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Zapatistas: Bad For Business

by Martin EspinozaSpecial to CorpWatch
March 22nd, 2001

Subcomandante Marcos with supporters in Mexico.
Subcomandante Marcos with supporters in Mexico.AP/Caivano

Subcomandante Marcos walks through supporters in Mexico. Photo: AP/Caivano
Subcomandante Marcos walks through
supporters in Mexico. Photo: AP/Caivano

Earlier this month, the Zapatistas passed through Acmbaro, a forgotten little city tucked away in the southern end of the state of Guanajuato -- President Vicente Fox's political backyard. Just before the caravan rolled in, a small group of left-minded local activists succeeded in filling the town's main plaza with thousands of anxious onlookers.

This was no small task, since Acmbaro is not a hot bed of progressive politics. In fact, after the event, Alejandra Rosas, a local school teacher and one of the activists, was jokingly told by an acquaintance that she had "let herself fall to the status of an Indian."

"That's the way it is in Acmbaro," Rosas later explained on the phone. "As the saying goes, small town, big hell hole."

As a "hell hole," Acmbaro is not unique. Since the early-1994 uprising by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), the Mexican government has spent a great deal of money waging a media war to discredit the rebel movement. Mexico's two television monopolies Televisa and TV Azteca-where most Mexicans get their news-have reduced the image of the Zapatistas to thugs and criminals. Their coverage of the conflict favored moves to militarize and paramilitarize Chiapas, policies which have cost hundreds of lives and forced thousands into refugee camps. Anti-Zapatista media coverage is the main reason why so many Mexicans were calling for a "mano dura," or heavy-handed solution to the Chiapas uprising.

"The caravan allowed millions of Mexicans to see the Zapatistas first hand," said Rodrigo Ibarra, Rosas's husband. "It tore down barriers in the media that had been erected against them."

The current war between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas is, for the most part, not a war fought with guns, but with ideas. Before the EZLN announced it would come out of the jungle, Mexico's neoliberal forces were winning hands down.


Running Government Like a Business

In fact, Vicente Fox's victory last summer over the autocratic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years, was more a victory for Mexican and foreign corporations than it was for those in Mexico who longed for democracy. Fox's plans to run government like a business, freeze the capital gains tax, impose regressive taxes on food and medicine, and essentially turn peasant landowners into share croppers, go far beyond the previous administration's neoliberal economic policies.

Following his election, the U.S. press hailed Fox as a friend of Wall Street. Like George W. Bush, Fox is a businessman-turned politician; like Bush, his own businesses often performed poorly. Fox's only claim to success was a stint as an executive for Coca Cola's Mexico operations. He has always been a free-market devotee, and many in Mexico consider him to be an instrument of powerful U.S. and other foreign economic interests.

His political history is well documented in the central Mexico state of Guanajuato, where he was governor, and where few people have actually experienced the effects of the economic progress he claimed to have achieved. In one case, Fox attracted a foreign-owned maquiladora to Acmbaro. The city's municipal government was pressured into giving the Taiwanese industrialists almost $1 million worth of public works, property, and utility services. The maquiladora pays only $22 a week to its workers, mostly teenage girls. Now, even as he speaks of Mexico's unfair distribution of wealth, Fox continues to promote the spread of low-wage maquiladoras throughout the country.


The High Cost of Peace in Chiapas

In an effort to distance himself from the strong-arm policies of the previous administration, Fox has decided to publicly embrace the Zapatistas. He has even gone so far as to try to take credit for the march, claiming that such a demonstration would not have played out so peacefully under the PRI.

Fox, who bragged he would resolve the Chiapas conflict in 15 minutes, knows he has a great deal to lose if the Zapatistas return to the jungle without having signed some sort of peace agreement. But making peace with the Zapatistas means granting the rebels territorial autonomy in a region where Fox cannot afford it. No matter how desirable peace would be in Mexico's poverty-stricken South, territorial autonomy for its large indigenous population would be bad for business.

Chiapas is a rich producer of oil, gas, and hydroelectricity, all top commodities for the Mexican economy. Meanwhile the oil-hungry Bush administration has made U.S.-Mexico energy policies a major priority. It's no wonder; Vice President Dick Cheney's former employer Halliburton Co. has milked Pemex for hundreds of millions of dollars in oil services contracts (See Cheney's Oil Investments and the Future of Mexico's Democracy.) Now, Bush proposes building U.S. power plants over the border in Mexico, where environmental regulations go uninforced, as part of a solution to California's power crisis.

Also, the war-torn border state of Chiapas is key to a multi-billion dollar economic development project that targets transportation, oil, tourism, and agriculture industries in the southern part of the country. Known as the Puebla-Panama Plan, the project is a joint venture with Central American countries and extends NAFTA's free-trade policies throughout the region.

But the debate that the Zapatistas have generated should not be couched between globaphobes and globaphiles, notes Acambaro activist Ibarra. "We're not against globalization" he says," but (neoliberalism) is globalizing oppression and marginalization."

Ibarra is convinced that the Zapatistas have sparked a broader movement in Mexico with their march. After the caravan left Acmbaro, it traveled to the nearby state of Michoacan, where it participated in a National Indigenous Congress. There, participants decided that if the Mexican government failed to approve the Indian Rights Bill currently before the federal legislature, a civilian uprising would be inevitable.

"Indigenous people are not like the rest of us in Mexico," says Ibarra. "What you would see is a peaceful revolution not unlike last year's Indigenous revolt in Ecuador."

A peaceful revolution appears to be the only option left to Mexico's marginalized communities. On March 19, after little more than a week in Mexico City, the Zapatistas announced they would leave Mexico City. Fox's right-wing National Action Party (PAN) has stalled the approval of the Indian and Autonomy Right Bill. The PAN has also blocked the Zapatista's request to address a full session of the Mexican Congress, the primary motive for the their visit.

Two days after the EZLN announced it would head back to Chaipas, Fox announced he would release all remaining Zapatista political prisoners and order the retreat of the military from three key Zapatista zones. That would effectively meet the conditions set by the Zapatistas for returning to stalled peace talks. Meanwhile, Fox has publicly blasted members of his party in Congress for their refusal to meet with the EZLN. But the Zapatistas are not convinced of his sincerity.

Fox is indeed in a difficult position. He is overdrawn on his image as a champion of democracy. Meanwhile Mexicans brace themselves for hard times as the county's economy slows from the effects of the global recession. Not only have the Zapatistas' demands for autonomy and justice been heard around the world, they've been embraced by many other Indigenous groups in Mexico.

Addressing the Mexican Congress would have given the Zapatistas an unprecedented platform for promoting indigenous rights and condemning corporate globalization. It's no wonder the PAN-in possible concert with Fox-was so opposed to it. But by coming out of Chiapas, this time EZLN conducted a symbolic repeat of its 1994 uprising. In the Zapatista's war of ideas against neoliberalism, this time could be much more dangerous to the hungry corporations waiting on Mexico's border.

Martin Espinoza is a freelance writer who recently returned from a three-year stay in Acambaro, Guanajuato. He writes for Pacific News Service, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, and City Limits Magazine in New York City.