Thoughts from Chiapas
Alicia Swords

In a recent speech about US-Mexican relations, a US embassy representative explained that the priority issues for the Bush administration are immigration and economic relations. “The US wants to extend the benefits of NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] further South, or move Mexicans north and investment south.” Another priority is “legal reforms,” or strengthening the Mexican police and military in the drug war. In the last several months in Chiapas, Mexico, I have seen how free trade and military occupation threaten peoples’ livelihoods, and how peoples’ organizations are strengthening their resistance and building alternatives.

The Zapatista “Good Government Councils”
The Zapatista movement made it clear that NAFTA would exacerbate injustices against poor and indigenous people in Chiapas in southeastern Mexico. I recently visited Oventik which has become a sort of “capital” of the Zapatista autonomous communities since the August 2003 declaration of the “Caracoles” (“snails”) or “Good Government Councils.” It was in this pueblo an hour outside San Cristóbal where there was a big party when the “Good Government” councils were created as an alternative to the “Bad” Mexican government. The councils include representatives of each Zapatista municipality, deepen autonomist decision making in Zapatista communities and establish new relationships with outsiders.

Outsiders are first met by a reception committee and can request to meet with the “Good Government Council” which makes decisions about who comes to do what in the autonomist municipalities. Many foreigners go there to volunteer and learn about Zapatismo. The walls on most of the buildings are painted with beautiful murals, and there are basketball courts, a clinic, a handcrafts store, the offices of a Zapatista coffee cooperative and of the Council of Good Government, etc. The Reception Committee welcomed us, explaining that they want people all over the world to learn about their experiences building autonomy.

Bishop Samuel Ruiz
A few weeks ago, I saw Bishop Samuel Ruiz read a letter to a crowd of his supporters. He’s the bishop that brought Liberation Theology, or the People’s Church, to Chiapas. He ‘walked with the people” for 40 years, and his work to empower indigenous people, along with organizing by campesinos, women, and many others, helped make the Zapatista movement possible. Some of the strongest anti-neoliberal organizations have emerged from the experiences of the People’s Church.

Don Samuel or “Tatik Samuel” as people affectionately call him, shared the message that “Another world is possible.” He noted “signs of life” in Chiapas, including signs of the erosion of the global neoliberal system. He pointed to the global movement against war, the growth of a movement of “the poor” for self-determination and against homogenization, the growing awareness of a sense of global solidarity, feverish organizing activity to demand political co-responsibility and to defend peoples’ rights, and a new kind of social organization involving networks of civil organizations in real dialogue with authorities – not only during election campaigns. He called for building peace with justice and dignity, inter-religious dialogue, and for a new model of unity that respects differences.

The 3rd Chiapan Meeting against Neoliberalism
As I attend workshops and forums by people’s organizations in Chiapas, it’s really inspiring to see people finding their voices, improving their organizing skills, and feeling strong in the face of the various threats against their communities. I have been participating in the meetings with Non-Governmental Organization representatives to organize the 3rd Chiapan Meeting against Neoliberalism, which will take place March 18-21 in a town called Huitiupan. It’s no easy feat to organize a meeting of 500 people in a rural community, but somehow all those people will eat and sleep for four days while they share their experiences around fighting unwanted dams and low intensity warfare, strengthening human rights and developing alternative economic strategies and community reconciliation.

The enthusiasm among activists in Huitiupan is strengthened by their opposition to the series of dams that advocates of the Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) are threatening to build in their communities. The PPP is an economic development initiative spearheaded by the Mexican government and the Inter-American Development Bank to expand and modernize infrastructure in Mexico and Central America. Many indigenous, women’s and campesino organizations oppose the plan because it threatens to displace people from their land, imposing a kind of development that will merely extract resources and labor while destroying the environment and disregarding peoples’ needs and desires for their region.

Women’s Organizing
I’ve also visited communities outside San Cristóbal to meet with women’s organizations and cooperatives that are part of the Independent Women’s Movement and the Convergence of Peoples’ Movements of the Americas (COMPA). Women often “get organized” despite their husbands who would rather they stay at home and cook and in resistance to government programs that many of them see as tempting them to accept hand-outs that will “get them hooked” and compromise their independence. Some are organizing a project to learn about women’s relationships to private and community property, and introducing the concept of “co-property” with men, to challenge women’s exclusion from property holding.

The Military Violates Indigenous Territorial Rights

Recently, the Center for Political Analysis and Economic and Social Research (CAPISE) presented the results of a study about militarization in Chiapas. It found that by occupying land for military bases for extended periods, by illegally possessing and expropriating ejido (collectively worked plots of land that cannot be bought or sold) and communal lands, and by using communities’ natural resources, the Mexican Army’s occupation of Chiapas violates collective indigenous territorial rights. These rights are protected by the San Andres Agreements, Article 27 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the International Labor Organization Convention 169, and the Mexican Constitution. The military strategy treats the people in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve and the Lacandon Jungle as the enemy. Clearly, it aims to remove the human obstacles to the corporate interests in “strategic resources”—oil, water and biodiversity—all of which are concentrated in the jungle.

Coffee producers in Chiapas are among those who have fared worst in the context of free trade. Although organic fair trade coffee may sell for 8 or 10 bucks per pound in the USA, a coffee farmer gets roughly 30 cents of each US dollar per pound (6 pesos per kilo) from the “Coyote”, the intermediaries that sell their coffee. That means that in the US we pay 26 times what a coffee producer earns per pound of coffee, if I did the math right. So that’s why many coffee producers have formed cooperatives, where they can earn from 10 to 20 pesos per kilo (between 1 and 2 dollars for 2 lbs, depending on the cooperative, still 4 to 10 times less than what we pay in the US for coffee). The Northern Chiapas Coffee Network also encourages farmers to diversify and try other products like honey, lychee, and orchids.

Border Militarization

A few weeks ago I went to visit a friend who has been working in the Lacandon Jungle in the east of Chiapas. On our way back, driving a Volkswagen bug around the Guatemala-Mexico border highway, we got stopped 10 times by military and immigration checkpoints—evidence of the Bush administration pressure on Mexico to enforce the Guatemala-MX border as a second border to the US. The soldiers no longer tell you what laws they are there to enforce, although they seem to check for drugs, weapons and illegal immigrants. The military isn’t legally allowed to ask for your identification but they always did anyway. They also checked our luggage and seemed to find our underwear every time. They told us they were doing their job to keep us safe. We said we thought we’d be much safer if we got home before dark. Although we felt harassed, we realized how much harder it would have been for us if we were indigenous, Guatemalan, or from another Central American country. A soldier told me if we wanted the military to do a better job, I should ask my president to send them more money. He certainly seemed to understand the dynamic between our countries!

For more information about current events in Chiapas, please consult <>, <> or <>.