The Zapatista rebels in Chiapas defiantly broke nearly two years of self-imposed silence by taking over the streets of San Cristóbal de las Casas as the New Year began. More than 20,000 of Mexico’s indigenous people, some traveling on foot for fifteen hours, poured into the plaza of the ancient colonial city. It was the equivalent of 100,000 of New York City’s poorest people marching to Gracie Mansion from the farthest boroughs. The town’s comfortable classes shuddered behind their shutters while thousands of machetes rang “like bells” and torches and bonfires lit the New Year’s sky. Comandantes with colorful names ranging from “Esther” and “Mister” to “Bruce Lee” declared their determination to “globalize rebelliousness and dignity” against those who “are globalizing death.”
This historic march went virtually unremarked in the US media. Apparently, many reporters and critics assumed that the Zapatista’s prolonged media silence meant that the movement was finished. Mexican President Vicente Fox exploited the silence on several occasions to assure global investors that order was restored in Chiapas.
The San Cristóbal march reflected a considerable organizational achievement. Mayan communities have been destabilized by economic crisis, repression and violence over the past decade. Shantytown refugees have swollen the population of San Cristóbal to some 150,000, an increase of 500 percent since the 1970s. “In some Chiapas villages, the only residents are women, children and old men” because hundreds of coffee farmers are forced to migrate monthly, according to the chronicler John Ross. For the first time, gangs and graffiti are beginning to appear. Tens of thousands of Mexican troops continue to occupy the highlands and displace villages. Yet the Zapatista march showed the insurgents to be well organized and intact.
What explains the Zapatistas’ prolonged silence? It seems to be an Indian custom the Zapatistas have incorporated. “In silence, the word is sown. So that it may flower shouting, it goes quiet,” proclaimed a 1996 Zapatista declaration. The silence followed a peak of struggle in early 2001, when hundreds of thousands caravaned to Mexico City in hopes of influencing the government to guarantee Indian rights of self-determination. During the subsequent silence, the Zapatistas returned to local organizing in the nearly forty “autonomous municipalities” they represent in Chiapas. They also undertook a painstaking assessment of the Mexican situation, concluding that the whole economy was becoming one big maquiladora since NAFTA, with government plans for a free-trade zone, called the Plan Panama de Puebla, running through the very heartland of Zapatista resistance. On January 1, NAFTA was expanded further, with more tariffs lifted on North American imports of wheat, rice, pork and poultry.
The lifting of those tariffs expanded the growing resistance to NAFTA, which has been an economic disaster for Mexicans. While never mentioning or crediting the Zapatistas’ warnings, New York Times headlines last year told the story: “In Corn’s Cradle, US Imports Bury Family Farms” (February 26), “Free Market Upheaval Grinds Mexico’s Middle Class” (September 4), “NAFTA to Open Floodgates, Engulfing Rural Mexico” (December 19). In the year 2000, half the Mexican population existed on $4 per day. The maquila industry, once marketed as the cure for joblessness, suffered a 21 percent decline in 2002, with 287,000 jobs disappearing.
The situation will become increasingly unmanageable as long as Washington insists on worshiping the gods of the free market with the same fervor that Hernan Cortés once brandished the Holy Cross. The accompanying silence of the North American media indirectly assists la guerra de baja intensidad (low-intensity warfare), which is the preferred strategy of the Mexican Army and its Pentagon suppliers. Also unreported was the Mexican government’s seizure in December of ten tons of medical supplies and computers destined for Chiapas from religious groups in the United States and Canada.
The only news of the Zapatistas apparently fit to print in the New York Times was a January 1 report of rumors that never materialized. The Times‘s Tim Weiner wrote that Western embassy officials were urging tourists to flee an American-owned retreat ranch near Ocosingo that is listed as one of the top ten destinations in Mexico, according to the Lonely Planet tourist guide. The Zapatistas were allegedly planning to seize the charming resort. It could have been quite an international drama, but it turned out that the Zapatistas were only opposed to expanding the resort. Weiner also reported an “unconfirmed” rumor that the Zapatistas would seize a bridge over the Usumacinta River where a planned hydroelectric dam will flood indigenous communities and Mayan sites. But Weiner chose not to report the only event that actually happened: the march on San Cristóbal.
Weiner did report a war of words that broke out over the plight of Basques in Spain, between Subcomandante Marcos and a Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzón. Marcos alienated much of his intended audience by calling Garzón “a grotesque clown” for his harsh crackdown on Basque separatists. The judge, well-known for his legal pursuit of the former dictator Augusto Pinochet, challenged Marcos to a debate without his mask. Mexican intellectuals including Carlos Fuentes and Carlos Monsiváis condemned Marcos for being soft on Basque terrorism. The duel escalated as Marcos proposed the Canary Islands as a site and called on the Basque separatists to adopt a unilateral truce. Then the Basques criticized Marcos for not informing them of his initiative. Perhaps it was an unintended squabble, although Marcos views the Basques as the equivalent in Spain of the Indians in Mexico, and has written fables in which a beetle named Durito plans to invade Spain in a sardine can to reverse the Conquest. By January the war of words had faded. But the invisible conflict was escalating.