Chiapas Peasants Pump Up the Volume

The 1994 Zapatista revolt improved the lives of poor laborers. Now they want more.

Under an orange plastic tarp in the broad central plaza in the town of San Cristbal, several-dozen onlookers listen passively as a speaker tries to rally them to the cause of lower electric rates.

Nothing breaks the indifference until the speaker, a young man dressed in the worn clothing of the campesino, or laborer, tells his audience that a meeting his organization recently sought with local electric-power authorities was rebuffed. "We can no longer be disregarded in the patronizing manner that reigned before 1994, as if 1994 never happened," he says to the now-alert and nodding crowd. "In today's Chiapas, all voices must be heard, and our demands met."

Thirty months after the Zapatista National Liberation Army launched an armed rebellion Jan. 1, 1994, that jolted Mexico like an earthquake, the poor and remote southeastern state of Chiapas that the Zapatistas call home is a different place. A submissive population that once silently endured hardship and condescending government has seen the benefits the Zapatistas garnered from their rebellion - negotiations with the government, national and international attention, a new sense of equality and respect - and is claiming those victories as their own.

Now everyone has a grievance to be aired in public forum, and expectations are high that demands be met - from the "50 percent discount" on the price of basic foods that some groups are demanding in a statewide graffiti campaign, to land ownership, clean elections, Indian women's rights, equal opportunity for disabled people, right down to the lower electric rates demanded by the young speaker in San Cristbal.

That is the good side of what has happened. "We see every day the positive aspect of the 1994 uprising, with these new groups acting with a fresh vigor and taking many legitimate grievances to a more attentive public," says a longtime social anthropologist in San Cristbal, who requested anonymity. "There is more space and capacity for protest and participation."

But there is also a darker side to what has changed in this enchanting, diverse state of pine forests and tangled, steamy jungles, where traditionally a few wealthy landowners have lived alongside the third of the population that speaks an Indian language and is rutted in poverty.

The questioning and discrediting of traditional institutions has caused a power vacuum now being filled by new forces: some positive, like Indian-rights activists, some negative, like drug traffickers. That vacuum has led groups with pent-up demands to act unilaterally - invading and settling private land long claimed as a right, for example, and harassing, even kidnapping opponents. In the absence of democratic traditions, many of Chiapas's disputes, especially those involving a shift in political power or economic fortune, sink into violence.

"Low-intensity chaos" is how some observers describe the situation. The governor of Chiapas, Julio Csar Ruiz Ferro, speaks confidently of a "reduction of tension" in the state. With the Zapatistas dedicated to peace negotiations with the government, and the federal government channeling more resources to this long-ignored corner of Mexico, that assessment is in part true.

But others, like the Chiapas anthropologist, worry that the ineffectual peace talks are increasingly "apart" from the central challenges in Chiapas of governability, building a culture of democracy, and updating an economic system based heavily on exploiting natural resources and small-scale farming.

Such changes take time. But time is not something the new activists in Chiapas appear ready to give.

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