San José State University

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Political and Economic History
of Chiapas, Mexico

Chiapas is the southern-most state of Mexico. It is populated largely by Mayan Amerindians and the incomes are the lowest in Mexico. There are extensive supplies of energy resources in Chiapas, petroleum and hydroelectric power, which are being harvested by state-owned enterprises. The infrastructure in Chiapas is very poor. The vast majority of the households do not have electricity and water. Schools are inadequate and illiteracy is very high. The people of Chiapas are isolated from the outside world.

The poor state of the infrastructure in Chiapas is not due to any special discrimination against Chiapas in the allocation of funds from the central government in Mexico City. Chiapas has gotten its share of appropriations. The Salinas administration gave higher per capita funding to Chiapas than any other state. The problem is that due to corruptions and incompetence of the government officials in Chiapas, who often were appointed by that central government. For example, a large, modern hospital was built in the village of Guadalupe Tepeyac in the jungle of Chiapas near the border with Guatemala. It contained 10 thousand square feet of building space and cost $5.5 million. The problem was the imbalance of the facility compared to the resources and needs of the surrounding area. The village of Guadalupe Tepeyac had only about four houses and no paved road. Equipment and staff were brought in from Mexico City. President Carlos Salinas flew for the dedication of the hospital. After the publicity photographs were taken Salinas flew out. The equipment and staff soon were removed and the hospital was greatly underutilized. The problem was a lack of balance in the investment. It was too large of a hospital for the region with too little funds for its proper operation.

In 1995 in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas an $11 million state-of-the-art theater and opera house was completed. A governor of Chiapas during the 1980s used a good deal of the state funds in having a basketball court built in every community. Later during times of trouble the basketball courts were used as helicopter landing pads, leading many to surmise that was what they were intended for originally.

The airport for the capital city of Chiapas, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, was built at a desolate, fog-plagued location about a half hour drive from the city. It is alleged that the Chiapas governor at that time made a fortune from the construction of the airport and the road running to that airport. That governor was the surgeon of a former president who appointed him governor despite his lack of government experience. The Tuxtla airport was such a scandal that no one dedicated it and it was not named after anyone. No one wanted to be associated with such a scandal. A later governor arranged for a civilian airline to use the military airport near the city. Mexicana could only fly into the Tuxtla airport. Those who flew switched to the smaller airline that utilized the military airport. People considered the governor who arranged for the use of the military airport a great benefactor of the city. Later it was found that he was a major stockholder in the smaller airline.

The Rebellion in Chiapas

The rebellion of Mayans in Chiapas was presented as a native uprising against the inequities of the treatment of Chiapas by the central government. In reality it was more in the nature of a publicity stunt organized by radical activists from the Autonomous Metropolitan University of Mexico in Mexico City. These Marxist-Maoists were part of the National Liberation Forces (NLF), an old time radical left guerrilla group, who were tired of their lack of success in raising a mass movement in the city. In the early 1980's these Maoists moved to Chiapas to find soldiers they could lead. They chose Chiapas because the people being isolated were naive about the prospects for the success of a guerrilla uprising. This was another case of the exploitation of the natives of Chiapas by people from Mexico City. In this case the exploitation of the Mayans by the radical activists from Mexico City involved using them to kill and be killed, an even more heinous exploitation than that of government officials who took the Mayans funds rather than their lives.

The radical activists called their organization the Zapatista National Liberation Front. The name as well as everything else about the organization was chosen for its publicity value. After ten years of presenting themselves as being concerned about the welfare of the Mayan the activists gained the loyalties of various tribal groups in Chiapas. It was then that the activists then decided to exploit the trust they had gained by staging a publicity-stunt rebellion on the day that world attention would be focused on Mexico as a result of the activation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, January 1, 1994.

Under the direction of Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente the Mayan militia took control of several cities in Chiapas. While the takeover was generally carried out without bloodshed there were several people killed. As soon as the takeovers were complete the plan was to present a group of Mayans as the leaders of the rebellion but the temptation of the publicity was too great and Guillen Vicente could not resist the spot light. He soon dominated it calling himself Subcommandante (subcommander) Marcos. He wore a black ski mask to hide his identity while letting the Mayans be photographed for future identification.

The supposed leadership of the rebellion was called the Clandestine Committee. Andres Oppenheimer, a journalist who interviewed Subcommander Marcos as well as the members of the Clandestine Committee, noted that to get to talk with Marcos he had to go through extensive security procedures and multiple body searches but to talk with members of the Clandestine Committee he had only to walk up to them, even from behind, and tap them on the shoulder.

It is notable that the initial action did not elicit popular uprisings throughout Chiapas. Instead only four towns were taken over and those all were taken over by the troops trained and led by the Mexico City leftists. In the towns of Altimirano and Ocosingo fought off the leftist-led revolutionaries. In the town of Oxchuc the residents stopped the leftist-led revolutionaries from returning.

The nature of the Chiapas guerilla actions as a Mexico City leftist charade is unquestionably revealed in the slogan that it is a fight against neoliberalism. While that might mean something to urban leftists it is completely alien to the situation in Chiapas. This inappropriate slogan is reminiscent of the slogans used by the Shining Path leadership in Peru which referred to elements of the Cultural Revolution in China, something that was completely meaningless in the Peruvian context.

The Mayans of Chiapas, Guatemala, Yucatan and elsewhere have strong, legitimate grievances against their local and national governments. Do local rebellions have anything to offer the oppressed people other than death and privation? No, at best the so-called rebellion creates a terrorist organization whose actions have no military value, only a publicity value. There could be some political value to the publicity if it prompts concession and compromise on the part of the Mexican government, but the Mexico City leftist leaders predictably are not about to take the concessions the national government is willing to offer. That would close down their little revolution. The body count of the Mayans continues to mount as paramilitary units exact revenge upon the Mayans. And the rank and file of the leftists' army will probably never recover their souls after having engaged in atrocities such as killing other Mayans who refused to join them.

On May 25, 2014 Subcommandante Marcos announced that he no longer exists. He had not been seen publically since 2006 when he traveled surreptitiously across Mexico denouncing political candidates. Not much was achieved by his rebel movement except getting a lot of Mayans killed uselessly.


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