Chiapas Ten Years Later

Monday, December 26, 2005

New York Times on Zapatistas: 2005

Where Poverty Drove Zapatistas, the Living Is No Easier

New York Times
September 11, 2005

By James C. McKinley Jr

PATIHUITZ, Mexico - The shooting war between the Mexican government and Zapatista rebels in these fertile hills ended long ago, but the struggle for the hearts and minds of ordinary people like Rigoberto Alvarez goes on, with no clear winner in sight.

Mr. Alvarez spent 15 years in the Zapatista rebel army, training in the mountains of southeastern Mexico, but quit four years ago, at the age of 46. Why? He had eight children he could not afford to educate. The government was offering cash incentives for each one in school.

"If I don't find a way to put them through school, my children won't learn to read and write any more than I do," he said as he waited for hours recently under a broiling sun for the chance to enroll his son in a new secondary school. "The struggle is too long. I am already old."

In recent years, the government has poured more money into roads, health clinics, schools and electrification projects in the mountainous backcountry where the Mayans live. Patihuitz, for instance, has electricity, running water and the new secondary school (the classes are to be held in a borrowed house). Officials have handed out cash scholarships and roofing materials.

The Zapatistas, who long ago ceased to be a military threat, have set up communities that reject government aid and organize community projects. In some places, they have also set up farming cooperatives and small factories.

But the grinding poverty that provoked the first rebel uprising in 1994 continues to trap the Indians. Neither the rebels' attempts at self-government nor the government's antipoverty programs have done much to change the odds against indigenous children in these rugged, jungle-covered mountains, according to Mayan farmers inside and outside the Zapatistas.

"It's the same as it ever was," said Manuel Marín, a 46-year-old farmer in Patihuitz, as he gathered beans from one of his fields. "There is no way to change this life."

Many adults are barely literate and speak little or no Spanish. Most of the schools the government has built are too small. Secondary schools are scarce and charge enrollment fees.

The new clinics are often short of medicine. And while the cash grants for children in school buy food and clothes, they are not large enough to make saving possible, many parents say.

"Chiapas continues to be the poorest state in the country, as it was in 1990," said Julio Boltvinik, a professor at the College of Mexico who studies poverty. "The indigenous people really don't have anything that we would call a humane, dignified, modern developed life. They are living in an abysmally precarious state."

Nearly everyone works hard, but there is little profit for most. The 1994 free-trade agreement with the United States has driven prices for corn and beans brutally low. Government crop subsidies and supports have disappeared, erasing any gain from new welfare programs.

As a result, farmers here must spend more to grow crops like corn than they can make selling them. So most now farm only a small section of their land, growing just enough corn and beans to survive and leaving the rest fallow. They look for other ways to earn cash, either hiring themselves out as labor for better-off farmers in the region or migrating to northern Mexico or the southern United States to pick fruit, several said.

"Things are going down the tubes faster and faster," said Peter Rosset, an American professor who runs a center for agricultural policy in Oaxaca. "You can't spend your whole life selling things for below the cost of production. That leads you to move to L.A."

Complicating matters has been the protracted conflict with the rebels, who, in January 1994, marched out of the Lacadona jungle and took over seven towns and dozens of large ranches, dividing the land among poor farmers who used to work on them for about 70 cents a day. A year later, the army drove the guerrillas, led by Subcommander Marcos, back into the mountains. Since then, an uneasy cease-fire has reigned while peace talks have dragged on without resolution.

The rebels have declared they will not cooperate with the government until it fulfills promises it made in a 1996 accord to allow Indians to govern themselves to a large extent in regions where they are the majority. In 2003, frustrated with the inaction of Congress, the Zapatistas pushed ahead on their own, setting up five governmental centers with clinics and schools to oversee dozens of what they call "autonomous municipalities."

The region, as a result, is a patchwork of rebel-run villages, military bases established by the Mexican government and villages where pro-government Indians are a majority. Army trucks with troops rumble up and down the roads. Rebel centers are closed to most outsiders and reporters.

Subcommander Marcos, meanwhile, seems more intent on pushing mainstream politicians to the left than on trying to consolidate rebel territory or improve the rebels' agricultural output.

In the last month, he has held a series of meetings with unionists, left-wing politicians and community groups, calling on them to carry out "a national leftist, anticapitalist program" with the goal of "a new constitution, which is another way of saying a new agreement for a new society."

The rebel leader has also attacked the most popular leftist candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, suggesting that he and his party will sell out ordinary working people once in power.

Mr. Marcos's anticapitalist talk seems out of touch with the daily life of many Indians here.

A new constitution is the farthest thing from the mind of Pepe Luna López, for instance, who lives in San José del Carmen, a Zapatista autonomous community right next to the government-run village of Nuevo Morelia.

Mr. López, who is 35, has seven children ages 4 to 16. They all sleep in a leaky one-room shack with dirt floors and walls of slender poles. None of the children are in school; he refuses to send them to the government school a quarter-mile away and the Zapatista government has sent no teacher.

He farms only two acres of his five, and has no source of cash. His clothes are rags. He does not go to the health clinic down the road in Nuevo Morelia.

"We are resisting," he said. "We cannot accept anything from the government because they have not kept their word."

Another Zapatista farmer, Silvio López González, lives across the street from Nuevo Morelia's government school and health clinic. He, too, will not send his two children to either. But he acknowledges he is not much better off than he was before the 1994 uprising.

"We have 20 years in the struggle, and we are not even halfway there," he said.

For 30 years, Mr. Alvarez has lived in a small village called Tierra Blanca, once solidly in the rebel camp, above the main road about three miles away from the Zapatista center known as La Garrucha. He has 10 acres and a wood shack with a thatched roof. His eight children and his wife sleep on boards above the dirt floor.

Two years ago, however, the government took electricity to Tierra Blanca. And when it started offering scholarships for children in school, Mr. Alvarez gave up the rebel cause and accepted the cash - about $30 a month. His only other source of hard currency was a few coffee trees on his land, which he said brought in about $400 in a good year, $200 in a bad one.

He has also accepted the government's roofing and is building a new house next to the old one.

His eldest son, Rigoberto, completed the sixth grade, then migrated to Baja California to pick tomatoes for $800 a month. He turned 15 in May, far away from home.

Mr. Alvarez's eyes filled with tears when he explained that he could not afford to send Rigoberto to a secondary school; the nearest one then was two hours away. It is his second son, Alfonse, 12, who will go to the school in Patihuitz, a 45-minute walk away.

Education, he says, is the only way to break the chain that binds his children to his mountainous plot of earth.

"Otherwise we die, and the children stay here suffering," he said. "That's the end of it. There is no other step."

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