San Andrés: 20 Years Later
Luis Hernandez Navarro
Almost 20 years ago, on 16th February 1996, in San Andres Sakam’chen de los pobres, the San Andres Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture were signed. No photo was taken when the Zapatistas and the federal government stamped their signatures on what were the first substantive commitments about the causes that originated the armed uprising of the Chiapas indigenous.
Although the federal government and the legislators of the Commission for Concord and Pacification (COCOPA) wanted to perform a ceremony with great fanfare, the commanders of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) refused to take to the rooftops. In an impromptu speech Comandante David explained the reasons why they did not want a big celebration: “We want it to be a simple act. We are simple people who live simply and that is the way we want to keep on living.”
Nor did they agree to be photographed. “We came to a small agreement –said Comandante David-. Let’s not fool ourselves, the peace hasn’t been signed. If we do not agree to signing openly and publicly it is because we are right.”
And, after denouncing the attacks perpetuated on them by the government and acknowledging that they “have always betrayed our struggle”, he warned: “We have signed this in private to show that the government has hurt us and that the wound is still hurting.”
The San Andres Accords were signed during a time of great political turmoil in the country. A belligerent national indigenous movement emerged, catalysed by the uprising of the EZLN. The devaluation of the peso in December 1994 precipitated a huge wave of dissatisfaction and vigorous movements of debtors to the bank appeared. The post-election conflicts in Tabasco and Chiapas became a national demand for democracy. The conflict between Carlos Salinas, the outgoing president and Ernesto Zedillo, the incoming president, grew.
The rebel mistrust of that February 16th proved to be premonitory. Once the wave of social discontent was neutralized, the federal government betrayed its word. The Mexican State (that is, the three powers) betrayed the Zapatistas and all the indigenous communities by refusing to fulfil what they had signed in the San Andres Accords. The opportunity to pay the historical debt that the State had to the indigenous communities was lost. Instead of opening the possibility of establishing a new social pact that was inclusive and respected differences, the State decided to maintain the old status quo. Instead of recognising the indigenous communities as social and historical entities with the right to self-determination, the State chose to continue with the policies of rejection and abandonment.
The problem didn’t stop there. At the same time as they decided to diminish the indigenous communities’ rights, the opportunity for a change of regime was lost. San Andres offered the opportunity to create a new set of relationships between society, political parties and the State. Instead of that, a new political reform apart from the agreements in Chiapas was encouraged by the government and the political parties. The parties’ monopoly of political representation was strengthened by the argument that society was experiencing a period of “democratic normalization,” while institutional representation and many other political and social forces that had nothing to do with these parties were left aside. The power of the leaders of the mass corporate organizations remained virtually intact.
However, zapatismo and the indigenous movement, far from lowering their flags after the betrayal, kept up their struggle and their programme. In wide regions of Chiapas and other states they moved towards building autonomy and operating indigenous self-defence. Many local autonomous governments, communitarian police forces, self-managed productive projects, and projects of alternative education and recovery of the native language, began to arise.
At the same time, they reinforced the resistance against dispossession and environmental devastation in all their territories. For two decades the indigenous communities have been leaders in rejecting the use of transgenic seeds and defending the maize, in opposing open-pit mining and deforestation, in the care for water resources and the opposition to privatization while reclaiming communal spaces. Indigenous communities have led important fights in very unfavourable conditions.
In indigenous territories the neoliberal reforms and the looting of natural resources have come up against the actions of the organized indigenous communities. In various regions of the country, the struggles of the organized peoples have stopped or postponed predatory projects.
The state’s decision to abort the dialogue of San Andres and renege on the agreements on indigenous rights and culture precipitated the extension and deepening of the political and social conflicts outside the sphere of institutional representation across the country. Their leaders are outside, or on the edges of, the institutions.
Meanwhile, the political agreement reached between the government and the political parties in 1996 dissolved. Mexican society did not fit into the actually existing political regime. The approval of the independent candidacies (claimed in the table on democracy in San Andres by the Zapatistas and their allies) and the crisis of bureaucracy inside political parties as we know has generated centripetal forces inside the mechanisms of political representation.
In these circumstances, it is not surprising that, twenty years after the signing of the San Andres accords, in the heart of the indigenous movements and those of other excluded groups, are arising new ways of practicing politics, unknown to us until today. These new ways are not going to be willing to take the photo either.
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