Chiapas waits

Zapatistas sit out election, hoping for defeat of local PRI

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SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS — On election morning (July 2), Ana Lidia, a Tzeltal Indian mother of six, walked three hours down a heavily patrolled jungle road to cast a ballot in the village of Patihuitz, a Lacandon rain-forest outpost in which the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) has deep roots.

“How can we change things if we don’t vote?” the 28-year-old Indian mother asked, as she folded her ballot and slipped it into a cardboard box at the local schoolhouse.

Her decision to cast a ballot for Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the candidate of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), took courage. Cárdenas and the PRD are hated by militants of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

On the other hand, Lidia’s Zapatista neighbours think anyone who votes is a PRIista — despite assurances from the EZLN’s charismatic leader, Subcomandante Marcos, that sympathizers would not be sanctioned. The Tzeltal mother knew she would be questioned in her community.

“I pray that God will bless us and the PRI will not win,” she says.

But despite her touching faith, the PRI, which had invested a fortune in Chiapas, swept 11 out of 12 federal districts in Mexico’s southernmost state. The long-ruling party’s presidential candidate, Francisco Labastida, beat rightist Vicente Fox by an ample margin on a day that Fox and the conservative National Action Party (PAN) swept the PRI from power for the first time in seven decades. Cárdenas, Lidia’s choice, finished a distant third.

How so? Pablo Salazar, the opposition gubernatorial candidate in upcoming August elections, charges the PRI with diverting 300 million pesos from the Progresa poverty program to buy votes.

In the weeks before the election, long lines of impoverished Indian farmers formed outside banks in Ocosingo to cash their agrarian subsidy checks.

But campesinos in one Zapatista community returned 19,000 pesos in handouts to local authorities, insisting that their votes were not for sale.

In La Realidad, the rebels’ most public outpost, Zapatista loyalists were reportedly offered 500 pesos for their votes by PRI operators.

The EZLN has longstanding reservations about participating in elections.

Corrupt elections

They refuse to endorse candidates for public office — even those calling for military withdrawal from the conflict zone — believing elections to be corrupt and divisive for indigenous communities.

Some observers say the EZLN is biding its time and waiting for the August gubernatorial race, in which they will back Salazar, the first president of the COCOPA legislative commission that oversaw long-dormant peace talks between the Zapatistas and the Zedillo government. An ex-PRI senator, Salazar left the ruling party after Zedillo refused to honour the Indian rights agreement.

If Salazar, who is backed by both Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and president-elect Fox, beats the PRI machine, his victory will brighten the prospects for renewed peace talks.

In his initial comments on the Chiapas quandary, the new president, Fox, who recently became a supporter of the San Andres accords (17 days before the election, to be exact) has expressed a willingness to meet with the EZLN leadership.

Fox campaign manager Rodolfo Elizondo, current party president Luis Bravo Mena, and Luis H. Alvarez, an emeritus member of the PAN hierarchy and former presidential candidate, helped to negotiate the San Andres accords.

The PAN has submitted its own version of the Indian rights agreement to congress. One of its articles would allow autonomous rule to local authorities.

The EZLN, which holds the COCOPA version of the agreement as sacred, says the proposed PAN legislation would have to be retired before negotiations could begin.

Fox option

That will be a delicate task for the new president. Few bridges now exist to the EZLN leadership.

One option for Fox is international mediation of the conflict.

More difficult still will be getting the army to agree to the pullback the EZLN is demanding before any negotiations resume.

With only peripheral ties to the military, the new president will come up against a wall of hard-nosed generals determined to retain the armed forces’ formidable presence in Chiapas.

Military and civilian authority perform a delicate dance of power here.The president’s loyalty to the armed forces is at least as important as the armed forces’ loyalty to the president.

But the quid pro quo of mutual loyalties was forged under seven decades of PRI presidencies. With a new party in power, the military will have to redefine its influence, making a period of muscle-flexing seem inevitable.

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