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A vote for change in Chiapas

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Pablo Salazar Mendiguchía’s election as governor of Chiapas marks the definitive close of the “perfect dictatorship,” as Mexicans describe the 72-year rule of the Institutionalized Revolutionary Party -- PRI. The party’s loss of the presidency of the republic to Vicente Fox of the National Action Party -- PAN -- last month is now compounded, says Mexico City’s Excelsior, by the fall of its most important “electoral bastion.”

La Jornada, another Mexico City daily, concurs, using even stronger language. “This is an unquestionable referendum, a statement of the will of the majority in favor of peace and change. It is the start of the dismemberment of an oligarchic, racist and corrupt system.”

Political analysts identify two agents as prime factors in ending PRI’s political monopoly: the Zapatistas, a rebel force concentrated in Chiapas, and Samuel Ruiz García, retired bishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas. Other than PRI leaders, no one has ever suggested collusion between the two. But Ruiz’s longtime encouragement of the indigenous to take control of their lives developed a political mentality that would make them the sea in which the guerrillas swim.

The January 1994 Zapatista uprising brought the plight of the indigenous for the first time to national and international attention. Ruiz, in turn, as head of the negotiating team between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas, promoted what he called civil society, public opinion expressed in a network of nongovernmental organizations that have played a major role in the national repudiation of the PRI.

Will the change bring peace to Chiapas? That is far from clear. While campaigning, Fox promised to withdraw the army to its pre-1994 positions and to implement the San Andres Accords. Post-election statements suggest, however, that he may recant. The Fox strategy, says Marina Jimenéz, director of the human rights center headed by Ruiz, is to keep talking while continuing the present government’s policies.

Since the Zapatista rebellion six years ago, that government has waged low-intensity warfare in Chiapas, an area close to North Carolina in size and with 4 million people. The bulk of the army has been gradually moved into Chiapas, an additional 11,632 soldiers added in July, for a total of 80,000 in the state, three times the level six years ago. Led by officers trained in psychological warfare and “dirty tricks” at the School of the Americas and other U.S. bases, the troops are deployed in or on the periphery of municipalities sympathetic to the Zapatistas.

Joining them in ever-greater numbers are paramilitary groups organized by the cattle barons and armed surreptitiously by the military, with which they coordinate attacks. Human rights groups report that homes are searched without warrants. Livestock and stored food are stolen. Roadblocks interfere with freedom of movement. Women are molested, and men are arrested on frivolous charges.

International observers are constantly harassed, many expelled without explanation. Asna Jahanjir, U.N. special relator for extrajudicial, arbitrary, and summary executions, reported last February that extrajudicial executions were widespread and ongoing. Entire communities are forced to flee to makeshift refugee camps. The survivors of the Acteal massacre have been displaced for three years. They cannot return to Acteal, they say, because the paramilitary still operates there. The result is an atmosphere of fear, insecurity and further impoverishment of peasants.

The strongest defenders of the victims are church leaders and church-related human rights organizations. Speaking at Guadalupe Sanctuary in July, Raúl Vera López, formerly coadjutor bishop to Ruiz and now bishop of Saltillo, urged President-elect Fox to fulfill his campaign promise to implement the San Andres Accords. These Accords signed in 1996 by the Zapatistas and the federal government committed the government to grant autonomy to the indigenous people of Chiapas, giving them control over their administrative and judicial affairs.

Bishop Felipe Arizmendi, Ruiz’s successor, has named Fr. Joel Padrón his personal secretary. In 1991 Padrón made headlines when Chiapas governor Patrocinio González, angered by Ruiz’s protests against “growing repression,” imprisoned the priest on charges of robbery, looting and organizing gangs. Ruiz, rejecting Gonzalez’s offer to free the priest in return for retracting the accusations about repression, named Padrón diocesan director of prison ministry. Padrón was released after national and international protests of his imprisonment.

Today Padrón is again in the headlines. In an e-mail to President Zedillo he protested that he could not say Mass for the community of Mercedes Isidoro, because the military was terrifying the people. He added that he supported Arizmendi in deploring a recent assassination carried out by people “specially trained for this kind of operation,” meaning paramilitaries.

A pastoral letter issued by Arizmendi early in August is credited with contributing to Salazar’s victory. It stressed the duty not only to vote, but to vote for a candidate with a realistic program to end marginalization and achieve justice and development for all, especially for the indigenous. This was followed up by a news conference in San Cristóbal on the eve of the election at which Ruiz supported Arizmendi’s call to vote.

Sources close to the diocese interpret these actions as establishing Arizmendi’s commitment to his predecessor’s policies. An evaluation of the situation, which Ruiz presented at an August news conference in Mexico City, where he has set up an office, confirms this view. According to Ruiz, Archbishop Girolamo Prigione, while papal nuncio to Mexico, had asked Ruiz to recommend a successor. Ruiz protested that a successor was already named, Raúl Vera. “The pope can change that,” said Prigione. “I hope not,” said Ruiz. “But if he does, my choice would be Arizmendi from the neighboring diocese of Tapachula. We have worked together for years on the problems of Chiapas.”

Ruiz also noted that Arizmendi was taking his new assignment very seriously. When Arizmendi was named secretary general of CELAM (the Latin American Bishops’ Conference) last year, he requested an assistant because the job would demand major attention. “Now he has resigned from CELAM to give all his energies to San Cristóbal,” Ruiz said. With Arizmendi’s commitment and the end of a corrupt regime, prospects are brighter for southern Mexico’s indigenous people.

Gary MacEoin’s e-mail address is gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2000