If the San Andrés Accords at any point reflected the Mexican government’s decision to allow and contribute to the construction of indigenous autonomy, it certainly didn’t transform into reality. Instead, the pathways of dialogue became narrower and narrower.
These negotiations were set in motion by the EZLN (along with civil society groups) and the Mexican State between October 1995 and February 1996. Their intention was to bring about a new species of relationship between society and the State – with a particular focus on ending the exploitation and marginalisation suffered by Mexico’s indigenous peoples.
The dialogues took place in the Tsotsil town of San Andrés – a name officially followed by the surname “Larráinzar”, but referred to as “Sak´am Ch´en of the Poor” by the Zapatistas. The EZLN’s reason for renaming the town was to bring both the pre-Hispanic and colonial history of the area to mind.
Alongside the government and the EZLN in the dialogues were the CONAI (the “National Commission of Intermediation”, consisting of a number of activists and intellectuals chaired by Bishop Samuel Ruiz) and the COCOPA (the “Commission for Harmony and Pacification”, consisting of legislators from the two federal houses and the local Congress). A significant number of national and international civil society groups were also involved in both the ‘belts of peace’ and in consultancy during the dialogue. After the first meeting, regarding indigenous rights and culture, the San Andrés Accords were signed on February 16th 1996.
However, it is important to emphasise that San Andrés was not only about indigenous rights and culture. One of the federal government’s strategies has been to classify the EZLN in terms of ‘the indigenous question’, and then as a movement aiming for ‘independence’ or the separation of Chiapas. Such an understanding of the Zapatistas clearly ignores what the movement stands for, as it has stated since the very first Declaration from the Lacandona Jungle. In this instance, the EZLN made it clear that it was a movement of ‘National’ Liberation, drawing from not only 500 years of indigenous resistance, but also from the struggles of workers’ unions and of independence heroes Hidalgo, Morelos, and Guerrero.
At the same time, a sense of urgency had grown within numerous sectors of society for the war in Chiapas to end, along with sympathy for the Zapatista call of ‘Enough Already’. Both of these factors served to bring political forces, intellectuals, civil society organisations and regular citizens ‘to their feet’. This convergence of forces was to meet in San Andrés in order to get to know each other and, together, debate and rethink the project of the ‘Mexican Nation’. The meetings became a bridge, attempting to create a new national project and a new social and political pact. This can be seen in the names of the other tables of dialogue that were planned:
1. Indigenous Culture and Rights.
2. Democracy and Justice.
3. Wellbeing and Development.
4. Reconciliation in Chiapas.
5. Women’s Rights in Chiapas.
6. An End to Hostilities.
Of these programmed dialogues, only the second was begun – in which the issues discussed do not only remain valid today, but remain urgent:
1. Political democracy and public institutions.
2. Social democracy and social justice.
3. Social organisations and citizen participation.
4. Justice and human rights.
5. Justice, social coexistence and the rule of law.
6. Democracy and the media.
7. Democracy and national sovereignty.
The second meeting was designed as a space for honouring and demanding the presentation of those who had fought for Democracy and Justice. Among the advisors’ first list were not only presumed Zapatistas (those in prison for political reasons) but also the names of those who had previously ‘disappeared’. These Disappeared represent an open wound on the nation’s historical memory, in spite of government attempts to establish collective amnesia as State policy.
So what did San Andrés mean for Mexico and, in particular, that second meeting?
It was a meeting space for discussion about the need to recreate the nation through dialogue, to which different political and social forces were invited. The EZLN, as convenor, presented a very different idea of politics – something the government has never understood.
Although the government began the process of dialogue, their commitment proved hollow and their political will soon withered away. Faced with this government betrayal and disinterest, the EZLN were forced to embark unilaterally on a path towards autonomy. After the uprising, the attempts at dialogue, and the apparent need to keep the struggle alive, it became clear that popular organisation and the construction of independent projects in communities was going to be the only way that change would come.
At this point, the EZLN ceased to see the State as an interlocutor. Its betrayal of the San Andrés Accords and the rupture of the process of dialogue not only represented very clearly its refusal to recognise the rights of indigenous people, but also the inexistent possibility of a transition towards democracy negotiated with the State.
Today, the contradictions of the Mexican State’s bureaucracy and illegitimate, generalised use of violence have deteriorated. War is the only way for those in charge to continue exercising their power. They burnt the bridge built at San Andrés because it threatened their own domination and there is no reason to suspect that they would be willing to build that bridge again.
The State’s lack of real political will to participate in a dialogue, and its decision to initiate a war of low intensity instead, obliged the EZLN to change things for itself. It forced the Zapatistas to demand the construction of alternative perspectives as the only real way to transform relations with the State. It led them to build up, gradually, a social force capable of converting demands in autonomous, popular achievements. The process of conflict and the experience of community-building proved that true change wouldn’t come from the State, but from the effort and action of the People.
That is the path we are on, and we are conscious of what still needs to be achieved.
Translated and adapted by Oso Sabio from “San Andrés y el diálogo pendiente: Especial sobre los Acuerdos de San Andrés” http://radiozapatista.org/?p=7627