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Report from EZLN caravan

Broad congress demands Indigenous rights

By Gloria La Riva

Nurio, Michoacán, Mexico

As the March for Indigenous Rights winds its way through southern Mexico, thousands of Mexican people--Indigenous and mestizo--are turning out in town after town to salute the guerrilla commanders of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN), who are leading the historic caravan. The caravan includes representatives from many of Mexico's 60 Indigenous ethnic groups and hundreds of other Mexican and international supporters.

The highlight so far has been the National Indigenous Congress, which was convened here in Michoacán by 3,383 Indigenous delegates representing 41 dif ferent groups from 27 Mexican states. They were joined by 5,000 national and international observers, including other Indigenous delegations from the U.S., Canada, Ecuador, Bolivia and Guatemala.

The Congress passed broad resolutions at many workshops, called mesas. They agreed on a "unified, national Indigenous peaceful uprising" and declared unanimous support of the EZLN and its caravan to Mexico City.

Demand Indigenous rights
be added to Constitution

It also created a commission of representatives from all the other Indigenous groups to accompany the EZLN to Mexico's capital. And the delegates agreed to develop a front with social and civil organizations and unions to push to include Indigenous rights in the Mexican Constitution, calling on non-Indigenous people to join them in this struggle

The caravan has traveled through nine states so far on its way to Mexico City, holding public rallies in scores of villages and gathering forces to back the demand for Indigenous rights. Whether Huichol or Tarahumara Indian, Zapoteco or Tzeltal, they are calling for unity to win social justice.

In this highland village of Nurio, home of Purépecha Indians in the state of Michoacán, the Zapatista caravan helped inaugurate the third National Indigenous Congress after a rousing nighttime welcome by thousands of villagers in the town plaza.

The march and congress are also calling for the federal government to implement the San Andres Larrainzar accords. That agreement was negotiated between the EZLN guerrillas and the previous president, Ernesto Zedillo, but was never honored by the government. Instead, thousands of army troops were deployed to occupy Indian villages in Chiapas in an effort to rout the Zapatistas. The occupation continues today.

Enthusiasm for the caravan is growing and a huge turnout is expected for a mass rally on March 11 in the Zócalo central square of Mexico City. There the marchers will present their demands to the Mexican National Congress.

Gov't tries to co-opt
mass sentiment

The sentiment is so great that the new president, Vicente Fox, has found himself forced to recognize the march and declare himself in favor of peace.

Of course, the recognition from this right-wing president is not out of respect for Indigenous rights or the Zapatistas but fear of a mass movement that is gaining momentum. In the midst of this march, the government has launched a major campaign to try to co-opt the mass sentiment. Slick television ads speaking of peace and love are now showing constantly on television, and Saturday night a mass rock concert featuring Mexico's two top rock groups and organized by the government was aired on all channels.

But the public looks at this government effort with a great deal of skepticism. The militant student movement at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), which was brutally repressed by the police during a student strike one year ago, organized a counter concert.

The opening rally of the National Indigenous Congress was held on a hillside outside Nurio, on the grounds of a secondary school where the caravanistas and supporters are camped out.

Juan Chávez, Purépecha elder and delegate, spoke of the need for unity among the Indigenous peoples and an end to the struggles that have sometimes divided them.

Pablo González Casanova spoke on behalf of Mexico's "civil society," which refers to the independent social and political movements of the country. He said, "Brothers and sisters, compañeros of EZLN, it is a great honor to be invited on behalf of civil society. What can we say before this very important gathering of Mexicans, where the Indian peoples have united to continue struggling, each time with more firmness, for the rights that have been denied for so many years and so many centuries.

"Those who are afraid of this struggle are afraid precisely because it is no longer just of the Mexican people, but for all those who, near or far, are struggling. Those Indigenous people who are fighting the mestizo are steadily uniting the people and the poorest to fight for the workers of the world." The crowd broke into enthusiastic applause after this last pronouncement.

Zapatista women
demand freedom and justice

Twenty-four commanders of the EZLN are leading the march, and they take turns speaking at the rallies. Today Comandante Esther was cheered for her tribute to the women who struggle against their oppressors.

She said, "For more than 500 years thousands of our brothers and sisters have died from exploitation and marginalization, especially the women. We die during childbirth because we have no clinics to treat us. The bad government says they have built clinics in the communities, but it is a lie. There are no doctors to attend us, no medicines for our health.

"We suffer this sacrifice in blood and live lives without hope. Because of this great desperation we took the decision to organize ourselves with our rebellion. ... We as Zapatista women will continue forward with our struggle, no more deception! From here on we are telling the government we will not accept our Indigenous dignity to be placed in shame any longer. We will not rest until we win democracy, freedom and justice. No more a Mexico without the women!"

The important issue of nationalities and Indigenous rights in Mexico was brought to center stage by the Zapatista uprising in 1994. The rebellion was prompted by the economic crisis exacerbated by NAFTA and longstanding oppression that hit the Indigenous communities brutally.

Of the 100 million Mexicans, the overwhelming majority have strong Indian roots. A smaller percentage have remained on their historic lands and maintained their Indigenous languages and cultures. It is estimated that some 10 to 20 million people from about 60 distinct Indian ethnicities strongly identify as a specific Indigenous group and retain their language.

While the majority of Mexicans are suffering economic hardship, the rural Indigenous communities are hit the hardest by the growing monopoly of land and wealth in Mexico. In addition, the Indigenous suffer from longstanding racism and oppression, the lack of education and jobs, and the denial of bilingual education, all of which put their communities at risk.

NAFTA brought
greater poverty

In interviews, many of the Indigenous expressed desperation about the poverty that has inundated their communities because there are few jobs and they can't sell their corn or other crops. When asked why, virtually all of them said, "El tratado de libre comercio," referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement that was orchestrated by the United States imperialist government.

NAFTA marked the abandonment of the Mexican government's decades-long policy of supporting national agriculture and industry against imperialist competition. Before, Mexican farmers would receive fertilizer, seed and other implements at subsidized prices, and their products were bought by the government at a guaranteed price.

In turn, the poor of Mexico could depend for their daily sustenance on subsidized corn tortillas and beans that were kept at a low price.

With NAFTA, all protective barriers to U.S. and other international agriculture were eliminated. Imports were no longer taxed to favor Mexican goods produced within the country. Mexico stopped all subsidies to farmers, driving peasants into disastrous conditions.

In one meeting after another the Indigenous peasants spoke of being gripped by economic ruin.

Juan, a Purépecha Indian from the Nurio region, said he can no longer grow corn on his small plot of land because there are no buyers.

"The government sells us fertilizer and seed very high" said Juan, "and we can't even sell our corn. Now we're told the wool from our sheep is no good, because Australia produces it cheaper.

He pointed to his clothes and said, "The only way we survive is because our children send us money and clothes from the U.S. Anyone who doesn't have family in the U.S. is starving."

Everyone interviewed had close family members in the United States. More than one person remarked that almost all the men have left the villages to move to Chicago, St. Louis, San Jose, Palo Alto, Jersey City, every corner of the U.S.

Further from the Indigenous congress, near Morelia, an old man sat with his father and friends by the roadside. Francisco González's years of hard labor were evident in his rough hands. He said, "I have land but it costs me 5,000 pesos for the seed and fertilizer and I can't get anything for my corn and alfalfa.

"That's why I'm going to the United States Wednesday. I'm joining my sons in Chicago because I have to find work."

It was hard to imagine this 64-year-old man risking his life to cross the border illegally and find work, but it is a phenomenon repeated thousands of times a day as Indigenous and other Mexican peasants and workers are driven from their land.

The Zapatista struggle for the Indigenous people of Chiapas, with this new national mobilization and campaign for Indigenous rights, has awakened a movement among the most oppressed of Mexico that only promises to grow.

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