In March, while they were on the March of Indigenous Dignity, on their way to Mexico City to press for the passage of the law on indigenous rights and culture, the Zapatistas berated the ‘hardliners’ in the government who called them terrorists and threatened to imprison them. They weren’t cowed: they were already in prison, they said, so why fear jail? They were already dead, so why fear death? But they weren’t impressed, either: ‘Why are they so afraid of an unarmed march?’ they asked. ‘Haven’t they noticed, we no longer call ourselves ‘comrade’, but ‘brother’ and ‘sister’? If they want a modern left, they should learn to be a modern right.’
It was too much to ask, of course.
On the march, the Zapatistas showed again that they were not just a local movement, nor even a local movement with international support, but a national movement that could bring out tens of thousands of Mexican supporters all the way to the capital. They met with indigenous communities and traveled with the Indigenous National Congress (the CNI). They attended a meeting of the CNI where that congress committed to adopting the autonomous municipality model of organization, building autonomy from the ground up in indigenous communities throughout Mexico. They talked to children and told funny stories about the Zapatista beetle. They went to the university and expressed and received solidarity. They met with teachers, unionists, and everyone who came out to meet them. The whole time, they repeated their 3 demands: withdrawal of troops from 7 key outposts. Release of the Zapatista political prisoners. And the passage of the Cocopa indigenous law, constitutional recognition of the rights and culture of indigenous peoples. The massive mobilization that brought the Zapatistas to the capital was to get them into the Mexican Congress to argue for the law.
They had to threaten to leave before they got the chance, but the Zapatistas had their say in front of the Congress in the end. They argued for the cocopa indigenous law, crafted over years of negotiations and completed in 1996. The law features autonomy and free determination, indigenous peoples as ‘subjects of public right’, the free use of natural resources, election of municipal authorities, the right to regional association and organization, and autonomy in matters of justice.
Those who argued against the law said it would ‘balkanize’ Mexico. It would institutionalize the exclusion of indigenous people.
Exclusion and separation can be disastrous, there’s no question. The separation of India and Pakistan in 1947 came at the cost of 2 million deaths and half a century of wars, now complete with nuclear tensions. But this isn’t what the Zapatistas are asking for, and the not-so-modern right knows it very well, even if they won’t say so. After 500 years of exclusion, the Zapatistas want to make legal what they are going to do anyway: reach out to the rest of Mexico and the world as equals, organize their communities on their terms, use their resources for their development, control their own lives. That would be integration, Comandanta Esther told the Mexican Congress. ‘What we have now is disintegration’.
So, what did the government do, faced with such a sensible proposal for beginning the healing of a 500 year old wound, a proposal that obviously had support of indigenous and non-indigenous in Mexico, a proposal that would have made Mexico’s government a very interesting example of a ‘modern right’?
They passed an indigenous law. Just not the one the Zapatistas wanted. They changed a few things.
Instead of being ‘entities of public right’, or part of the state, indigenous peoples are ‘entities of public interest’: one legal observer said this made indigenous people the equivalent of a ‘Conasupo store’.
Instead of having collective use and enjoyment of natural resources of their lands and territories, indigenous people get use and enjoyment subject to the ‘laws on these matters, as well as the rights acquired by third parties or by members of the community [and] except for those which correspond to strategic areas’.
Instead of regional organization, autonomy is restricted to municipalities. Instead of taking into account the locations of indigenous peoples when establishing electoral districts, the locations of indigenous peoples will be taken into account ‘when feasible’.
And instead of federal protections for autonomy rights, these protections are left to the states. Funny how people so afraid of ‘separation’ and ‘balkanization’ are keen on protecting states’ rights when something progressive is at stake.
And so it stands. They wanted a modern left, and the Zapatistas gave it to them. The Zapatistas asked for a few gestures in return, and didn’t get them. Instead of constitutional recognition of the rights and culture of indigenous peoples, they got ‘Constitutional Recognition of the Rights and Culture of Plantation Owners and Racists’, as an EZLN communiqu put it. Now the dialogue is suspended– again. Indigenous people have been betrayed– again. The low intensity war is still on. But, as the EZLN said in their april 27 communique: ‘know that it’s not over for us’.