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New president, new dawn for Mexico’s indigenous people

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

“There will never be a Mexico again without you,” Vicente Fox told his indigenous fellow Mexicans in his inauguration address as president of Mexico Dec. 1. “There will be a new dawn.”

The promise of peace implied in those words -- received at first with deep skepticism -- is coming to fruition, bringing hope of an end to seven years of conflict in the southern state of Chiapas.

Within hours of the president’s speech, the Department of Government instructed the armed forces to dismantle 53 checkpoints in Chiapas. These checkpoints had been set up to monitor and harass communities sympathetic to the rebels, the Zapatistas, and to cut them off in the Lacandon Forest from their source of food and supplies.

The elusive leader of the rebels, Sub-Comandante Marcos, said the day after Fox’s speech that he would be willing to participate in peace talks in February if Fox continued to make good on his promises. Peace talks between the indigenous rebels and the Mexican government have been suspended since they broke down in 1996, two years after the Zapatistas, rural Indians demanding political and social reform, declared war on the government. The surprise 1994 attacks in Chiapas by the rebels, calling themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army, provoked a swift counterattack by government troops that left more than 100 people dead and drove the rebels into the jungle, where, under siege by the army, they have remained ever since. Government troops conducted a massacre of Zapatista supporters in 1997.

An extremely poor region of Mexico, Chiapas is marked by lack of adequate housing, food and education.

Fox declared in his speech that his first action as president would be to send to Congress a law implementing the San Andrés Accords, an agreement negotiated in 1996 by Samuel Ruiz García, then bishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas. The agreement committed the parties to basic respect for the diversity of the indigenous population of Chiapas, conservation of natural resources within the territories used and occupied by indigenous peoples, greater participation of the indigenous communities in the control of public expenditures, participation in determining their development plans, control over their administrative and judicial affairs, and autonomy or self-government.

The government never implemented the accords.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was present at the speech, as were Cuba’s Fidel Castro and 11 other Latin American heads of state.

Jesuit-educated Fox has broken sharply with the anti-clerical tradition that has marked all Mexican presidents since the 18th century. Before his inauguration, he visited the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe and spent several minutes in silent prayer. He then went to breakfast with children in a Mexico City slum in work shirt and jeans. Before leaving for the inauguration, he switched to a suit and tie in a slum hovel.

In October, as president-elect, Fox had made public overtures to resume dialogue with the rebels. Zapatista leader Marcos had repulsed them, insisting that negotiations would be impossible until the checkpoints were eliminated. Informed that they were gone, Marcos expressed his delight. “The war is not over yet,” he said, as he announced his intention to travel to Mexico City to urge Congress to pass the bill to implement the San Andres Accords, “but the door is open.”

Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, the new bishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, has joined in approval of the developments. In a statement sent to NCR by his diocesan press office, he said that the majority of Mexicans welcome the new promise for Mexico and for Chiapas.

“We are tired of anxiety and doubt, of instability and confrontations. ... We want peace, justice, liberty and reconciliation. We condemn the misery and marginalization of so many million Mexicans, particularly campesinos and indigenous. ... We greet the plans of the new federal government, which we hope will be progressively implemented, and also the readiness shown by the Zapatistas to renew dialogue.

“The bishops of Chiapas and the Bishops’ Commission for Reconciliation have always insisted on the need for a meaningful reduction of military presence. ... The indigenous are entitled to respect for their culture, their lifestyle, their languages, their way of ensuring justice, their community organization, their reverence for nature, the enjoyment of the lands that are rightfully theirs.”

President Fox has also indicated that he will sign a technical cooperation agreement with Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (and former president of Ireland). Former President Ernesto Zedillo had rejected the agreement after Robinson had publicly criticized his government’s human rights record.

A draft of the accord calls for strengthening government agencies dealing with human rights, for training forensic doctors capable of investigating incidences of torture, and for a national dialogue on the plight of indigenous Mexicans.

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

National Catholic Reporter, December 15, 2000