The Zapatista Struggle

An interview with Cecilia Rodriquez

Cecilia Rodriguez is the U.S. Coordinator of the El Paso, Texas-based National Commission for Democracy in Mexico, USA (NCD). The NCD publicizes the Zapatista struggle in the United States and Canada. It supports the democratization of Mexico through education and organizing north of the Rio Grande River. Rodriguez underwent a 23-day hunger strike in solidarity with the Zapatistas, which she ended in Washington, D.C. on March 10, 1995.

MM: Who are the Zapatistas?

Rodriguez: The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN). They're made up of the indigenous peoples of the [Chiapas] area, primarily the Tzeltzal, Tzotzil, Tojolaval, Chol and others.

MM: Can you describe the mission of the Zapatistas and the environment in which they operate?

 Rodriguez: Their mission is to bring about a political change in Mexico that will allow indigenous people to genuinely change their lives. They are unable, under the present political system, to access any judicial system. They are unable to procure basic necessities of life. They have no redress, no way to get the political system to respond to their needs.

It's a set of local issues that made the EZLN grow and made it develop. But it requires a national change in order for these issues to be addressed.


MM: What are the historical conditions that have led to the uprising?

 Rodriguez: The conditions of enormous discrimination and poverty and oppression. You could compare it to apartheid in South Africa. The unusual thing about Mexico is that it has two faces. To the public it seems like Mexico is very proud of its indigenous communities; but in reality, they are the most marginalized, the most despised. Mexican culture degrades dark skin, while highlighting white skin. The Mexican media is filled with more white faces now than the media in the United States.

Another factor is the way in which the political system continues to close down avenues of redress for indigenous people. The last straw was the elimination of Article 27 from the Constitution. This article guaranteed communal land to farmers. When that guarantee left, people lost all hope of having any legal redress. And that's when the EZLN had its most enormous growth.


MM: What was the significance of Article 27?

 Rodriguez: That was the reason why the revolution of 1910 was fought. It was fought over land and land tenancy. It was primarily indigenous farmers who fought the revolution of 1910.

 Article 27 guaranteed the ownership of land and prevented it from being sold. Land would be passed on from generation to generation. It was something like the homesteaders law. It guaranteed ownership of land, so when there were land disputes, especially when the ranch holders and the land holders in Chiapas began taking over the best land, people could appeal to that constitutional article and say that they were being denied their land. The elimination of Article 27 was part and parcel of the changes that needed to happen politically in order for NAFTA to come into effect. When that was done away with, they had no legal access.

MM: Why was NAFTA such a rallying cry for the Zapatista uprising?

Rodriguez: I think it was, again, the same issue of land. The EZLN is composed of people who are tied to the land, who make their living from the land. They are the tip of an iceberg of discontent in Mexico.

NAFTA eliminated their right to the land, but NAFTA also did many other things; most of all, bringing in a flow of American-made goods that few people could afford. One of the illusions of NAFTA was that Mexico was going to provide 80 million consumers. But by the time it was implemented, people's standard of living was so low that they couldn't afford to buy those American-made goods.

They also did not have the productive capacity, principally because of the $70 billion that has come in since the implementation of NAFTA, $50 billion has been in highly speculative investments, not in factories or physical assets - not in the kinds of things that would create jobs and provide infrastructure for the country. So, the Zapatistas expressed people's tremendous discontent and increasing inability to make a living.


MM: What was the impetus for the Mexican military's offensive earlier this year?

 Rodriguez: I think it all hinges on the status the Mexican government has assigned the EZLN. People have to realize the dual face of the Mexican government. The Mexican government went as far as sending the head of the Justice Department to dialogue with the EZLN. In that way, they gave sort of a de facto legitimacy to the EZLN.

However, when they issued these arrest warrants, they did it under the guise of, "We found these arms caches; the EZLN intends to spread terrorism, therefore we are issuing criminal warrants." By labeling the Zapatistas as terrorists and criminals, the government has essentially shown the other side of their face, the real side; their intent was never to deal with the EZLN in good faith.

There has been almost every violation of human rights that people can imagine: torture, searches without warrants, arrests without due cause, disappearances. There have been 2,400 warrants sworn out. They have moved the military into the Zapatista villages. And what has happened as a result of the terror that the army committed in February of 1995 is that the villagers have abandoned their homes because they are afraid - terrified - of what the military will do. Those who were unfortunate not to be able to flee have been subject to torture. There have been accusations of rapes and mutilation by the Mexican army. The Mexican government completely denies it, even though there have been scathing reports of some abuses by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations.

This has been the nature of the war in Mexico. It is a very dirty war, a war that falls outside of any standard of international humanitarian law.


MM: Can you expand on the political reasons for the recent military initiative?

 Rodriguez: I think you could probably identify a group of people which include Mexican financial interests and American financial interests, who basically want a social and political climate that is "stable." Stability to them means no dissent, low wages and a national budget which favors the wealthy and provides absolutely nothing for the majority of the Mexican people. There are now 40 million poor people in Mexico.

It has been this elite group, allied with the old guard of [the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)], that has engineered this move. This is a group of people who are not accountable to anyone.

There was a very telling memo from the Chase Manhattan Bank that called for the elimination of the Zapatistas and said that Zedillo, were he to follow the monetary policies necessary for a stable investment environment, could not in any way fulfill any of the social programs that the Zapatistas were calling for. We also have a statement from the Heritage Foundation that talks more about Zedillo needing to establish national order.

The CIA was deeply involved in helping the Mexican government develop its case against the Zapatistas. There are American-made weapons being used in the attacks. This is a potential Chile or even a Vietnam, because if and when the Mexican Federal Army is unable to deal with what they have now created, which is a guerrilla war, the United States is going to find itself facing involvement.

MM: Can you comment on the PRI's efforts to undermine the EZLN by pouring money into Zapatista-held territory?

 Rodriguez: Those efforts have consisted of giving meal subsidies, crop subsidies, etc. But because of the corruption that's in place in Chiapas, most of that money goes into the pockets of a few individuals. There is some that is controlled by select indigenous communities at first; but for the most part, it doesn't serve its purpose. For example, the government will come in and construct a school. They'll lay the foundation and they'll build a structure, but they'll never finish it, and it will just sit there. Or they'll come in and they'll plant trees along the road, and never pave the road as it deteriorates. You have towns where the townspeople have to pave their own roads. It's a system of patronage that doesn't ever reach the level of being a social program in any genuine way.


MM: Has the Mexican government bargained in good faith in their negotiations with the Zapatistas?

 Rodriguez: I don't believe that the Mexican government ever bargained in good faith. I think they expected to buy off the EZLN. Beginning in January 1994, they have said, "We'll pave the road to your town. We'll build you a school." The Zapatistas are seeking much more than cosmetic remedies.


MM: What proposals have the Zapatistas put forth, and how many has the Mexican government responded to?

 Rodriguez: The government has said that the Zapatistas had 39 demands and that the government agreed to 34. That's false.

 What they agreed to was to contribute to social programs - to build schools, to pump money into the region, along the lines of programs such as Solidarity [a government-run antipoverty program].

As the back and forth continued, there were secret communications sent to Subcomandante [Marcos] by messenger from Zedillo offering Marcos personal compensation if he would come to some agreement with the Mexican government. This is the PRI's established way of relating to the Mexican people - bribery, extortion, manipulation, lies. The PRI has been shocked that it has been unable to get the EZLN to respond to those tactics.


MM: In the recent peso bailout package arranged by President Clinton, the Mexican government claims it hasn't made any concessions in exchange for the bailout. Is this true?

 Rodriguez: I think they conceded everything. They conceded the income from oil. They conceded, essentially, the right to plan the national budget over the next 10 years and longer. It's almost like you have these two groups of people - one in the States, and one in Mexico, who are completely out of touch with reality, who have never faced, or who don't believe that they face a serious challenge to their power. They say, "These economic policies are what is going to work," regardless of the fact that they are being imposed on an entire nation, and there are millions of people in that nation who will be devastated by those policies. These economic policies are not sustainable for the population.


MM: Who benefits from the peso bailout?

 Rodriguez: Basically, short-term investors, people who were interested in speculating on the stock market and who were making some enormous profits there, and who never really intended to stay in Mexico. I think that had the peso devaluation not happened, they would have moved on. They have no loyalty to any particular market. Once conditions are disfavorable, or when they identify more favorable conditions, they would have moved on anyway. This is the fallacy of the economic model that Salinas developed. He developed a dollar-hungry economy that attracts capital that never intends to stay.


MM: Who are these people that you're talking about?

 Rodriguez: They are Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Chase Manhattan and several mutual funds that were involved in the stock market and that are going to benefit.


MM: What were Mexico's alternatives to the bailout?

 Rodriguez: The alternative was to say, "No." Just like the alternative is to say "No" to the debt. They don't have any other alternative. I think in many ways that's the only option that remains available to the Third World.


MM: What is the vision of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund [IMF] for Mexico's future?

 Rodriguez: I believe that they have a vision that is inappropriate to the country. For the 20 to 25 years that these global policies have been in place, we've seen the results; and for the most part, they have not been positive. What they're trying to do to Mexico is place it in a pressure cooker - make it go through a transformation that it is inappropriate to its present structure.

What has complemented this is the vision of Carlos Salinas - now on the board of Dow Jones - who has been praised by the World Bank and the IMF for the way in which he implemented these economic policies. It's technocracy taken to its limit - people operating with a set of technical notions about how an economy should work, with complete disregard for the people who make that economy go.


MM: How does it differ from the vision of the future of the Zapatistas and their supporters?

 Rodriguez: It's a complete contradiction. You have two opposing world views. The Zapatistas have a view that people need to be provided for and that the wealth of the country should be used for that purpose. People should not be used for the purpose of speculation or as victims for a vampire, which is the relationship that has existed between Mexico and the IMF, the World Bank, and the United States. That relationship is just sucking the country dry, denying any possibility for integrity, economically or politically.

You have this clash. Even if we didn't have the Chase Manhattan Bank report that calls for the Zapatistas' elimination, even if we didn't have the statements of financial leaders in Mexico that call for the elimination of the Zapatistas, that's the reality. They must eliminate the Zapatistas because those two world views completely clash, and the survival of one means the elimination of the other.

MM: What would an alternative EZLN economic development model look like?

 Rodriguez: If you look at the way the EZLN has conducted itself, you know that it has learned from past armed movements. It has done things very differently, to the chagrin and the criticism of many former members of those armed movements. I think that will be the same case in terms of the development model.

We live in a time where we have to look at the failures of socialism in Eastern Europe, and we have to look at the problems of Cuba . Even if you take away the constant assault of the forces against Cuba, its economy has had problems.

It's a very difficult question to answer in terms of giving you any specifics, but I think the specific that I can give you is that that model is going to be based on the lessons of history.

 I think that they're going to look at the characteristics that indigenous communities have used to govern themselves. They're going to look at the balance of the different sectors, the agricultural sector. I think they're going to look at turning what is now an import-driven model into something else. But that's about all I can say about it at this point.


MM: What's the significance of the conservative National Action Party [PAN] victory in the state of Jalisco?

 Rodriguez: It's a concession by the PRI government, which will go through all kinds of shenanigans in order to say, "Yes, Zedillo is really committed to democracy. Here it is. Here is our first evidence: the PAN wins overwhelmingly in Jalisco." The PRI will change. It's kind of like an amoeba, or like one of these science fiction creatures that changes shape to survive. I believe that's what that victory means.

 The [center-left Revolutionary Democratic Party] PRD should have won the 1988 election. Why didn't that happen? Now if PAN or the PRD or some unknown party that may come into existence takes power in the country, will that mean democracy? Even if you have other parties - right wing or conservative - democracy is still at issue, because the possibility of a democracy is directly tied to the amount of control people have over their economy. Because of the way in which the IMF and the World Bank and now these loan packages have been put into place, I think it's irrelevant which party is going to have power.

MM: So, you don't see significant policy differences between the PRI and the PAN?

 Rodriguez: There is a different set of approaches, but neither deals with real democratic change - the kind of change that the Zapatistas envision, which is a change for the poverty-stricken people in Mexico.


MM: Can you comment on the friction between the PRD and the Zapatistas?

 Rodriguez: To do that, people have to understand a little better how the electoral system has worked in Mexico. It is designed in such a way as to preclude any genuine participation. Disgruntled PRI members have left and gone on to form parts of other parties. They remain in control of the PRD leadership. The leadership and the base which constitutes the PRD are two completely different things. In the base, I think you have people who really want to see a change and really believe that change can come through elections. In the leadership you have a lot of opportunism. So the EZLN has dealt with the PRD rather gingerly. The Democratic National Convention (CND), for example, is made up of a lot of members of the PRD, but it has never officially sanctioned the PRD. It has never thrown its support to the PRD. That angered many people shortly before the August elections because many people went to the CND expecting the EZLN to endorse the PRD. The EZLN did not because if you seek a government by the people, then you don't endorse the structure itself.


MM: How strong is popular support for the Zapatistas?

Rodriguez: I think Zapatista support is fairly widespread. There is a lot of sympathy with the Zapatista cause in all the sectors - professional sectors, working class sectors, teachers, students, etc. I think the problem in Mexico is the lack of experienced organizers around the country. But I don't think that's any different than social movements in any other country.

 The most important contribution that any person can make is to work in their own locale, and one of the things that the EZLN has had to deal with is that they'll have someone from Chihuahua come to Chiapas and say, "I want to help. What can I do?" And their answer is always, "Go back to Chihuahua and do it there."

 I think that the fall of the socialist countries, and the failures in Nicaragua and El Salvador and the inability of Cuba to even survive has been devastating to people. And I think people who have been activists and organizers for a long time are discouraged and demoralized and kind of lost.

In the CND you had many arguments between seasoned people and new people who are tired of rhetoric, and who are attempting to find genuine solutions and methods for getting the message out, for getting people organized, for getting a democracy movement in place.

That's what they called upon civil society to do. They said armed struggle is not the solution. It cannot be the only form of struggle. We call upon you, civil society, to organize yourselves and to figure out a way to change this situation and to have a peaceful transition to democracy. And I think that, for all of its pain and difficulty, that that began to happen. That is what the investors and Zedillo are reacting to. That is why they are engineering a national witch hunt, a dirty war, in order to terrorize the people of Mexico, in order to send them a message: "Forget it; you're not in the works here. Your voice is not valid, and if you continue, this is your reward. This is what will befall you."


MM: The Zapatistas are a formidable propaganda force, but can they sustain a prolonged guerrilla war?

 Rodriguez: I think the EZLN can sustain a prolonged guerrilla war. What cannot sustain it is the civilian population, and this is the contradiction of the EZLN. Their greatest strength is the massive popular support that exists for them in the Zapatistas' territory. But it is also their greatest weakness. They could have opted for a military approach in February of 1995 when their people were subjected to torture and extrajudicial executions. They could have said, "The hell with you. This is the way in which we're going to conduct the war, we're going up into the mountains and we're going to fight." What people find difficult to understand is that the EZLN's purpose is social change in Mexico, not armed struggle and its glorification.

I'd say three-quarters of the Zapatistas' energy has been put into propaganda, in that dialogue with the press, in that dialogue with the public about why they are fighting. They cannot, with 10,000 or 12,000 fighters in Chiapas, make frontal attacks on an enemy superior in weaponry and in numbers, but they can take their cause to the public and have the public then respond in partnership. They have said to the public, "You have to act in your own ways. We're not asking you to pick up a gun. But take to the streets. Take to your neighborhoods. Make proposals for how to get a grip on what it is that is happening in the country." This is a different model that people have a hard time dealing with. They categorize them as suicidal, as martyrs, as dreamers and so forth; but what option do you have when you have very poor people who have this integrity and who are willing to fight, and you have this demagoguery that refuses to deal in any genuine way with the aspirations of those poor people? You do what you can do. You create an army and you take your cause to the public and you attempt to build that partnership.

 The saddest thing about Zedillo's military strike is that people really don't understand what kind of miracle was at work in Mexico. They have no notion of it. The most important memory to me of Mexico is the first Democratic National Convention where Marcos gave his speech. They had 6,000 people who attended, and there was an elderly woman in the audience sitting three or four rows behind me who must have been in her sixties. I asked her what she thought of what was happening. She said, "Well, I don't know what to think. The only thing I know is that for the first time in all my life I have hope. I have hope that Mexico can be something different and that I can be proud of belonging to this country."