The bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel said, approaching the twentieth anniversary of the Zapatista uprising of 1994: “Many people wonder if the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) still exists, and I tell them that it not only exists, but it is active. It has presence, strength, plans and projects. It is not something of the past or half dead… The cry of ¡‘Ya basta’! (‘Enough’!) still retains its value because, although there has been progress in Chiapas, … the conditions of marginalisation have been so abysmal that they are not easily overcome”.
Through his time in Chiapas, he has seen advances, but there are still many communities without electricity, clinics without doctors or medicines, schools lacking in resources and teachers, and roads left in dire straits. In his time in charge of the San Cristóbal diocese, whose inhabitants are mostly indigenous Zapatistas, he has seen how the EZLN has made real efforts to live and move forward in an autonomous way.
Their main achievement, in his opinion, is that “progress has been made in the fight against poverty and marginalisation”, and that the indigenous people “feel they have dignity… and cannot so easily be subjugated”. Previously, “they were not even allowed to walk on the pavements” but “now they own the cities”. They are a force to be reckoned with, “not only in numbers but in awareness of their dignity”.
He reiterated the EZLN’s firm commitment “to prevent the consumption of alcohol and drugs”, to combat corruption, to create “autonomous schools”, and to have hospitals and clinics independent of the government. The big problem is the lack of financial resources. They have received support from volunteers and from several international organisations, but this situation is unsustainable. This means that, while their autonomy is a means of preserving their cultural identity and ideological integrity, it is also a weakness.
The bishop emphasises that the Zapatistas show that “society can organise and fend for itself” but that it should also “be achieved in dialogue with the government”. One big challenge, Arizmendi says, is a getting rights enshrined in the Mexican Constitution. According to the International Labour Organisation, for example, before the building of a road or exploitation of a mine, the views of the inhabitants must be taken into account.
Instead of receiving ‘aid’, it should be the right of all citizens to have roads, electricity, clinics, and schools – as tax-paying citizens. Citizens should not feel torn between government welfare and Zapatista autonomy. The Zapatistas need to find a way to “see how, without losing autonomy, they can take advantage of resources that society entrusts to the government administration, but which belong to society; which are not handouts, but the rights of the peoples”. This will be the biggest challenge for the EZLN.