LIKE a match tossed on the parched political tinder of the Mexican countryside, the Chiapas rebellion is beginning to ignite brush fires of discontent elsewhere.
Emboldened and encouraged by the armed New Year's Day uprising of Indians in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, impoverished peasant and indigenous groups elsewhere in the country are expressing dissent over government policies. None are taking up arms. But acts of civil disobedience are on the rise.
One short-term consequence of the mini-uprisings may be that the Zapatista National Liberation Army, known by its Spanish initials, EZLN, will wield more leverage at the negotiating table, analysts say. (Due to delays over logistics and security, peace talks may not begin until this weekend.) If the dissent endures or spreads, they say, it could cause political instability. And it may push the ruling party candidate into costly promises he could have trouble keeping if he wins the August presidential elections.
``In an election year, everyone is trying to strike a deal for their votes. Now we have the added context of Chiapas and a growing wave of groups making a common front with the Zapatistas. I don't know if the government can easily escape this wave,'' says Federico Estevez, political scientist at the Mexican Autonomous Technological Institute, a private Mexico City university.
The estimated 2,000 members of the EZLN are mostly poor Mayan Indian farmers. On Feb. 6, Mexican newspapers published a letter from the EZLN leadership calling upon ``all good men of this land, Indians and non-Indians, men and women, old and young'' not to ``abandon us, brothers. Take our blood as nourishment.... Don't let this be in vain.''
The response has been rapid.
In Puebla on Feb. 8, a new peasant group calling itself the ``Southern Puebla Zapatista Movement'' was formed. It claims to be in direct communication with the EZLN and draws support from 3,000 people in 60 Mixtec Indian communities. The Puebla group says it backs the ``social and political plans'' of the EZLN.
``Our objectives: fight against poverty, for work, land, independence, liberty, democracy, and peace,'' said Gaudencio Ruiz, ex-deputy of the Mexican Socialist Party. ``They can't accuse us of being Central Americans. We are Mixtec people and the only thing we can lose by uniting with this movement is this misery.''
In Michoacan, sugar cane workers who have been protesting the closure of a local processing plant for more than a year, claim they will now join ranks with the EZLN. ``We've been talking with the government for a long time and they've given us no solution,'' said sugar laborer Ana Maria Ponce in a Mexican newspaper. Cane worker union officials say fewer than 200 of the 2,000 workers support the EZLN, but the union confirms plans to send a five-member committee to Chiapas to meet with the Zapatistas.
Also in Michoacan, on Feb. 7, 10 municipal presidents of Purepechan Indian communities referred to the EZLN in a statement. They protested the ``broken promises'' and the misuse of public works funds by the ruling party. The minister overseeing those funds, Luis Donaldo Colosio, is now the ruling party's presidential candidate. ``Michoacan isn't Chiapas, but we're organized,'' they said.
In Guerrero, where the last Mexican guerrilla uprising occurred 20 years ago, indigenous groups were among the first to publicly back the Zapatistas. ``We support all their demands. We know firsthand about corruption and broken promises. But the solution is via dialogue, not arms,'' says Eustaquio Celestino, a member of the Council of Nahuatl People.
In Chiapas state, many peasant organizations also support the Zapatista agenda. Recently, some groups have begun emulating EZLN tactics. There are reports of at least five town halls occupied since Feb. 7. Peasants blocked the Pan-American Highway leading into Teopisca, a town about 30 miles south of San Cristobal de las Casas, protesting alleged corruption by the town mayor. The demonstrators were not armed or pledging allegiance to the EZLN, but they admit the Zapatistas ``opened their eyes.''
The Mexican government is well aware of the Zapatista phenomenon. At a recent meeting, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari gave instructions to government officials to ``be attentive to social demands,'' one official said. ``There are going to be people who'll take advantage of this situation to advance their cause,'' he said. ``But it is important to analyze which demands are justified and which are only grabbing publicity.''
Justified or not, indigenous groups have seen how effectively the Zapatistas grabbed the government's attention. ``Don't play with us,'' said Genaro Dominguez, director of the National Coordination of Indian Communities, ``because Zapatistas could start to appear in every state of the Republic.''