SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — WHEN towns in the state of Chiapas, such as Bochil and neighboring Soyalo and Simojovel, began declaring themselves ``autonomous'' recently, Mexican newspapers bubbled with the concept. But what does it mean?
Legally, nothing. Supporters of the idea agree that at least for now it is largely symbolic. ``Our autonomy may not be officially recognized, but we know it stands for a change in who governs whom, and who serves whom,'' says Camilo Martinez Diaz, a member of the Bochil municipal council that declared the town autonomous Oct. 12.
Now a swatch of Chiapas, northeast of the capital Tuxtla Gutierrez and including Bochil, has declared itself an autonomous region. It is an area of a few small towns, free from the huge coffee plantations operating elsewhere in the state where workers still earn ``company money,'' spendable only in a company store.
Some protagonists speak of autonomy in political terms, while others emphasize its economic or cultural importance to the mostly Mayan people who have suffered domination for four centuries. As Raymundo Sanchez Barraza, a member of Chiapas's National Intermediation Commission notes, it's really an ``old intellectual idea that found fertile ground in the current Chiapas context to sprout back up.''
As undefined as the idea remains, even its mention was enough to draw fire from powerful quarters. Earlier this month, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari said demands for autonomy are especially dangerous in a state with an international border because they raise the ``risk of secession,'' something he said most indigenous people don't want.
As true as that may be, autonomy supporters say separatism is beside the point. They note that Zapatista leader Subcommander Marcos speaks of autonomy in reference to Spain, where the existence of autonomous regions has not led to independence.
Andres Aubry, an anthropologist with longtime experience in the Chiapas indigenous communities, says the autonomy concept is neither separatist nor exclusionary and much more mature than a lot of officials realize. Its essence, he says, is a vision of development that eschews Mexico's traditional centralization for locally based power and institutions.
``The indigenous don't want the government to create resources for them, they want the local authority to create schools, health services, development programs, and a justice system with ideas specific to here,'' he says. ``It's local development for local people.''