Pablo Salazar
Chiapas' Pablo Salazar Promises State Of Tolerance

October 26, 2000

Andrew Paxman

Flush from his unprecedented defeat of the ruling party for the governorship of Chiapas, the impoverished Mexican state that witnessed the 1994 Zapatista uprising, Pablo Salazar brought a message of tolerance and a promise of change to the closing lecture in CLAS's New Directions for Mexico series, October 26.

Drawing the largest attendance of the series - close to 200 students, faculty and Bay Area rights activists - Salazar denounced a "monumental tradition of oppression" in Mexico's southernmost state, where one-third of the 4 million population are indígenas (indigenous peoples). "The absence of peace has to do with poverty," he said. "In the past, bad government has generated conflict. Now we will have good government, a government of reconciliation and peace."

Salazar promised change, based on tolerance, education and rule-of-law, but with the caveat that his success as governor would depend in part on the actions of president-elect Fox. "The policies of Vicente Fox will be judged, throughout the world, by what he does in Chiapas: his social policy, his military policy, his economic policy," Salazar said.

Professor Harley Shaiken (left) and Pablo Salazar
Backed by an eight-party opposition coalition, the Alliance for Chiapas, Salazar posted a narrow victory August 20 over the perennially-incumbent Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in what was widely deemed to be one of its bastion states, dealing the party another stunning blow in the wake of Fox's presidential victory of July 2. Salazar is also noteworthy as the first Protestant to be elected governor of a Mexican state in modern times; by Salazar's estimate, 30% of Chiapans adhere to Protestant denominations. Like many opposition politicians, 46-year old Salazar was formerly a member of the PRI. Having practiced law for 15 years, specializing in getting victimized indígenas out of jail, Salazar became a PRI senator in 1994. Three years later, growing disillusioned with the government's commitment to justice in his state, he co-founded a dissident group within the party, and in early 1999 he abandoned the PRI altogether, announcing his candidacy for governor of Chiapas as an independent.

Salazar emphasized tolerance and education at the CLAS lecture, as he outlined the task he faces to bring peace and alleviation of poverty to Chiapas. In an example of his 20-year-horizon planning, the governor said local kindergarten textbooks should be revised to encourage religious tolerance between Catholic and Protestant children, lest they grow up to continue the sectarian violence that has been plaguing the state.

For Salazar, tolerance also means accommodation of indigenous customs. Chiapas has bilingual education, but too often teachers trained in Spanish and (for example) Tzotzil have been dispatched to villages where the native tongue is Chol, a kind of mix-up, the governor implied, that owes to deliberate attempts by the ruling elite to keep indígenas undereducated and marginalized. To help improve Chiapas' primary-school completion rate of just 35% - sinking to 16% in indigenous communities - Salazar is looking at having the school calendar reorganized so that children who help their families during the harvest season can do so without having to drop out.

Education tops a six-point list that Salazar has devised for immediate action once he assumes the governor's seat in Tuxtla Gutierrez. Between his afternoon lecture and a lunchtime meeting with students and faculty affiliated to CLAS, Salazar fleshed out the other five points:

  • Health spending: according to one survey Salazar quoted, 90% of Chiapans live in extreme poverty. Many fall victim to diseases that have been fully eradicated elsewhere.
  • Economic reactivation: areas of promise include tourism, notably Costa Rican-style eco-tourism, and fishing, as the state's coastal waters are warm enough to yield a year-round shrimp harvest. Further, since oil and electricity monopolies Pemex and the CFE both source substantially from Chiapas, Salazar is exploring local taxation of their activities.
  • Environmental policy: Chiapas is Mexico's leading state for biodiversity, but since the late 19th century two-thirds of the Lacandon rainforest have disappeared, much of it cleared by displaced campesinos seeking to grow corn.
  • Justice and an end to impunity: the state's jails are exclusively filled with the very poor, while caciques (community strongmen) and paramilitary groups go unpunished for crimes ranging from land usurpation to killings.
  • Investment in communications infrastructure: Chiapas has 20,000 km (12,500 miles) of roads, but only 4,000 km are paved.

Absent from the list is the demilitarization of Chiapas, which only Fox can mandate. Though the army presence in the state was strengthened yet again before the gubernatorial election, for a reported total of 80,000 troops, Salazar's own position is moderate: there should be a withdrawal, he said, but over a period of months, and the regular army bases that pre-existed the 1994 uprising will and should remain. Salazar won plaudits in the mid-1990s for his independent stance as a negotiator between the government - with which, as a member of the PRI, he was ostensibly aligned - and the Zapatistas. (He now considers the official attitude towards negotiation as having been "a culture of deceit, lies and non-compliance.") Today, Salazar promises pluralism in his administration, pledging to add both women and indígena representatives to the senior ranks of state government, but he doubts that EZLN leader Subcomandante Marcos would even want to participate.

Indeed, once a prolific writer of communiqués from his jungle-shrouded HQ, Marcos has remained eminently silent on the subject of Fox's and Salazar's electoral victories. Observers say that, at the state level, the Zapatistas are not interested in politics, only in establishing autonomy for the indigenous, while at the national level, Marcos is playing wait-and-see with respect to Fox, to gauge how he sets about meeting his campaign pledge of implementing the San Andrés Accords of 1996, which were key to the PRI's negotiated peace with the EZLN and yet have largely gone unfulfilled.

Salazar concluded his talk with an invitation to the international community - whose observers and delegates have frequently been subjected to harassment and expulsion while working in PRI-ruled Chiapas - to continue to monitor events in the state, build bridges with its peoples, and express solidarity with efforts towards peace. He added: "Chiapas is an open wound in Latin America. Help us close that wound. Our arms and our hearts are open to the international community."




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