Mexico’s New President Vicente Fox and the Zapatistas

Justin Podur 


was talking to a Mexican friend who voted for Vicente Fox in the July elections,

and told her I was a Zapatista supporter. She was appalled. "You’re not

Mexican, you don’t know what’s going on there. You can’t know from spending a

few months there. I’m from there and the decisions made by the government affect

me and my family. And I’m against the Zapatistas."


fine," I said. "Now give me a real reason."


did I support them, she asked. She didn’t know where to begin with her

opposition, so that would be easier.


thought of asking her if I should limit my concern of other people’s suffering

to my family. I thought of telling her about NAFTA, and neoliberal economics and

globalization which turns poor farmers into landless labourers; about

government-sponsored paramilitary and military violence and the theft of

resources from poor Mexicans to rich North American corporations, about racism

and indignities. But we were friends, and this was no lecture. So I said:

"Because I support people when they assert their rights against oppressive

governments– in Mexico and anywhere else."


warned me that I didn’t understand what was really happening. Those poor

indigenous people were being manipulated. They were pawns in a power game of

outside agitators who came along and sold them a story about how they could have

a better life if they rebelled.


didn’t buy it. But it gave me pause.


didn’t buy it because it’s the same line every defender of authority ever

provided when authority’s victims assert their dignity. It’s a kind of thinking

that says: ‘I’m all for the poor and oppressed, but opposed to any specific

thing they might do to resist’. So yes the racism and dispossession and poverty

suffered by indigenous people are appalling. But when they resist, they’re

always being ‘manipulated’, they’re always ‘going about it the wrong way’, it’s

always ‘counterproductive’. Yes the violence of the paramilitaries are

atrocious– but no, that doesn’t mean people should defend themselves.


didn’t buy it because I don’t believe that the careful, patient, organized,

clever, eloquent resistance of the zapatistas is the response of a manipulated



why did it give me pause?


it made me question my credentials. What claim does a privileged person living

in North America have to support a rebellion of people in a country he doesn’t

live in? When he’s safe and doesn’t have to suffer the consequences?


something solidarity movements grapple with. But it’s a question wrongly put.

Because the real question is not credentials. Credentials or no, 45 people were

murdered in a church in Acteal in 1997 by paramilitaries. Credentials or no,

there are 70,000 soldiers occupying the state of Chiapas. There are over 100

political prisoners, mostly supporters of the Zapatistas. There are people

suffering poverty, hunger, displacement, dispossession, racism. And our actions

here, pressuring our own governments, pressuring corporations from our countries

eager to reap the benefits of the exploitation of these people, can help. Our

watchfulness can limit the atrocities that elites can get away with. And if, as

my friend charged, we don’t understand the situation, shouldn’t we try to find

out? Shouldn’t we try to learn what’s happening, where our work could make a

difference, where our struggles overlap, where we can learn from the creative

resistance of others? I think so.


on that assumption, let me now provide an update on what is going on in Chiapas.


December 3, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) held a press

conference in the autonomous municipality of La Realidad. There they announced

their intention to go to Mexico City in February to address the national

government, to demand recognition of their rights as indigenous people and to

argue on behalf of the peace initiative proposed in 1996 (by Cocopa). They

announced their desire to move to a more ‘open politics’. They provided a series

of signals which the government could provide to demonstrate a willingness to

dialogue. The most important of these signals is the demilitarization of the

state. ‘Withdraw the troops’, they asked the new president, ‘and you can be

assured of a positive response from us.’


intention to move to ‘open politics’ comes after the official change of power on

December 1 from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the state party

which had ruled Mexico for 71 years, to the National Action Party (PAN) and its

new President Vicente Fox. The PAN is a right-wing party. In Guanajuato state, a

PAN government made abortion illegal in August. Its economics are the economics

of privatization and corporate power. And while President Fox emphasized

during his campaign that he would choose dialogue, that he would retire the

troops (sometimes he said retire– other times he said reposition or

reorient) the Zapatistas reminded him in an open letter that his predecessor

Zedillo made similar promises before ordering massive military offenses.


Zapatistas emphasized that they would continue to resist the neoliberal economic

policies, the dispossession, and the lack of recognition of indigenous rights.

The only question was whether there was now sufficient political space for

their resistance to be open, or whether they would have to continue as an armed

group, hiding in the jungle.


will be heading to Mexico City in February, unarmed, with a civilian

mobilization, in the hope that that space is now open.


then, the new administration of Vicente Fox will have the chance to show whether

such hopes are justified– it will have the chance to begin the demilitarization

of the state, the chance to begin the end of the low-intensity war in Chiapas.


Chiapas pages are: http://www.zmag.org/chiapas1/index.htm


open letter to Fox is at: http://www.zmag.org/Chiapas1/tofoxdec3.htm




Leave a comment