Violence ushers in the New Year

In Chiapas state of Mexico, 1994 was heralded by a peasant uprising. Though opposition to NAFTA is said to be the immediate cause for the revolt, it was more an outburst against years of suffering.

Published: Tuesday 15 February 1994

Living in misery: The indigeno FOR THE residents of San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico's poverty stricken southern state of Chiapas, the New Year began with a bang. Just minutes into 1994 -- as locals and tourists ushered in the New Year with music and fireworks -- Uzi-toting, machete-wielding guerillas of the Zapatista National Liberation Army took control of the town.

They burnt down the local prosecutor's office -- considered responsible for jailing local Indians on the whims of local bosses. However, in the coordinated takeover of four other towns, six policepersons were killed and town halls torched. Many more people died in the fight that followed between the rebels -- who included approximately 200 women -- and government forces.

The rebel peasants had timed their action to coincide with the coming into force of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, Canada and the US. They demanded basic rights for the region's majority Indian population and access to land. NAFTA, they said, would make the rich richer and marginalise Mexico's indigenous population even more.

Though the rebels in Chiapas cited NAFTA as one of the factors behind the uprising, the accord was more the last straw after years of neglect and suffering and also the catalyst. The indigenous people were already burdened by grinding poverty, years of corruption and injustice. Chiapas has been the site of long-standing conflicts between landless peasants and wealthy ranchers and farmers.

A different society In fact, the Chiapas uprising is a reminder of the existence of a Mexico far removed from the modern facilities of the country's capital city. This represents a sizeable proportion of the 85 million inhabitants of the country and consists mainly of peasants and small-scale farmers working on land who view modernisation as a threat to their traditional way of life.

It is ironic that the impoverished Chiapas region is rich in flora and fauna, even though most of the thick tropical forest that once stretched from the lowlands up through the foothills of the sierra to the steep and misty mountains has been cleared for agriculture. Most of the farmers are poor and many are on the edge of subsistence. Logging of what remains of the Mexican rainforest is now intensifying. Cattle ranching, the major cause of deforestation, is now the state's biggest agricultural activity and is growing at the rate of 14 per cent a year.

No internal benefits
Though Chiapas state produces 50 per cent of Mexico's hydroelectric power, half the population has no access to drinking water and electricity. Its dairy and beef industry make the state the biggest source of protein in Mexico, but its people have the highest protein deficiency in the country. Chiapas, along with Tabasco state, produces 80 per cent of the country's onshore oil. However, 60 per cent of the people live below the poverty line.

Now these people have to shoulder the additional burden that the implementation of NAFTA will put on them. The losers in Mexico -- because of the accord -- will be concentrated in basic grains and livestock production, capital intensive services and small-scale manufacturing.

Prices of cereals, which the peasants grow to exchange for essentials, will be driven down by cheaper foods from efficient US producers. Once the pact removes all barriers to US grain imports, 90 per cent of the maize farmers -- 1.6 million families -- will be put out of business by cheap US maize. Besides, the government has adopted a variety of measures that are already squeezing the small-scale peasantry.

Outside support
Many social groups have supported the peasants in their struggle, prominent among which is the church. A declaration by the Mexican Bishops' Conference states the conflict is a call from a "suffering people that we all must listen to...those in authority should not try to violently repress them. The very peasants who have taken up arms have said this war is not to destroy but rather to build a better homeland." The government has accused the Church of fomenting unrest and encouraging an armed uprising.

Besides, a joint statement by Mexican non-governmental organisations confirmed that "the prevailing conditions for many sectors of the population have been constantly deteriorating".

The revolt has also been supported by groups in other countries. Canadian native leaders have criticised the Mexican government and have expressed their support for the Mexican rebels. The Raritan-Brunswick Greens of New Jersey said the rebellion was a "fully justified" reaction of the indigenous groups to the additional burden they will have to bear if the measures adopted by the Mexican government take hold.

The action by the peasants severely embarrassed Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who pushed for NAFTA. The Mexican government was of the view that the uprising had little to do with NAFTA. Said a spokesperson for the Mexican president: "Obviously, this has to do with the poverty and backwardness in the area. But that is a problem that has gone on for 500 years."

Mexican government officials have also suggested that the Zapatista movement is connected to Guatemalan rebels across the border from Chiapas. The suggestion may not there are thousands of Guatemalan refugees living in the area.

Whatever the long-term effects of the uprising, it has definitely managed to stun the government. The rebellion showed the Chiapas peasants were tired of promises and would fight, with arms if necessary, for their survival.

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