ANALYSIS. If the world spotlight is turned away from the Chiapas

The Risk
of a Bloodbath


Interview with the Italian neo-Communist Senator Giovanni Russo Spena.
The Christmas massacre is not an isolated incident and the situation in this Mexican State could precipitate

by Roberto Rotondo


Mexican Army vehicles enter a Chiapas village

     "If the world's spotlight is turned away from the Chiapas there will be a bloodbath". Giovanni Russo Spena, a Senator of Italy's neo-Communist party, Rifondazione comunista who has been an attentive observer of Latin American affairs for years, is certain: the massacre of faithful at prayer by paramilitaries in Acteal is not an isolated incident but could be the start of a new phase of repression. "The Mexican Government knows it can't solve the problem of the Chiapas by granting a few subsidies to the indigenous population to make them vacate their lands. So it might also decide to suppress the indigenous resistance by means of a mass attack by the Army". When talk about the Chiapas began in 1994, about Marcos the sub-commandant and about Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, Russo Spena was one of the first observers to intuit the importance of what was happening in that region, so little known until then, located between Mexico and Guatemala. Here, poor farmers were looking for plots of land to cultivate and they had to contend with the large-scale landowners.
     "In this region, as in other parts of Latin America, the local populations have been fighting the increasingly intensive and monopolistic exploitation of resources for about the past 20 years. Just think that the Chiapas' four electric power plants produce 55 per cent of Mexico's total energy even though 30 per cent of this State's housing and up to 90 per cent of the homes of the indigenous communities do not have electricity. Moreover, 30 per cent of Mexico's surface water resources are to be found in the Chiapas while just ten per cent of the Indians have running water at home.
     "The important thing to understand is that in the Chiapas it is not a rearguard action, or the natural resistance on the part of the farming world to modernization, but a front-line battle because what is happening in the Chiapas is happening everywhere there are attempts to apply an economic development model such as the neo-liberal one. Here we have modernity advancing without generating development, a globalization process which leaves in its wake a desperate people, like the survivors of a shipwreck adrift. It is significant that the Zapatist rebellion in the Chiapas exploded on January 1 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Association treaty, engaging Canada, the US and Mexico, was enacted".
     At that time, Russo Spena went to this Mexican region with a European Parliamentary delegation. He has since returned several times, also accompanying the Rifondazone comunista leader Fausto Bertinotti for whom he organized a meeting with Marcos the sub-commandant in January 1997. He explains: "The social resistance in the Chiapas is born of the fusion of three components. The first is represented by the indigenous population, the Maya, who have always tried in their proud way to defend their cultural and linguistic identity. The second has connections with the person of Marcos the sub-commandant who gave himself this title precisely to stress that the real "commandant" was the indigenous community. Even though he goes around with his face hidden in a balaclava hat, we can intuit some things about him. For example, we can tell from the cultured Spanish he speaks that he is a Latin and not a Maya ... And, he has formed a movement, the Zapatists, which is anything but haphazard in that they are people who are able at attracting media attention and they can use the Internet. Marcos is probably a member of the generation that took part in the uprisings of 1968 leaving 350 students dead, killed by the police in Mexico City's Three Cultures Square. After that massacre, many student groups scattered throughout Latin America. We think that one group reached the Selva Lacandona and that in these past 30 years it integrated with the Maya population. The third component, which I find striking as a non-religious man, is the Catholic Church's presence in this zone. When I was there, I met Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia and spent entire days with some of his catechists at San Cristobal. There is no doubt that the Church has carried out a job of evangelization in respect of the indigenous identity. One of the many results of this was to create an awareness by the poorer among them of their rights. We once went to visit a landowner who, his gun on the table, told us: 'Here the only problem is Ruiz Garcia's Church because, by fomenting the indigenous population, it is undermining the foundations of our society'." But Ruiz Garcia's is not the whole Church. Russo Spena replies: "Of course not, but the connotation is important for the landowners believe to be good Catholics and that there is a Catholic Church which is on their side. In this sense, another incident that struck me greatly was a visit to a hospital run by Canadian nuns. They had received death threats from the paramilitaries who were accusing them of hosting political refugees. These gangs organized marches with placards saying: 'Death to the nuns because they are betraying Jesus Christ'. We were able to prevent the worst for the nuns by holding a press conference publicizing the case".
     So far we have analyzed the elements of social resistance. But what is really at stake in the Chiapas? "I should say firstly that the Revolutionary Party currently governing Mexico has become a de facto rightist party over the years. It has introduced constitutional reforms facilitating the comeback of the landowner and, more generally, the monopoly by the few of natural resources. In addition, the so-called market 'globalization' has only served to exasperate already intensive exploitation of these resources. This, then, has forged fractures in society and untipped balances in some sectors of the population. But then again, the neo-liberal system has inevitably created numerous Chiapas in the world: from the drama of children making footballs in South East Asia to the rafts of desperate people floating into Apulia (South Italy) and Europe's own 20 million unemployed. And these are only the cases which have been covered by the press over the past few months and they are not even the most dramatic examples". And yet the liberal model seems the only possible economic model. "I don't think the problem is to come up with an alternative counter-model. I think we must train a strong critical eye on this development model and keep looking for concrete solutions for a better distribution of wealth. Furthermore, we must remember the fragility of this model when applied in developing countries. The crash of the Asian stock exchanges was an example but if we were to list all the crashes of large national banks in Latin America in recent years, the impression we would have is not certainly one of neo-liberalism that allows the world of economics to sleep nights. Talk about globalization! This is a market running wild in which the principal object is finding the cheapest manpower. We must construct a development system in which peace and justice go hand in hand as Fr. Ernesto Balducci told me a few years ago".
     On that question of peace and social justice, Rifondazione comunista has found points in common with the Catholic Church although it follows a different route. Would it be useful to have a more stable relationship with the Church? "We are trying dialogue because neither we nor the Church are interested any longer in those purely ideological confrontations. The diffidence that the Communist culture inherited from an anti-clerical secularism has also now been overcome. When we defend particular social classes, such as the working class, the unemployed and all those who are excluded from the economic process, we find a point in common with the Church which defends the poor and those who come last. But our bases are different and I would not want to confuse things".
     I would conclude by going back for a moment to the danger that the clashes in the Chiapas will heighten. What can be done to prevent that from happening?
     "We Europeans could do something at diplomatic level. Let me explain: the European Parliament has approved a trade treaty with Mexico. One clause says that the accords are subordinate to progress in civil and humanitarian rights. These clauses are usually inserted in international treaties out of formality. Here Europe could apply them, forcing the Mexican Government to resolve the Chiapas problem with a peace-making conference and not by violence".