since its inception after the revolution, it does not signify any elemental structural changes in the power dynamic of the government. Any era of democracy this ushers in is a shallow one that still thinly veils the predominance of capital over democracy. As is evidenced by other “democratic” countries, the presence of a choice at the ballot box is usually just a chance for the people to pick which wealthy man will be elected and which economic model will shape government policy. The fact that Vincente Fox is an advocate of free trade shows little departure from the policies of former PRI presidents Zedillo and Salinas. As a former president of Latin America Coca-Cola, he represents the exact globalizing force that sparked the Zapatista uprising by its elitist and undemocratic nature.

The San Andres Accords can’t be activated within an entity that is pursuing inclusion in the global market. Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, like the accords, was an obstacle to free trade, and the Mexican government revised it into virtual non-existence. Article 27 established the ejido (eh-hee-doh) system, a form of communal land distribution, which gave ultimate ownership of land to the state and made private sale of these lands illegitimate. In essence, the revision of Article 27 was the privatization of agricultural lands. This land privatization, and the inclusion in the global market, are the forces driving the campesinos of San Caralampio, and the rest of Mexico, into poverty. The campesinos have tried various crops, the most modern fertilizers and pesticides (courtesy Monsanto). They say that everything grows well, grows beautifully, but that they can’t compete with the large mechanized corporate farms. The prices for crops in the global market can’t sustain local farmers and their families. Some times they will work at the nearby melon packing plant to pick up dearly needed income. The majority of their children forgo school for work after 6th grade. For them the preparations leading up to, which included the revision of Article 27, and the signing of NAFTA are a betrayal by the government on its promise to Zapata’s revolutionary cry and a death warrant for their way of life.

As Article 27 prevented the commodification of agricultural lands (an important asset in the global market), the San Andres Accords prevent the commodification of indigenous lands and all of the resources within their boundaries. During our visit to CIEPAC (Economic and Political Research Center for Community Action), Gustavo Castro illustrated the links between the accords and globalization. The accords present many obstacles to free trade. Those obstacles being the autonomy and freedom of the indigenous people, who make up a fourth of the population in Chiapas. The text of the accords explicitly requires “an all-inclusive social agreement, to their right to self determination and autonomy.” This autonomy would enable the indigenous to “decide…their way of organizing themselves politically, socially, economically and culturally.” Part of this autonomy is control of indigenous territories and their development. Valued commodities on these lands, such as minerals, timber, oil and coal, would then be controlled by the indigenous people. Since the indigenous cultures function with a different value system which is not entrenched in market and capitalist paradigms, that could keep prospectors from extracting those parts of the land for material profit.

The accords even have the potential to effect land use off of the indigenous territories. For instance, the principle of sustainability included in the accords requires protection or compensation “when the exploitation of natural resources carried out by the State causes damages to their habitat which may endanger their cultural survival.” As an example, this could effect construction of dams on waterways that run through indigenous territories. As the producer of 55% of Mexico’s hydroelectricity, Chiapas is a cash cow for potential energy corporation investors such as General Electric, which has expressed interest in development on lands which would be affected by the accords. Other commercial developments likely to pollute Chiapas waters would also be effected. Also in the constitutional reforms are “the rights of the indigenous towns to the use of plants and animals that are (sacred) sites and ceremonial centers, and the use of plants and animals that are considered sacred for strictly ritual use must also be insured.” Considering how far-reaching the environmental effects of development in industrial countries has been on native plant and animal populations, and knowing that nature does not follow politically recognized boundaries, this provision could effect development not immediately located on indigenous lands.

Just as ex-president Salinas modified article 27 as a condition for US acceptance of Mexico as a first world trading partner, Fox will likely approach the accords as an obstacle to Mexico’s inclusion in the elite group of globalized market power players. The U.S. government will not accept the actualization of the accords, and as the world’s most powerful economic entity, this country wields a lot of influence. US architects of trade and government policy do not view the accords as a valid, dignified agreement between equals that works towards fulfilling the promise of liberty, justice and freedom. They view them as a pesky stumbling block in the creation of the neo-liberal economic model. These guidelines which so deeply affect the lives of the indigenous people’s are treated like petty complaints that only block the realization of a perfected capitalistic economic model, and therefore block “progress.”

An official at the American Chamber of Commerce betrayed the patronizing, colonial attitude of the government to the indigenous when he summed up his understanding of their argument and vision. “People think that they can just grow corn and be happy,” he stated, before going on to express the necessity for the commodification of those lands and the need to enter them into the global market. His analysis ignorantly reduced their concerns and culture into a simplistic, naïve and inferior model of existence because it did not correlate the values of a global, capital economy. When questioned what he thought a fair wage was, the spokesman replied “I don’t know. What do you need to live around here? An egg, some rice and some beans.” His reply clearly illustrates the racism inherent in the free market relationship between Mexico and more powerful countries, in which Mexico’s “competitive advantage” is it’s cheap labor. Using the term “competitive advantage” is a sanitary way of saying that companies can afford to invest there because of the widespread conditions of poverty and lower standard of living.

The officials at the American Embassy are a bit more skilled at addressing these issues. I questioned a panel of representatives at the embassy as to how american interests would be effected if the San Andres Accords were actualized. Their was a nervous shuffle and then one of the panelists sucked some air through his teeth and said, “Well (emphatic exhale), that’s a tough question..” He then evaded the question, speculating as to whether or not they would be enacted. I re-directed the panelists, pointing out that they were answering a question I had not asked. At this point another member of our visiting group made a comment that the panelists jumped on. They eventually came back to my question with this short, vague answer, “If the situation in Chiapas is resolved, I don’t think that would have any effect on American interests,” and quickly jumped to another question. Their nervous and evasive reaction to the query is indicative of the U.S. government’s stance on the accords and the indigenous movement. I had to question what he meant by the situation being resolved. The fact that the American embassy completely avoided discussing how the accords are linked to US interests illustrates how the government wants to avoid issues of how free trade erodes democracy and subjugates citizens of other countries to the will of American commerce.

I couldn’t help thinking about this link between the indigenous struggle for autonomy and the globalization of capitalism as I sat on a porch in Acteal, site of the 1998 massacre of 45 Las Abejas (the bees) members, indigenous supporters of the accords and allies of the Zapatistas. I was in front of a building they use as a town hall. It was made of wooden planks and was one of the few buildings that had electricity. The community was abuzz with preparations for a newly inaugurated, yearly celebration, “the festival of Saint Peter, martyr of the displaced of Acteal.” Everything was strewn with colorful garlands, the women had made heaps of tortillas, and there were two bands playing, one with quite an intimidating sound system.

As I sat, observing the preparations and anticipation, a few men rushed excitedly down the wood and earthen stairs carved into the steep hillside. They were bringing in important supplies for the celebration, cases and cases of coke and manzanita, an apple soda manufactured by coca-cola. I couldn’t help thinking about the small pox infected blankets, which had been given to North American Indians decades before.

Manifest destiny has a new form in Chiapas. It is more insidious and P.R. savvy than its predecessor, but its end goal is still the acquisition of Native American lands for the profit of Western powers, and its end effect is still the loss of Native American lives and culture. Advocates of the neo-liberal model of economics back up their position with a lot of precise theory, but fail to deal with reality because they can not conceive or make room for cultures that don’t function on the basic assumptions of a capitalistic society. The need for “Land and Freedom” is a reality that neo-liberal theory arrogantly dismisses in the quest for fulfillment of first-world ideology. I like to think that the “Zapata” tag on the steps was scrawled by someone during the 1994 Zapatista occupation of San Cristobal as they looked over the city some night; that their knowledge of, and link with the past gave them the undeniable knowledge that the liberty of all people has a validity that no neo-liberal theory or undemocratic society can illegitimize.

Yvonne Sorovacu is an activist from Richmond, VA. This article was based on a Witness For Peace delegation that she was part of in May of 2000.

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