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Chiapas Exodus Reflects on Zapatista Rule

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Times Staff Writer

Like many of those living in grinding poverty deep in the rebel-controlled jungles of southern Mexico, Elias Guillen got tired of waiting for life to get better. So he voted with his feet.

A decade after the Zapatista movement took over swaths of Chiapas and shook Mexico’s political establishment, life in Guillen’s corner of the southern state has not improved. Public services there remain nonexistent. None of his nine children, ages 12 to 31, ever learned to read, partly because of a Zapatista decree banning government assistance in the area.

When the federal Agrarian Reform Ministry offered the poor people living in his hamlet the chance to relocate to this settlement with electricity, streets and a schoolhouse, 26 families, including Guillen’s, jumped at the offer.

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“When the Zapatistas started, they talked about things no one had heard about: liberty, land, shelter and jobs. They said they would take us out of poverty, but in 10 years the results are almost nothing,” said Guillen, 56. “Many people have stopped believing.”

Desertions by people like Guillen are believed to be a factor in the rebels’ releasing a series of communiques this week. The statements culminated Wednesday with a declaration by the movement’s enigmatic leader, Subcommander Marcos, that the rebels would end a decade of armed isolation and embark on a more open, traditional political path.

The departures are part of a trend that has seen larger numbers of Chiapas residents migrate to the United States. Over the last decade, Chiapas has moved from near the bottom to 11th place among the 31 Mexican states and the federal capital in remittances from immigrants in the U.S., according to the Bank of Mexico.

“Since 2002 there has been a huge increase of people from Chiapas who have left for the United States,” said Pablo Romo, founder of the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Center for Human Rights, a group based in San Cristobal de las Casas that advocates for the rights of indigenous people. “There is a tension created by unfulfilled promises.”

But many, like Guillen, are simply moving elsewhere in Chiapas, looking to escape the rebels’ puritanical ideology, communal land policy, militarism and prohibition of government services.

Guillen’s new home in the southeast corner of the state, 130 miles from his former village of San Francisco de Caracol, isn’t ideal. The land is infertile as well as remote. His first crop of corn and beans failed.

“But it’s ours,” said Guillen, who was a squatter in Caracol, located in the Montes Azules ecological reserve.

Marcos acknowledged the discontent in his communiques. He said economic development had been “unequal” in the Lacandona jungle, where an estimated 250,000 indigenous people are thought to live in areas controlled by the Zapatistas. He also acknowledged that some members of the Zapatista army had thrown their weight around, usurping roles that were better left to “democratic” entities.

Marcos stopped short of saying the Zapatista National Liberation Army would lay down its arms, but he said the group had recently decided to seek alliances with groups of workers, students and teachers across Mexico.

President Vicente Fox, speaking at a news conference in Belize on Wednesday, welcomed the announcement, saying he was “at your service, Mr. Marcos.”

On Thursday, Marcos went a step further and said the Zapatistas would soon send a delegation around the country to encourage “the creation of a great leftist alliance to promote a new Mexican Constitution.”

In 2001, the Zapatistas marched on Mexico City to promote a constitutional amendment protecting indigenous rights, but they said the law that was passed didn’t go far enough.

Some commentators believe the Zapatistas’ announcements were an effort to regain some of their damaged political stature.

A victory in next year’s presidential election by Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist, would lessen the force of the Zapatistas’ revolutionary stance, analyst Fernando Escalante wrote in a newspaper column.

Juan Pedro Viqueira, a professor at the Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City, said Marcos may merely be bored and trying to restore his “national profile” after remaining largely silent since 2001.

Marcos announced in May, perhaps in jest, that the rebels would accept an offer from an Italian professional soccer team to play a pair of “fraternal” games. The matches have not been scheduled.

The rebels might also be seeking to regain some of the outside financial support, mainly from sympathizers in Europe, that has dried up in recent years.

According to Mexican intelligence sources, the Zapatistas now receive less than one-third of the $15 million that was donated to them annually in the years after their 1994 uprising.

Sociologist Maria Dolores Paris of the Autonomous Metropolitan University said the Zapatistas were continually harassed by the Mexican army, and they might simply be growing tired of it.

Romo, of the indigenous rights center, said chronic poverty and the encroachment of modern life were pushing people to leave the Zapatista zone.

“There is more television and roads in the zone, so people get out more. Youths, especially, see jeans and tennis shoes that they, like any other youths, want, and there is no money,” Romo said.

Others emphasize the difficulties of the way of life the Zapatistas have imposed. Many who have left the movement had been living on communal farms called “new population centers” the Zapatistas created from the estimated 1,700 Chiapas properties taken over or abandoned after the events of 1994.

While giving impoverished Indians access to farmland, such centers are rife with ethnic conflict. Some residents say they chafe under the Zapatistas’ dictatorial management methods.

In Altamirano, a town in the hills west of the Lacandona jungle that is still a Zapatista stronghold, residents who spoke on condition of anonymity said 200 families had left nearby communes for a variety of reasons, including the desire to own their own land and not be subject to Zapatista dictates on what to grow.

Two brothers said the number of families on their communal farm had plunged from 40 to 18. When they were unable to resolve a dispute with a neighboring family, the Zapatistas meted out punishment, they said, ordering them all to perform 10 days of hard labor.

“We want to produce what we want -- pigs, goats and chickens -- but they don’t let us,” said one brother, who, like others, wants the commune to be subdivided so each family owns the land it works. “The ones like us who work hard end up working for those who don’t.”

Guillen has lost hope that the Zapatistas will improve the lives of the people. “I took this step on my own to give my children a better chance,” he said.


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