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MEXICO: Skepticism as UN Summit Opens

The View from a Zapatista Stronghold

by Alejandro RuizWashington Post
March 19th, 2002

EL PORVENIR, Mexico -- This farm village in the mountains of southernmost Mexico is a country apart from Monterrey, the booming industrial center of the north that is playing host to dozens of world leaders this week.

But it is precisely the sort of place they say they want to help.

One of the poorest towns in Mexico, El Porvenir last year signed a sister-city agreement with one of the richest, San Pedro Garza Garcia, on the outskirts of Monterrey in Nuevo Leon state. The pact signed last August with President Vicente Fox on hand was meant to be a model for a new vision of fighting poverty: an exchange of products, help with schooling and technical training, new investment for a town where fewer than one in five homes has electricity.

Monterrey's prestigious universities were to help promote education in the region of 11,000 people, where most students drop out well before reaching high school.

"The strongest should help the weakest," Nuevo Leon Gov. Fernando Canales Clariond said as the agreement was signed.

So far, there's not much sign of a change for the Mam-speaking Mayan Indians who try to grow potatoes at an elevation of 9,240 feet.

"They offered us an exchange: They would give us jackets, trucks and sheep in exchange for the harvest of potatoes and wood," said Hernan Gonzalez, a farmer with 10 children. He said the villages built corrals for the sheep. So far, none have arrived.

The program did bring in 10 computers to stock a "community learning center" for 180 children. Six of them are still working.

Adolfo Rodriguez, a spokesman for the village government, defended the plan, but said some projects have been delayed due to a change of administrations here in January.

Further to the north of the state, in the heartland of the Zapatista revolt, few seem excited by the sudden international focus on poverty.

Mexican governments have proclaimed massive aid programs for the region in the eight years since the revolt leaving some new roads, a few new buildings and a lot of the same old poverty.

"Money is very important, but what we need first is to meet the demands of the Indian people," said a Zapatista in the town of Polho who gave his name only as Santana. "While we don't have that, the problems and the situation we are living in will not change."

Polho has two local governments, one recognized by officials, the other a Zapatista "autonomous municipality" that rejects the government, its money and its promises.

The ski-masked rebels of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, who have become icons for the so-called anti-globalization movement worldwide, purposely staged their revolt on Jan. 1, 1994, the very day that Mexico entered a free-trade area with the United States.

The movement was born out of Maoist recruiting among Chiapas' long-oppressed Indians even if its emphasis veered sharply toward Indian rights immediately after the revolt began and it remains deeply skeptical of the sort of free-market, business-based solutions to poverty promoted by many of the leaders in Monterrey.

Santana said he wasn't opposed to aid. But he said, "It is very important that it arrives in the hands of the Indians and doesn't benefit just a few."

Increasingly, wealthy nations have been conditioning aid to developing countries on leaders of those countries cleaning up corruption and making their political and economic systems more efficient.

Last week, in announcing an additional $5 billion in aid to developing nations over the next three years, President Bush said the money would go only to countries that "walk the hard road" to political and economic stability.

Although many developing nations and aid groups complain that trend amounts to a return to a colonial system in which richer countries dictate the political and economic strategies of the poor ones, many of Chiapas' poor applauded the concept, if only! because of their distrust of their own government.

Sitting by a cooking fire in his dirt-floor house in Nuevo Yibeljoj, a village of Zapatista sympathizers driven out of their homes by paramilitary foes of the rebels, Sebastian Gutierrez Perez complained that governments tend to waste the aid money they receive.

"Even if the government receives money from other countries, it doesn't do its work," the poor coffee farmer said. "We want it to follow through."





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