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Mexico's Zapatista rebels mark 20 isolated years of pride but remain poor

by Jose Maria Alvarez


In the misty mountain strongholds of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, members and supporters of the Zapatista rebel movement gathered to mark the 20th anniversary of a New Year’s uprising that wrenched the world’s attention to the plight of the country’s impoverished and oft-ignored indigenous.

Clad in ski masks, the Zapatistas and sympathizers from around the world gathered Tuesday to remember an armed uprising that calmed under a government truce after 12 days of bloodshed but was followed by a two-decade standoff.

Before the revolt, “We were fooled, manipulated, controlled and forgotten. We were sunk in ignorance and poverty. But 20 years ago, on these days, we said ‘enough,’ ” an indigenous leader known as Comandante Hortensia told the crowd at one of the celebrations, held in a schoolyard in the town of Oventic.

About 2,000 people from Mexico, the United States, Europe and elsewhere danced, played basketball and sang political songs in the chilly night, as well as listening to Zapatista commanders speak in Spanish and the indigenous languages of Tzotzil and Tzeltal.

The Zapatista rebellion stunned Mexico and drew widespread support from leftists across the world with its message of indigenous rights and opposition to economic globalization. But since then, little has changed in the secretive, closed-off enclaves the Zapatistas have formed in the half-dozen communities they hold.

Poverty remains as bad as or worse than it was before the uprising, in part because the Zapatistas refuse all government aid programs.

And the world’s attention has drifted to other, more outwardly successful efforts in indigenous empowerment.

In Bolivia, where Evo Morales took office as the first indigenous president in 2006, Aymara and Quechua Indians now appear in the presidential Cabinet and as anchors on national news shows.

Pipe-smoking Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos seemed to acknowledge that many have turned their attention elsewhere.

“They left. Some went faster than others. And the majority of them don’t look at us, or they do so with the same distance and intellectual disdain that they did before the dawn of Jan. 1, 1994,” Marcos wrote in a statement released Saturday.

The movement itself has not always encouraged attention. After bursts of protest marches and nationwide tours, jungle conventions and biting, humorous communiques, it has sometimes withdrawn back into its communities for long periods of near-silence.

For some, its greatest achievement was prompting Mexico to enshrine sweeping anti-discrimination measures in its constitution in 2001. Passage followed a Zapatista caravan journey across a dozen states to the capital, climaxing in dramatic speeches by masked rebels in Congress.

But the Zapatistas were enraged when lawmakers watered down sections that interested them most: expanding indigenous autonomy and control over land and natural resources.

Mexico’s indigenous remain an oft-discriminated minority who are often denied entry to, or service at, posh restaurants and stores. They only occasionally receive attention, as when a basketball team of Trique Indian boys, some of whom play shoeless, won a youth basketball tourney this year.

But the Zapatistas, known by their initials as the EZLN, are still alive and kicking, said the Roman Catholic bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, Felipe Arizmendi. The church has long played a role in indigenous movements in Chiapas.

“The EZLN remains alive, not as a military option, but as a social and political organization that fights for a dignified life,” Arizmendi said. “It is an effort to demonstrate that autonomy is possible; you don’t have to depend on the government.”

Indeed, they don’t. The Zapatistas run their own schools and health clinics, though most appear to be terribly underfunded and ill-equipped.

Most Zapatistas still eke out meager livings as corn farmers, with occasional attempts to carve more farmland out of Chiapas’ shrinking jungles.

Still, Marcos said the act of rebellion itself is enough reason to celebrate.