August 20, 2000 saw eyes from all over the world watching Chiapas, as the most closely observed elections in the state's history took place under the shadow of a continuing low intensity war. Pablo Salazar, the candidate of the Alliance for Chiapas, won the election by a margin of nearly 10 points. His party was a coalition of left and right parties, whose platform includes complying with the San Andres peace accords with the Zapatistas and reversing the militarization of the state. The electoral victory is cause for cautious optimism for people sympathetic to the Zapatistas.
Context: Federal Elections
Two months before August 20, on July 2, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the PRI, was thrown out of a 70-year stint in power in the federal elections. The party that defeated them, the Partido Accion Nacional (PAN), led by Vicente Fox, is economically neoliberal and socially conservative. Thus the election of the PAN can hardly be considered a victory for the oppressed. Still, there are many who view the electoral results as encouraging-- not because the PAN won, but because the PRI finally lost. The dismantling of that old, corrupt, PRI infrastructure might well open up political and social space. The idea that you can get a political party out of power by an election, after all, is new in Mexico, and welcome.
But it is not faith in elections but faith in citizens' own power that can bring about social change, and some activists see the defeat of the PRI in those terms. Luis Contreras of the Alianza Civica, for example, said that "no one believed they could get rid of the PRI even as they went to the polls to vote against them. For those people, the results of the election show that their participation makes a difference." Writer Jose Saramago said similar things to La Jornada (Mexico's daily newspaper) a week after the election-- that democracy depends more on the vigilance and participation of the citizenry than on changing the political party in power every four or six years.
That vigilance and participation is being tested right now on the matter of the PAN's social conservatism. In Fox's home state of Guanajuato, the Congress, held by the PAN, recently made abortion a crime. Activists are trying to reverse this decision, to make Fox clarify his position on the issue, and above all to prevent changes like this from being made at the federal level when Fox takes power in December. The PAN, a political party like any other, is no doubt watching events closely, to see what it can get away with and who it must listen to.
Since his election, Fox and his team have been making extravagant promises about resolving the conflict in Chiapas. A famous quote made by Elizondo, one of Fox's team members in charge of the conflict, has him saying that the conflict will be resolved in fifteen minutes, revised down to five and then to one minute.
Low Intensity War Continues
If the new government is really going to resolve the conflict in Chiapas, it will need to take more time than fifteen minutes. 70,000 federal troops will have to be moved out of the state. Thousands of state security forces will have to be deactivated. An estimated 21,000 refugees will have to be returned to their homes. The government will have to invest in the education, health, infrastructure, and environment of the indigenous people of the state, providing them with the resources they need to develop on their terms. The conflicts, especially over land, that are continually bursting out into violence, will have to be resolved, with justice and fairness. The paramilitarization of the state will have to be stopped and reversed. The Zapatistas and zapatista sympathizers who are in prison will have to be released. In short, the low intensity war against indigenous people must be stopped.
Paramilitary violence is still endemic in Chiapas. On August 3, about 30 paramilitaries from the group Paz y Justicia attacked and occupied the town of Paraiso in the municipality of Yajalon, burning 6 houses and displacing 48 families. After a delay of over a week-- during which human rights groups and the press publicized the incident-- the army moved into Paraiso, supposedly to arrest the paramilitaries-- who by then were long gone.
Imprisonment too, continues to serve as a weapon of the low intensity war against Chiapas' indigenous people. There are over 100 political prisoners in jails all over Chiapas. In an action which received much less publicity than the paramilitary attack, prisoners in Comitan, organized by the prison organization the Voice of Cerro Hueco, began a hunger strike on July 5, demanding release, suspended sentences, and dropped charges. By mid-August, several prisoners had sewn their mouths shut and one prisoner was in a coma. At that time, there was no response from the authorities.
The Zapatistas and their supporters continue to respond to this war as they have in the past-- with creativity and resilience. The alliance of elite interests faces a remarkable array of organizations lined up against it. The Chiapas Community Defense Network (Red de Defensores) fights legal battles for indigenous people whose human rights are being violated in and out of the courts. Human rights organizations like Fray Bartolome de las Casas and Enlace Civil investigate, document and publicize human rights abuses and send observers to communities. Communities whose government schools and health facilities are neglectful or counterproductive organize, with help from NGOs, to set up primary and secondary classrooms and clinics. Other communities use NGO help to create co-op stores, water systems, latrines, herbal and medicinal plant systems. The Voice of Cerro Hueco organizes in the prisons-- bringing to light the gross human rights violations that take place there-- and is so effective that at times prisoners have been released to prevent them from doing their work inside the prisons. The organizations, in other words, continue to fight for the immediate needs of their members and work to build long-term infrastructures. None of the Zapatistas I spoke to put much faith in the elections or the electoral results, nor are they going to change the way they work or organize because of them.
State Elections: hope?
Still, the victory of Salazar and the Alianza por Chiapas could well make the work of the Zapatistas easier. Salazar has promised the world: demilitarization, compliance with San Andres, negotiations in good faith with the Zapatistas. Campaign promises and government policies are two different things. But Salazar does have some credibility. He was a member of the government's peace initiative, called Cocopa, and quit the PRI in 1999. He has always been a supporter of the San Andres accords. And again, it is not simply the victory of the Alianza that is significant, but also the defeat of the PRI and the self-confidence of the citizenry that that implies.
The citizens braved some danger and electoral violence in order to vote to defeat the PRI on August 20. On August 8, for example, 14 men were detained by PRI deputies in the municipality of Las Margaritas for being public supporters of Pablo Salazar and released 3 days later after being fined and threatened (La Jornada, August 11). On August 19, in another example of intimidation, the government released a group of paramilitaries who were responsible for an attack in Bachajon in 1996, in which 6 died and 20 families were displaced.
The intimidation was insufficient to prevent a decisive victory for the Alianza. The courage of the voters--for example of the 5000 displaced tzotziles in Polho who returned to the polling booths of their original communities despite dangers of paramilitary violence-- and the intense electoral observation (with about 4600 observers) overcame the PRI's attempts at fraud.
In December, when the governorship changes hands, Salazar will have the power to ask the president to withdraw the military from Chiapas. He will have the power to disarm and bring the paramilitaries to justice, to release the political prisoners, settle the land disputes, and provide resources for just development. What he will actually do remains to be seen.
The first relatively fair and transparent elections in Chiapas' history have been the occasion for a number of dubious claims about the future of the state and the Zapatistas. Historian Jean Meyer, author of Samuel Ruiz in San Cristobal, said in an interview with Proceso magazine that the EZLN will not last long after Salazar's election, its leaders changing to civilian political leaders. Historian Carlos Tello (author of La rebelion en las Canadas) , in the same magazine (Proceso August 13, 2000) predicts the end of the EZLN in one year. The rebellion occurred, the claim goes, because all other avenues were closed. The elections show that new political spaces have opened up. The PRI has been defeated, making the EZLN unnecessary.
But the Zapatistas have always been fighting more than just the PRI. They've been fighting neoliberal economics that puts corporate values ahead of people's. They've been fighting the expropriation and destruction of indigenous people. They've been fighting the marginalization, exploitation, and oppression of those without power. To reverse 500 years of colonization and genocide. If Salazar and Fox really do call off the war against them, the Zapatistas' struggle will only be made easier. Predictions of the EZLN's redundancy are extremely premature.