Fanning the fires of hope in Chiapas, still

There was one time when I was glad to see the riot place arrive: Sunday afternoon, February 19, 1995 in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas. 

For more than a week, Maya Indigenous people of the Chiapas highlands had protected their cathedral, the seat of Bishop Samuel Ruiz. On that Sunday afternoon, the feared attack had become real as a larger group of about 400 “auténticos coletos” (denoting descendants of the European settlers in the city) hurled stones: the settlers saw the Indigenous people as interlopers, the ones who had no business in the heart of their city.

The defenders stood three deep in scraggly lines surrounding the cathedral. They held flowers. Men, women and children, old and young, Indigenous and Mestizo, Mexican and foreign, held marigolds, lilies and carnations and wore white ribbons across their chests as they faced the attack. They endured the attack, holding blankets over their heads and trying to duck the stones. The woman next to me whispered prayers and repeatedly blessed the rock-throwers: “God, forgive them.”

The mob tried for more than an hour to storm into the cathedral and the diocesan office next to it. Finally, the riot squad arrived and traced a line between the two groups. The people on the steps cheered; the mob dispersed. In the meantime, at least five people, including two reporters, had been injured. 

For 10 days, ever since Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo pledged to capture the leaders of the rebel Zapatista army (EZLN), the people of this diocese had maintained a vigil around the cathedral and diocesan office. That building also housed the National Mediation Commission (CONAI), chaired by Bishop Ruiz and in session at the time of the attack.

Left: a view of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Right: a “wanted” poster that describes Bishop Ruiz variously as a traitor, existentialist, liberation theologian and Marxist – typical of the charges laid against him by his opponents over many years.

For more than a year, Ruiz had been at the centre of ecclesial and political controversies over his decades-long advocacy for and with Indigenous and impoverished people in Chiapas and his role as a mediator between the government and the Zapatistas. The EZLN uprising had begun on January 1, 1994, the day that the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect.

Zedillo failed to capture Zapatista leaders, but instead arrested people who worked for community development organizations (notably Jorge Santiago of DESMI, Economic and Social Development of Mexican Indigenous Peoples). His army also achieved what it considered to be better strategic positions near the Zapatista communities. 

Over the subsequent year, CONAI’s mediation work continued and bore fruit: on February 16, 1996, the government and EZLN representatives signed an Agreement on Indigenous Culture and Rights in San Andrés Sakamch’en. It was not a comprehensive peace deal, but rather the first step in a planned process to address Indigenous rights in Chiapas and beyond. “It was the first time in Mexican history that the state had sat down with Indigenous people to hear their demands,” wrote La Jornada columnist Magdalena Gómez recently. Later that year, the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) was created and continues its work today.

But from the government side, nothing happened! The first agreement has not been implemented; worse, the government negotiators essentially sabotaged a second round that was to address issues of democracy and justice, leading the EZLN to suspend the dialogue on September 4, 1996. It has not been renewed. The EZLN continues to press its cause in multiple public fora in Mexico and far beyond, and the communities persist in building a fairly successful example of Indigenous autonomy. 

Sadly, even the somewhat more progressive government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in power now for more than three years, has failed to move beyond what Gómez called “recycled, low-intensity, neo-Indigenous” policies of individual support and mega-projects without reference to the San Andrés Accords. 

A year ago, the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Centre in San Cristóbal said the San Andrés Accords persist as a framework and reference for the people of Chiapas. “The people who struggle will continue to fan the fire of hope, and history will give an account of this, because despite the war of extermination, the construction of autonomy gives light and fire to women and men throughout the world.”

Parts of this post are adapted from two of my articles published in Catholic New Times, March 5 and 19, 1995.

“I give you a flower,” says a t-shirt from Yajalón, Chiapas.

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