Three articles about the historic Zapatista Caravan to Mexico City

Under a New Moon, Resurgent Zapatistas Launch Risky 12 State Trek to Mexico City for Indian Rights

Mexico Barbaro #1094
February 25, 2001
By John Ross

Reported from Chiapas, Mexico City, and the U.S.

The Denver Colorado cafe was packed to the rafters on a snowy Saturday night, all eyes glued to the video screen where raw footage of the New Year's eve takeover of a Chiapas military base by Zapatista rebels was being displayed. Cheers erupted as the unarmed but ski-masked Indians pushed aside the automatic weapons of the troops and declared the camp closed.

Denver's Human Being Company is a bastion of solidarity for the insurgents. Its founder, Kerry Appel, wholesales organic fair trade coffee he buys from rebel farmers in Chiapas and markets under the "Zapatista" label. For his efforts, Appel has twice been deported from Mexico by hostile immigration authorities. Notwithstanding the dangers, he is packing for another trip south to accompany the Zapatista Army of National Liberation on its historic 3000 kilometer "March of Indian Dignity" which left San Cristobal de las Casas in the Mayan highlands of Chiapas February 25th under a new moon and is programmed to arrive in Mexico City on the 11th of March under a full one.

From a British Columbia Catholic church to an El Paso farm workers'
meeting hall, Austin Texas to Hollywood California, resurgent interest in the Zapatista movement is cresting if a recent author's tour of the North American West is any measure. The EZLN's role in shaping recent Mexican history is now examined at prestigious academic forums, and supporters flock to bookstore presentations - three new Zapatista titles have already been released this year.

The current surge of fascination with the Zapatistas signals an amazing bounce-back for a rebel band that less than a 100 days ago had disappeared from public view and whose continued existence was being questioned after five months of stony silence from its leaders. Despite ranks riddled by desertion and no material gain to show for seven years of feisty resistance in the jungles and highlands of Chiapas, the EZLN has recaptured public imagination both in and outside of Mexico.

The catalyst for this sea change has been Mexico's new president Vicente Fox who from the first paragraphs of his December 1st inaugural address extended an olive branch to the long-embattled rebels. Although Fox has yet to completely meet the three conditions the EZLN has demanded in exchange for returning to peace talks with the government, he has sent a much-debated Indian Rights &Culture law onto congress. The ostensible reason for the Zapatistas' two week trek up to Mexico City is to lobby that august body for passage of this landmark legislation.

Despite what promises to be a strong international presence, the Zapatista "march of indigenous dignity" is a profoundly Indian affair not historically distinct from the civil rights movement in the U.S. during the 1960s, whose objectives are to achieve first class citizenship for Mexico's 10,000,000 Indian peoples, long the victims of a vicious - if largely unspoken - racism.

The Indian Rights law pending before congress would grant the nation's 57 distinct indigenous cultures limited autonomy over political, judicial, cultural, agrarian, and environmental facets of their communities and regions.

Indeed, key to the Zapatistas' resiliency in the popular imagination is the movement's links to a half millennium of Indian resistance to European ethno-centricism. "This is a march of those who are the color of the earth" the rebels' colorful spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos declared to 10,000 supporters cramming the cathedral plaza of San Cristobal de las Casas on the eve of the Zapatistas' February 24th departure. The EZLN's 1994 uprising touched a universal nerve of white guilt at the plight of the nation's first peoples that mobilized Mexican civil society and spread the rebels' influence throughout the country and the world.

As the conscious vanguard of indigenous militancy, the EZLN whose ethnic base includes five Chiapas Mayan subgroups, will follow a deeply Indian route on their march up to the capital. From Chiapas, the Zapatista delegation - 23 members of the rebels' general command plus its mestizo spokesperson Marcos - will travel into Oaxaca, a state in which 16 distinct "etnias" (Indian cultures) account for nearly half the general population, before entering the Nahua (descendants of the Aztecs) heartland in Puebla, Veracruz, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo, Queretero, and Guanajuato states.

The EZLN leadership then heads for the Michoacan sierra, the home grounds of the 300,000-strong Purepecha nation where the Zapatistas will sit in session with the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), a formation that includes representatives from most of Mexico's 57 indigenous peoples, and one that the EZLN was instrumental in assembling five years ago.

Before setting foot in Mexico City, the travelers will pass through Morelos and Guerrero states to pay homage to their namesake, the revolutionary martyr Emiliano Zapata, a Nahua farmer himself who fought for the land of his village. The rebels will follow Zapata's old trail through the Indian outskirts of Milpa Alta and Xochimilco before finally touching down in Mexico City, the "Gran Tenochtitlan" of the Aztec empire.

Despite highly publicized efforts by the Fox administration to smooth the way, the rebels' route is fraught with dangers. Just getting out of Chiapas, where ranchers and members of the no longer ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) are viscerally irate at the turn-around in Zapatista fortunes, could be sticky.

Several business federations have called for the arrest of the EZLN leaders once they leave Chiapas, pleading with President Fox that the caravan will be bad for business. One business leader, Raul Picard of the National Transition Chamber (CANACINTRA), even calculates that interest rates will leap from 16% to 28% should a Zapatista be injured or killed during the march.

Leaders of Fox's conservative National Action Party (PAN) in both houses of congress are stridently opposed to the insurgents' appearance in their sacrosanct chambers unless the rebels' take off their masks. The PANista governor of Queretero through whose state the Zapatistas intend to pass, calls the Indians "cowards" and "traitors" who deserve execution rather than accolades. A homophobic PAN congressman in Morelos labels Subcomandante Marcos a "faggot" and challenges him to a fist fight - Saloman Salgado who subsequently resigned from Fox's party, suggested that snipers will halt the advance of the Zapatistas' march.

All along the route, the risk of provocation is latent. Four non-EZLN-affiliated armed groups operate in the territories which the Chiapas rebels will traverse and some like the seriously split Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) are not friendly.

Although President Fox has promised a police and military escort, the EZLN asked the International Red Cross to help ferry the comandantes up to Mexico City. When the IRC claimed that participation in a political event was beyond its mandate, Subcomandante Marcos accused foreign secretary Jorge Caste~eda, a former leftist, of forcing the International Red Cross from the march and setting the rebel leadership up for ambush.

Even if they arrive unscathed in the capital, the EZLN march is a big gamble - they must draw crowds equal or surpassing the number of supporters who have turned out for three previous forays up to the capital, or risk being ignored by Congress. Even if the turn-out is considerable, it is doubtful that the Mexican Congress, long insulated from accountability by political impunity, will respond to the public outcry for passage of the Indian Rights bill.

For Vicente Fox, the Zapatista march is an equally serious gamble. "I am risking my political capital" the new president frankly told reporters on the eve of the march for indigenous dignity. After having lavished his attentions on the Chiapas rebels during the first hundred days of his presidency, Fox's credibility hangs in the balance. Defeat of the Indian Rights bill in Congress would torpedo any chance of an immediate peace, a promise the President has repeatedly made to the Mexican people.

Gunfire, arrest, or a no vote in Congress are not the only hazards facing the EZLN. The shadow of co-optation also creases their path. One example: the nation's two-headed television monopoly, TV Azteca and Televisa, long at war over ratings, have declared "peace" to stage a much hyped "Concert for Paz in Chiapas" in Mexico City's biggest soccer stadium. Apparently, the commercial opportunities presented by the Zapatista march have encouraged the battling TV giants to overcome their adversion towards the EZLN - Televisa and TV Azteca have spent the past seven years vying to outdo each other in insulting the rebels.

>From the first day of the uprising, Televisa has labeled the Zapatistas
"foreigners" and TV Azteca created hand puppets to mock Marcos and ex-San Cristobal de las Casas bishop Samuel Ruiz. A TV Azteca helicopter blew the roof off the local school during an unauthorized landing at the EZLN's most public outpost of La Realidad, deep in the Lacandon jungle, and its crews have long been banned from rebel territory. Now the two monopoly networks are waging a "sign up for peace" campaign that seems designed to portray the EZLN as intransigent. "I'm not the Ricky Martin of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation" Subcomandante Marcos recently told an interviewer, confirming his boycott of the "concert for peace." What the networks will do with an estimated four million pesos in profits from the event, is unspecified. But co-optation is not limited to Televisa and TV Azteca. Ironically, although the EZLN has long been in the forefront of the battle against globalization, the globalization of the event threatens the integrity of the march for indigenous dignity.

Renewed international attention is bringing many luminaries to Mexico - Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, Spanish troubadour Joaquin Sabina, former French first lady Danielle Mitterand, and U.S. novelist Susan Sontag are reportedly booking passage and several thousand international solidarity workers, including 400 plus foreigners expelled from Mexico for pro-EZLN activities under former president Ernesto Zedillo, are expected to accompany the Indians to the capital. Among the most noticeable: several hundred Italians, members of the white overall-clad "White Monkeys" who were forcibly removed from the country in 1998.

Combined with the lionizing of Marcos as an international pop idol, the inevitable media carnival surrounding the Zapatistas could smother the very Indian nature of this historic march. ******************************************************************** John Ross, author of The War Against Oblivion - Zapatista Chronicles 1994-2000, the season by season saga of the Indian rebellion, will accompany the March for Indigenous Dignity through central Mexico.

Conflict in Chiapas: Understanding the Modern Mayan World
by Worth H. Weller, Ben Weller (Photographer), Julia Weller (Photographer)
$16.95, Paperback, March 1, 2000
Rebellion in Chiapas : An Historical Reader
by John Womack (Editor)
$14.36, Paperback , March 1999
Voices from Exile : Violence and Survival in Modern Maya History
by Victor Montejo
$18.17, Hardcover, October 1999
©Copyright 1997-2000 Jeeni Criscenzo