November 18, 2001

"Halifax Volunteers witness making of Mexican history"

The Sunday Herald
Observer, Sunday, March 11, 2001, p. C3

Halifax volunteers witness making of Mexican history
Chris Arsenault
Special to The Sunday Herald

Mexico City - WHEN MASKED rebels from the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and their iconic spokesman, Subcommandante Marcos, ride into Mexico City this weekend for peace talks with the government, Heather O'Keefe and other Halifax volunteers will be watching carefully.

Ms. O'Keefe, a third-year Dalhousie student, co-founded Students Taking Action in Chiapas (STAC) after spending last summer building schools with the Zapatistas in their home state of Chiapas - deep in the Lacandon jungle of south-eastern Mexico. In rural Chiapas, one in four children die before the age of five, and less than 30 per cent of the children finish primary school. "After seeing the situation I had to do something," said O'Keefe.

Building schools seems like an innocent act, but volunteers faced constant military and immigration harassment. "In Chiapas we stayed in Francisco Gomez, an autonomous community that lives under Zapatista law. Army convoys full of machine-gun toting soldiers patrolled the nearby road at least five times a day," O'Keefe said.

The troops Heather saw were just a few of the 70,000 that were stationed in the region. "When the army came by all the volunteers had to hide. If they saw us working, we could be kicked out of the country or even jailed," she explained.
The conflict in Chiapas erupted on New Year's Day 1994 when the EZLN, an army of 2,000 poorly armed peasants, took over a quarter of Chiapas, including the historic tourist city San Cristobel de las Casas.

The EZLN had widespread support from most of the 900,000 indigenous peasants in Chiapas, but claimed to also represent the concerns of all the indigenous in Mexico and oppressed people around the world.

The Zapatistas, who name themselves after Emiliano Zapata - a peasant hero of Mexico's 1910 revolution - say they rebelled to draw attention to their nightmarish poverty and government repression.

It was no coincidence that the revolution began the same day as NAFTA - the North American Free Trade Agreement - came into effect. The signing of NAFTA forced the Mexican government to remove article 27 from its constitution, which promised land to peasant farmers. The Zapatistas refer to it as a "death sentence."

The government, which was embarrassed by the international attention to the uprising, struck back quickly. The army took back much of the land Zapatistas initially won. A peace treaty was signed less than a week after the uprising began, but the Zapatistas still control many communities, especially in the rural areas of Chiapas.

Thirty-five busloads of national and international volunteers are travelling with the Zapatista leaders from jungles of Chiapas to Mexico City.

The political situation in Mexico City and Chiapas has changed since Heather O'Keefe's trip last summer. Vicente Fox, a six-foot-four ex-Coca-Cola executive, was sworn in as president on Dec. 1. Fox's right-of-centre National Action Party (PAN) rode a wave of popular support to defeat the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) which had ruled Mexico for the previous 71 years.

During his election campaign, Fox promised he could end the conflict in Chiapas in 15 minutes, but from the looks of things in Mexico City, it is going to take a lot longer than that.

Enlarged photographs from Chiapas, along with red and white banners, are set up all around the Zocolo - the main square in Mexico City· for today's Zapatista solidarity march. Supporters have been camped out for weeks distributing literature and telling passersby about the Zapatistas and their march.
It is difficult to say how much support the Zapatistas have from average Mexicans. People in restaurants and cafes wear T-shirts with pictures of Marcos and discuss Zapatista ideology.

Others echo the comments of one taxi driver: "Marcos is fighting for himself, not the people. The whole thing seems like a big joke to get attention."

Marcos plans to address the Congress of the Union - senators and deputies - on Monday. Marcos says he will not meet with Fox until the government keeps three of its election promises: to free all Zapatista political prisoners; to enact the Cocopa peace accords that promised rights to all indigenous Mexicans; and to remove at least seven of the 259 military installations in Chiapas. Fox has removed four of the seven installations but the Zapatistas still refuse to meet with him.

Since there will be no face-to-face meeting between Marcos and Fox, many on both sides are pessimistic about the talks. Still, volunteers like Heather remain optimistic.

"Even if no concrete agreement comes out of these talks they are still monumental," said Heather. "In the age of information the pen is mightier than the sword. The Zapatistas are showing the world that everything isn't okay and they are using international attention to make the Fox administration more accountable.

"I plan to build a school next summer . . . with or without a peace treaty."

Chris Arsenault is a Halifax-based freelance writer.

Eduardo Verdugo / The Associated PressSubcomandante Marcos listens to the Mexican national anthem during a rally in Cuautla, Mexico on March 7.

Category: Miscellaneous
Uniform subject(s): Armed conflicts; Foreign policy and foreign relations; Heads of State and heads of government; International trade
Length: Medium, 691 words
© 2001 The Sunday Herald - Halifax. All rights reserved.
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