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.

What is to be done? Tolstoy, Lenin, John the Baptist and recent elections

Xiomara Castro, president-elect in Honduras. Right: “Long live the People in Resistance” – post coup graffiti.

Soon after my return to Canada from my first visit to the Dominican Republic in 1983, I saw Peter Weir’s brilliant film, In a Year of Living Dangerously. As a socialist option in Indonesia collapses through local intrigue and U.S. intervention, Linda Hunt’s character, Billy Kwan, asks obsessively: “What is to be done?”

In the wake of my encounters with Haitian cane-cutters and Dominican and Haitian activists, it became my question too.

Billy Kwan’s question alludes to Lenin’s 1902 manifesto that called for a new vanguard organization that would be dedicated to taking power. Lenin took his title from two earlier works by Russian authors. In 1863, Nicholas Chernyshevsky issued a manifesto that imagined a new social order. Twenty years later, Leo Tolstoy took the same title to offer a vision of the renewal of individual moral responsibility.

But the question actually comes from the Bible. In Luke 3:10—part of the lectionary readings in many churches this Sunday, Dec. 5, the second Sunday of Advent—the people ask John the Baptist: “What are we to do?” And John answered, “If you have two coats, give one to the person who has none; and if you have food, do the same.” 

Later, in Luke 12:16-21, the question appears in Jesus’ story about the rich fool: “There was a rich man and his land had produced a good harvest. He thought: ‘What shall I do? For I am short of room to store my harvest.’So this is what he planned: ‘I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones to store all this grain, which is my wealth. Then I may say to myself: My friend, you have a lot of good things put by for many years. Rest, eat, drink and enjoy yourself.’ But God said to him: ‘You fool! This very night your life will be taken from you; tell me who shall get all you have put aside?’ This is the lot of the one who stores up riches instead of amassing for God.”

Life is too short for the poor to wait for wealth to trickle across the greatest breach between rich and poor that this planet has ever known. While some of us in the North think we have the luxury of sitting back to see how things go—except that climate change seems to have finally got our attention—the impoverished must always take risks and try something new.

Since the election of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970 and despite the coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet three years later, the left in power in Latin America has tried to govern according to the rules of liberal democracy, arguably without sufficient regard for the roles of money, foreign interference and private media companies.

Confronted by poverty, after “lost decades” of development, social movements in Latin America began to develop alternative policy approaches in the 1990s. Smart politicians paid attention and in one country after another—imperfectly, with lots of mistakes—the “formal democracies” of old began to be transformed.

That “pink wave” did not last. A military coups in Honduras and Bolivia, parliamentary coups (or “lawfare”) in Paraguay and Brazil, devastating impacts of U.S.-led (backed by Canada) sanctions in Venezuela, the power of money in Ecuador and petty corruption all weakened the drive for lasting change.

Left and centre: Chile’s election pits Gabriel Boric against José Antonio Kast. Right: the party of Nicolás Maduro won most regional elections in Venezuela. (Images from Página 12, Argentina)

A second progressive wave?

In October 2020, voters in Bolivia restored the “Movement for Socialism” (MAS) party to power just a year after the coup. In June, voters in Peru elected a rural teacher, Pedro Castillo, to be their president. In November, Venezuela’s ruling PSUV party won almost all state-governor races. Later in November, voters in Honduras chose Xiomara Castro, whose husband Mel Zelaya had been overthrown in a coup backed by the United States and Canada in 2009, to be their new president. 

The next test comes in Chile on Dec. 19, when a Pinochet-loyalist, José Antonio Kast, faces a centre-left candidate, Gabriel Boric, in a second-round run-off vote.

No country is the same as another, and specific issues pertain to each of the elections noted above. But the big loser in most of these votes is the United States, together with ever more deferential Canada. Latin Americans are again choosing leaders who do not have the interests of the United States at heart. 

Mexico and the world: “For the good of all, the poor come first”

JIM HODGSON

As Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), gets ready to meet Thursday, Nov. 18, with U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Nov. 18, I prepared a few notes to keep in mind.

In the lead-up to the summit, much attention is paid to U.S. “Buy America” initiatives that threaten the (messy and often-unfair) market created after 1994 by the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). On that issue, Trudeau and AMLO will each back the other, especially with regard to the automobile industry.

But there are other issues.

Most media fail to understand the Mexican president, or worse: they misrepresent his intent to put impoverished people at the centre of policy-making. I’ll touch on two issues here—energy and Mexican proposals on international development—but their treatment has an impact on climate, deforestation, corruption and migration.

AMLO in Juárez, Chiapas, July 2014–campaigning four years ahead of the 2018 election. Behind him, the lower part of his party’s banner says in part: “We reject the energy reform.” Photo: Jim Hodgson

Energy—and learning about coal and colonialism

One of the points of tension in the Glasgow climate negotiations was the enormous advantage the rich countries of the global “North” have over countries in the global “South,” most of which still struggle to overcome colonial and neo-colonial exploitation. 

And one of the countries that gets criticized for not doing more is Mexico, where energy policy has been a hot topic for most of the past century. (In 1925, when Mexico declared all petroleum products to be of “public use,” and then in 1938 when Mexico expropriated assets of foreign oil companies, the United States (which always sees its corporations’ interests as national interests) objected. Mexico excluded energy from NAFTA, but governments from 2000 to 2018 began allowed limited foreign investment in the sector. AMLO is now trying to reform those reforms.)

While the Mexican representative in Glasgow criticized the last-minute move by India and China to change the language on coal from “phase-out” to “phase-down,” Mexico currently has no phase-out policy in place

In Glasgow, Prime Minister Trudeau repeated his campaign pledge to stop the export of “thermal coal” (the kind used for power production) by 2030. It’s an easy promise to keep: just five per cent of Canadian coal exports are of thermal coal. Most of the Canadian production that is exported is “metallurgical coal” (the kind used for making steel—also harmful to the atmosphere, but harder to do without). 

But Canada does not track shipments of thermal coal that originate in the United States. During the Glasgow summit, a coalition of Canadian groups demanded that Canada end thermal coal exports by 2023

In front, you see the Roberts Bank Superport, and just beyond it, the Tsawwassen B.C. ferry terminal. The superport is owned by Westshore Terminals Ltd., and is the largest single export coal terminal in all of North America. Further back, you see Point Roberts and Mount Baker in Washington state. Photo: Jim Hodgson

Indeed, comparisons of Canadian and Mexican CO2 outputs typify the hypocrisy of global North promises from the perspective of people in the global South. Here’s a comparison of per capital CO2 output based on information from Our World in Data:

Canada (1980 18.14t)  2000 18.52t     2020 14.20t (a 23% drop)
Mexico (1980 3.95t)    2000 4.00t       2020 2.77t (a 31% drop)

And yes: Canada has a colder climate, and our population is spread thinly. But the CO2 output of Mexicans is far lower than that of Canadians, and it’s dropping more quickly.

Development, or something like it, in the face of climate change and migration

Every time someone utters the world ”development” these days, I shudder. Much of what rich countries have done in the name of development over the past 80 years has worsened inequalities and perpetuated colonial patterns of exploitation. But let us rescue what we can….

Front page of La Jornada Nov. 10: AMLO at the UN; cartoon by José Hernández, Nov. 10

In a speech to the UN Security Council on Nov. 9, AMLO proposed a plan that would lift about 750 million people living on less than US$2 per day out of extreme poverty. The plan, which would raise about U.S.$1 billion each year, has three sources:

  • An annual voluntary contribution of four per cent of the fortunes of the 1,000 richest people on the planet
  • A similar contribution from the largest 1,000 private corporations on the planet
  • A contribution of 0.2 per cent from each of the members of the G20.

“Never in the history of this organisation has something substantial been really done for the benefit of the poor, but it is never too late to do justice,” he said. “Today is the time to act against marginalisation, addressing the causes and not only the consequences.”

AMLO said that the main problems of the planet are political, economic, legal and financial forms of corruption, and that these lead to inequality, poverty, frustration, violence, migration and grave social conflicts. Using the pandemic as an example, he noted that pharmaceutical companies have sold 94 per cent of their vaccines, but only six per cent has been distributed to the COVAX facility for use in the developing world—a painful and “complete failure of inclusion.”

It was the second international development plan proposed by AMLO this year. At the end of April, he proposed extending a Mexican government agricultural support program to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—with U.S. financial support—as a way to address root causes of migration.

The program, Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life), has been running in Mexico for over two years and is intended to generate jobs in the small-farming sector, reactivate the economy in areas affected by out-migration, and overcome deforestation. “The plan seeks to overcome social exclusion and the poverty that afflicts 61 per cent of the rural population.” It includes focus on community-controlled farms overlooked or attacked by successive neoliberal governments in power in Mexico between 1988 and 2018.

Critics warn, however, that Sembrando Vida is not sufficient. “It won’t but the brakes on deforestation or other degradation, because it’s not having a direct impact on the causes of these problems,” said Danae Azuara of the Mexican Climate Initiative. Additional programs are needed to end deforestation.

Canada, Mexico and the United States are heavily dependent on fossil fuels for their development and, official pronouncements aside, their governments are likely happier in a phase-down world than in an phase-out one. 

But none is exempt from extreme weather events—heat domes and drought, hurricanes and floods—related to climate change.

Climate change—unpredictable cycles of rainy and dry seasons—is a driver of migration from Central America and Mexico to the north. In talks with Biden, Mexico wants the United States to regularize the status of 11 million Mexicans living in the United States, and to negotiate a temporary foreign worker program not unlike the one that Canada already has with Mexico.