Slow progress for Zapatistas as revolution loses Mexican support

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The Independent US

With its bright red bougainvillea bush, neat wooden fence and pretty gate painted in bright colours, the casual visitor to the village of Oventic could be forgiven for thinking that this is just another hillside settlement clinging to the slopes of the steep valleys that range across the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

But a few tell-tale signs point to something more. Just outside the village, a Mexican army unit guards the highway from a hill-top vantage point, while at the side of the road, a large sign reads: "You are now entering Zapatista territory in rebellion. The people are in charge here." Since Zapatista guerrillas launched an armed uprising on 1 January 1994, the army and the rebels have lived in uneasy proximity in various parts of the state. Although almost all of the fighting was over within weeks, the Zapatistas have never renounced their declared war on the mal gobierno - or bad government - the North American Free Trade Agreement and the grinding poverty that affects not only the indigenous people in Chiapas, but thousands more across the country.

Although the EZLN, the Zapatista army, has barely used its meagre arsenal since, the group has remained a thorn in the side of the Mexican government which, while it has little to fear in the form of another armed uprising, cannot figure out how to put an end to a movement which still enjoys considerable international support.

But even after elections in July 2000 saw the end of 70 years of one-party rule and a new administration headed by President Vicente Fox, change has been slow to come to Chiapas. As the 30 or so self-declared Zapatista "communities in rebellion'' marked the 10th anniversary of the uprising this week, a masked spokesman for the governing council of Oventic, who gave his name only as Alejandro, admittedthe revolution the Zapatistas had hoped to start was taking longer than they would have liked.

"It's true that things haven't changed as much or as quickly as we would like," he said, speaking from a small wooden hut that serves as the council's base. "But since January 1994 we have got rid of one bad government and established our own councils within rebel territory. We had nothing before then so to us it means a lot.

"To people who say we haven't managed to achieve anything I invite them to come and see what we have managed to do here. Rather than accept bribes from the mal gobierno we have built our own schools and a new clinic. These are the things we are proudest of. We have only been struggling for 10 years and before that our fight was clandestine so we know we still have a long way to go. In the next 10 years we will build more schools and clinics - if the government will leave us alone.

"Of course we made some mistakes, like thinking that the mal gobierno would be willing to work towards a peaceful future when it is clear they just want the world to forget about our struggle. Why else would they keep saying that there are no problems in Chiapas now? They haven't been here to see what we have done. Before he was elected, Fox used to boast about how he would solve the Chiapas situation in 15 minutes. Well, we are still here, still in rebellion, so if he did want to come here now, we would have to think carefully before deciding if we would issue an invitation or not."

On Wednesday night, fireworks lit the night sky, but the verbal pyrotechnics of Subcomandante Marcos, the rebels' top leader, were absent. Marcos did not issue any of his customary poetry-laden press statements on the anniversary. While there is still a lot of ideological support for the EZLN in Mexico City, says Octavio Rodriguez Arroyo, a long time observer of Mexican social movements and a lecturer at the National University, "no one knows what the future holds for the Zapatista movement now.

"It was certainly one of the great political phenomena of the past 20 years but while it has managed to establish core support areas in Chiapas, it has not been as successful in holding onto and building support from the majority of Mexicans. The movement offered civil society a rare chance to mobilise but that opportunity has been largely wasted."

But elsewhere in Oventic there are small signs that the Zapatistas have brought changes that have affected the grass roots population. On the new basketball court, a fierce game is being contested by two teams from the local school. All the players are girls, dressed in similar blue blouses and the traditional long black shaggy woollen skirt which looks as though it has come straight off the sheep.

A decade ago this would have been an unthinkable sight, but young women, the ones who have grown up over the past 10 years, have undoubtedly benefited, perhaps more than any others, from moves by the Zapatistas to give women more rights in a male-dominated society. One woman in the village explained: "We have only just begun to learn to be free, that we don't need to ask permission from the men all the time. You still see women walking behind the men, it's true, but when you have been struggling for so long, you learn to be patient."