John Ross
Putting the Zapatistas into History:
Indian Rebellion in the Foxian Future"

November 29, 2000

Andrew Paxman

Veteran journalist and former Bay Area activist John Ross cast doubt on the ability of President Vicente Fox to wring change in the conflict-scarred Mexican state of Chiapas at a CLAS-hosted talk, "Putting the Zapatistas into History: Indian Rebellion in the Foxian Future," November 29.

"Fox is not going to solve the problems of the country," predicted Ross. Prospects for a resolution to the Chiapas conflict - dating back to the EZLN uprising of January 1994 - are particularly murky, he said, given the continued presence of paramilitary groups and the irritation that Fox has caused many generals by making his own choice for secretary of defense. Traditionally, a selection has been offered by the army and rubber-stamped by the president.

John Ross

Visiting Berkeley on a U.S. tour to promote "The War Against Oblivion: The Zapatista Chronicles 1994-2000" (Common Courage Press), the Mexico City-based author is one of the best-known authorities on Chiapas writing in English. He attributed the lengthy silence from Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos, who had issued no statement on Fox's electoral victory of July 2, to an EZLN leadership that is "seriously divided as to what to do next." (The EZLN chief resumed his communiqués shortly after Ross's presentation, on the day of the new president's investiture, December 1. "For us, the nightmare ends today," Marcos wrote. "Another could follow, or it could be a new dawn. We will do everything in our power to make that dawn flourish.")

Recent events have taken the Zapatistas by surprise. Marcos had predicted a PRI victory at the national polls. Not only was he wrong on that score, but in August the PRI failed even to retain the governorship of Chiapas. In 1994, said Ross, "The EZLN declared war on the government, claiming elections don't work, but they worked in 1997 [when the PRI lost the capital's city hall to the PRD] and they worked in 2000."

But Ross, whose works include the award-winning 1995 study of Chiapas "Rebellion from the Roots," by no means considers the EZLN obsolete. As he wrote in a recent column, entitled "Are the Zapatistas History?": "In Chiapas, rebellion is often subterranean, running underground until it gathers sufficient force to break into the sunlight and shatter the silence." Regretfully, Ross anticipates further massacres of Mexico's indigenous peoples, such as that at Acteal in December 1997, when 46 Tzotzil EZLN supporters were killed by paramilitaries. And in turn, he expects renewed armed resistance from the Zapatistas.

As for the national landscape, Ross reaffirmed his long-held faith in the left-of-center PRD, a party that finished a distant third in the presidential election, after Fox's right-of-center PAN and the long-governing PRI. According to Ross, for whom a PAN failure to live up to expectations is as predictable as Christmas, the PRD stands a great chance of recovery in the mid-term elections of 2003 and of victory in the presidential bout of 2006.

"Today it would appear that [outgoing Mexico City mayor] Rosario Robles is the PRD up-and-comer," Ross said. Though her successor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is now the ranking elected official from the PRD, Ross praised Robles for her brash style and innovative policies during her short term in office and predicted that she would succeed Amalia García as leader of the PRD and go on to become Mexico's first woman president.

Having succeeded Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, who quit the mayoralty in 1999 to begin his bid for president, Robles made headlines by using the capital's massive downtown zócalo (central plaza) as a policy showcase. Ross described how she had Mexican films shown for free in the square, catering to folks unable to afford rising theater prices, and recently arranged for free gynecological exams there, an offer that drew tens of thousands of women.

Fox, on the other hand, is a "supreme marketer" whose campaign drew heavily on his experience as CEO of Coca Cola in Mexico. His sexenio (six-year term), said Ross, will be a business administration, and the problem with this is that "in Mexico there is no trickle-down." He noted that the Fox camp has itself admitted that 70 million of Mexico's 97 million population live in poverty, while that among those poor, 27 million meet the United Nations definition of "extreme poverty," unable to earn enough to meet daily nutritional needs. "Until there's a more equal distribution of wealth in Mexico, there will always be a lack of stability," Ross said, in allusion to the Chiapan uprising. "I don't believe that Fox is the man to do it."

Ross, who first visited Mexico in 1958 and has lived there continuously since 1985, said Fox also faces the difficult task of contending with the "sins of the PRI." He has proposed a Transparency Commission, to investigate past electoral fraud and political corruption, but the PRI (which still has considerable weight in congress) will likely stymie its efforts. He has pledged to curtail drug traffickers, but faces the obstacle of an army that in recent years has fallen prey to corruption by the cartels; 160 officers, including President Ernesto Zedillo's former drug czar, are now in jail.

Finally, Fox has promised to revive the 1996 San Andrés Accords, designed to resolve the Chiapas conflict by promising a degree of autonomy to indigenous peoples but effectively suspended after attempts by Zedillo to modify them. Ross doubts that Fox has the congressional votes to ratify the Accords, given that they include 12 constitutional amendments requiring two-thirds majorities for passage. He also doubts that Fox carries much influence over the army, which would be crucial for effecting the withdrawal of an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 troops from the conflict zone.

Excerpt from "The War Against Oblivion":

"The days to come will be enlivened by change and counterchange. Chiapas remains stuck in the muck the PRI left behind, and the horizon is troubled by the prospect of renewed violence. The wounded PRI dinosaur and its military and paramilitary assets will not abdicate voluntarily. The new president will not easily find common ground with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Like the first Zapata, who in 1910 struck an alliance with another rancher from the north named Francisco Madero to get his village lands back, the EZLN and the first post-PRI president of Mexico may agree to a halt in hostilities, but when the president fails to deliver, as did Madero, the rebels will inevitably dig up their guns again and resume this war against oblivion."

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