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Tender shoots of justice appearing in Mexico

What is happening in Mexico is young, tender and vulnerable. As of this writing, new President Vicente Fox has been in office for less than a week. But in that short time, in symbol and substance, he has begun leading his country to a radically new understanding of itself (see story).

In his inaugural address Dec. 1, Fox proclaimed, referring to Mexico’s indigenous peoples: “There will never be a Mexico again without you. There will be a new dawn.”

Those are nice words that, coming from a new president of Mexico, could easily have purchased him some time with that constituency. But he didn’t wait long to act. Within hours of the speech, he had ordered the armed forces to dismantle 53 checkpoints in the volatile southern state of Chiapas. He also said he would send to Congress a law implementing the San Andrés Accord, an agreement between the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas and the government of Mexico. The agreement was negotiated in 1996 by Bishop Samuel Ruiz García, the then archbishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. It was never put into force.

It was reported that Fox boasted during his election campaign that he could untangle the mess in Chiapas in minutes. He surely has made a good start in ending the seven-year standoff between rebels and the government.

It is too early to tell with certainty, but Fox seems to bring to the arena a fundamental shift in attitude that undergirds his political instincts.

He appears to be capitalizing on Mexico’s new moment and on the momentum that naturally gathered behind the first candidate to wrest the presidency from the PRI party that has ruled for the past 70 years.

He has visited the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, symbolically upending a long history of sometimes virulent anti-clericalism. (Perhaps his Jesuit schooling is informing some of his actions.) He pulled Mexican politics -- in PRI years corrupt and beholden to wealthy interests -- in a radically new direction, at least symbolically, by having breakfast with children in a Mexico City slum the day of his inauguration.

More recently, The New York Times reported that Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, Fox’s newly appointed national security chief, was moving to dismantle a widespread network of illegal government wiretaps that he said had been used “not to fight crime but to fight criticism.”

The effect of such bold moves, particularly recognition of the dignity and place of the indigenous people, doesn’t stop at Mexico’s borders. They constitute for the United States a challenge to admit our country’s past transgressions in its treatment of Native Americans and blacks and, more recently, in its complicity in gross abuses against other populations in Latin America.

The church also should take heed, for it was not too long ago that Archbishop Girolamo Prigione, the papal nuncio to Mexico, was advancing the cause of PRI politicians and the wealthiest powers in Mexico. Prigione, now gone from the scene, fought a sinister battle with Ruiz, once announcing publicly that the pope wanted Ruiz to resign. Prigione is widely believed to have encouraged Rome’s distrust of Ruiz. Interestingly, Ruiz’s successor has taken up the cause of the indigenous people.

“The bishops of Chiapas and the Bishops’ Commission for Reconciliation have always insisted on the need for a meaningful reduction of military presence,” said the new bishop in Chiapas, Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, in reaction to recent developments.

He said indigenous Mexicans 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.”

Tender though they may be, welcome new shoots of justice have begun appearing, altering the look of Mexico’s political landscape.

National Catholic Reporter, December 15, 2000