Volume 3, Number 66
28 February 2003


Dear Friends,

Peasant rebellion in Chiapas, a remote jungle state far south of Mexico City, has excited the natural inclinations of Quakers to favor the underdog. Many Quaker teams have visited Chiapas, conferring with the Zapatista rebels and bringing back tales of sympathy. But the teams I have encountered at our Meeting and at other conferences do not seem to understand either the background or the real causes of the conflict. Those that returned to our Meeting had communicated only with the Zapatistas, not the government. Therefore, they were unacquainted with efforts made by the government to secure peace. Without in any way diminishing the sympathy that I hold in great quantity for the peasants, this Letter intends to create some objectivity.

Most of the Indians in Chiapas are descendents of the Mayan civilization, whose political system declined under mysterious circumstances around 900 AD. From then until the Spanish conquest, the Mayans were small-scale farmers living in a period, dimly understood by historians, in which wars and slavery were frequent. With the Spanish conquest, the lands in Mexico and Guatemala (as elsewhere in Latin America) were divided among the conquerors, who became hacendados (feudal lords) of huge territories known as haciendas (meaning a total economy, or vast household), with Indians as serfs. Generally, the serfs "belonged" to their masters, used hacienda script as money, bought only what the hacienda store would sell, and lived their entire lives on the hacienda knowing no other citizenship.

In Mexico, the hacienda system was abolished with the Revolution (1910-17), after which hacienda lands all over the country were confiscated and divided among the peasants, in one of two forms: either as communal villages known as ejidos or as small private farms. But Chiapas — far from Mexico City — was virtually forgotten. Many hacendados became caciques (or "bosses") who ran the local government and continued to treat the peasants as serfs, ignoring the land reform. Land registries were vague; land "belonged" to whoever had the power to keep others off. Poverty in Chiapas continued to be the worst in all Mexico. Most peasants today are without running water, electricity, or safe sewage.

In approximately 1965, the government — with little idea of the fragility of rain forest soils — urged farmers from northern states to immigrate into Chiapas to grow coffee, whose world price was then high. Mayan refugees also moved in from Guatemala, to escape military murders and torture. Thus thousands of peasants moved on to public property and also on to the lands of the caciques. When coffee prices fell and soil eroded, these peasants were destitute. They urged the government to continue the land reform by confiscating land belonging to caciques and their cronies.

"The Chiapas land is fertile, but it has been fragmented by decades of 'land reform' that has divided and subdivided formerly productive farms" (Wall Street Journal, 9/25/98). Indeed, the principal problem seems to be overpopulation. No matter what landed system is decided upon, vastly too many people compete for existence in Chiapas.

Pushed in part by the failure of the ejido system to reach more than primitive levels of productivity, and urged on by the United States, the government of Carlos Salinas proposed to turn ejidos into the private property of their peasant occupants, with the right to buy and sell. The peasants, aware that there was not enough land to go around, in January 1994 began to seize what they could and then invaded the lands of the ranch owners. They called themselves Zapatistas, after Emiliano Zapata, a leader in the Mexican revolution who promoted land reform.

Sometime in 1994, a non-Indian who called himself "Subcomandante Marcos" took over leadership of the Zapatista movement. Unlike the Indians, he spoke fluent Spanish; he was later identified as an educated, middle-class Mexican of Spanish descent named Rafael Sebastian Guillen. The Zapatistas turned to him as someone with more influence than they, to plead their cause. Marcos (Guill?n) always said it was not his purpose to overthrow the Mexican government; however, the government — noting that his words and behavior were similar to those of urban students with violent rhetoric — immediately stereotyped him as one of them.

Villagers in Mexico often depend on a patrón for political influence; the patrón controls blocs of votes of "his" peasants. In Chiapas, villages are divided between those that have remained with their caciques as patrón, thus favoring the government, and those that respond to Marcos as their new patrón. (Mexicans who vote without a patrón are mainly urban, educated intellectuals.)

In mid-1994, the government offered many political and judicial changes to mitigate the structures through which its governing party had dominated Chiapas. Many peasants wanted to accept this offer, but Marcos refused it, saying the government could not be trusted. The government, on the other hand, suspected that Marcos turned down the offer because he had in mind something broader than a purely local solution.

Soon after he became patrón for the Zapatistas, Marcos declared that only fundamental changes in the Mexican political system and only broad autonomy for Indian regions would cause his troops to lay down their arms. Since virtually all nonurban Mexico can be construed as "Indian regions" and the "fundamental changes" were interpreted by the government as socialist, it feared a sweeping revolution. Its response has been both carrot and stick: (1) to build schools, roads, hospitals, and infrastructure in the non-Zapatista villages, and (2) to bring massive military equipment into Zapatista villages.

In 1996, the government and the Zapatistas signed a pact to give Chiapanecos "autonomy," or right to form their own kind of government, have schools in their own languages, representation in local and national congresses, and the like. However, neither side gave the other time to implement the pact. The Zapatistas kept on seizing land and buildings, and government promises met a fate described by the Washington Post National Weekly (1/29/96):

"Since the Zapatista rebellion, the Government has funneled millions of dollars into Chiapas for hospitals, schools, roads, and other services. Such efforts, however, often founder through misunderstandings between societies that barely seem to be in the same country. Doctors don't speak the same language as their patients. Patients are accustomed to different kinds of medicine (folk medicine, magic, etc.)"

The New York Times (2/2/98) reported the division of a single village, Polho, into angry residents who formed separate municipal governments, one pro-government and one pro-Zapatista. Each demanded identity documents from their adversary neighbors.

Suppose the Zapatista movement were given complete autonomy in all its districts. What kind of land system, and government, would ensue? "If the EZLN [Zapatista National Liberation Army] constitutional amendments are accepted, Indian communities will be compelled to work their land collectively... Some 50% of the land in Chiapas is already cultivated in communal production units. In Mexico as a whole the figure is 30%. Another proposal by the EZLN is to have Indian communities choose their governments by 'traditional methods.' Requiring community consensus, this system would replace universal and secret suffrage" (New York Times, 1/9/98). So, authoritarian government (the same as in many Indian reservations in the US) and no individual landholding. Is this what the Indians truly want, or is this the idea of Subcomandante Marcos?

(On a sidetrack: As I wonder whether authoritarian rule is what the Chiapanecos want, I muse over authoritarian rule in the United States, in which our President seems to be propelling the nation toward a war that most of the people do not want.)

On Chiapas, my feelings are divided. I want the Zapatistas to control their land and government, but the systems that would be chosen by their leaders (not by the Indians) sound like a repetition of failed authoritarianism. While many outsiders want to "protect" them from that failure, I believe: let them repeat that history, for only thus will they learn that authoritative government does not seek or reflect the will of the people. Indian authority will bring no greater justice than Mexican, but the Chiapanecos must learn that from their own experience.

With the presidency of Vicente Fox Quesada in 2000, prospects began to look brighter. "Within hours of taking office, Mr. Fox began lifting military roadblocks in the state and ordered the soldiers there back to their barracks. He promised to revive proposed laws guaranteeing the rights of Mexico's indigenous groups. Those proposals [had been] the basis of a peace accord negotiated in 1996, but the government rejected them [at that time]. . . Since peace talks broke down in 1996, there has been no real dialogue between the government and the rebels. And though there have been no direct battles either, tensions often erupt into violence between rebel sympathizers and paramilitary groups that human rights groups say have ties to the government." (New York Times, 12/04/2000).

Each side mistrusts the other inordinately. Many overtures for peace talks have failed because one side or the other rejected them. The Zapatistas say that whatever the government promises, it won't do, and the government fears that Marcos wants to spread violent revolution.

I have no sympathy for those who have oppressed the peasants for so long a time. This should be clear from my previous writings on land history and land reform. However, those who do no more than cite the evils of the past offer only sterile prescriptions. The present situation is unsolvable without drastic change, and drastic change takes a long time. Instead of proclaiming the rights of the peasants, would it not be well for Friends to seek reconciliation between opposing forces and to find ways to relocate peasants, thereby to tackle the real problem — overpopulation (many more people than the land can support)?

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

I do not believe in any such thing as "overpopulation". There might be underemployment stemming from a lack of capital or from a lack of property rights, but "overpopulation as a problem" is a concept that I just cannot wrap my head around. Compare the population density of Japan or Singapore or Hong Kong to Chiapas and then tell me that Chiapas is "overpopulated".

— Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Note by Jack: I am surprised that more responses on Chiapas did not come in. Does everyone out there agree with me?


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Roger Conant, Mount Toby Meeting, Leverett (MA).
  • Carol Conzelman, Boulder (CO).
  • Ann Dixon, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Meeting, Assistant Principal Editor.
  • Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2003 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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