January 27, 1999
As I pass through the state of Chiapas, I have to wonder why the local people of such a rich, lush land are so poor and hungry. Chiapas produces more coffee and bananas than any other state in Mexico, second only to Veracruz in total agricultural worth. Northwestern Chiapas is also a rich source of oil, and the Rio Grijalva produces more electricity than any other river in Mexico. Check out Shawn's dispatch for more information on the natural resources of the Chiapas region. Yet, despite this natural wealth, why do more than half of the homes in Chiapas not even have electricity?
This incredible disparity between the few wealthy landowners and the poor Indian and peasant masses who work the land is what sparked the Zapatista uprising on January 1, 1994. Although the soldiers of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) were far outnumbered and could only hold the government offices in cities like San Cristóbal for just a few days, their uprising attracted tremendous international attention. It has drawn support and sympathy from all over Mexico as shown by the Zapatista dolls and t-shirts I saw for sale at the market places and by pro-Zapatista graffiti I saw on city walls.
The poor people of Chiapas, and the rest of Mexico for that matter, deserve to have education, health care and civil rights. A number of standoffs between the Mexican army and the EZLN took place after the initial uprising in 1995. In February 1996, EZLN and the government negotiators finally reached an agreement on some of the issues. The deal was to give Mexican Indians a right to vote for their own leaders using traditional methods. Their languages were also to be recognized and incorporated into bilingual education. Other critical issues such as land reforms, justice, and democracy were to be left for later talks. Unfortunately, by mid 1997 President Zedillo had not implemented the deal and decided to change the agreement. In fact, many Zapatista supporters boycotted the 1997 elections to show that the elections did not represent a fair way for the minority peoples to have a voice in the government.
In December of 1997, the plight of indigenous peoples in Chiapas became front page news again. A large gathering of Indian men, women, and children were gunned down in front of a church in a small town named Acteal. Forty-five people were killed and many others injured by a government-supported paramilitary group of sixty armed soldiers. Those killed were a peaceful faction of indigenous peoples that supported the reforms the Zapatistas were calling for. They called themselves Las Abejas (no, not after our fabulous world trekker, but for the bees!).
So once again the Zapatistas and the government sit in a stalemate. And as the Mexican army continues to keep a close eye on the rebels, young Mayan girls continue to walk barefoot through the cold streets trying to sell Zapatista dolls to tourists walking by.Check out Part 2 of this article for information on how kids are living in Chiapas: Chiapas Pt. 2 - Kids at Work
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