One of the latest representatives of the ‘progressive’ current of the Catholic Church, Raúl Vera López is the bishop of Saltillo, Coahuila, and was involved in the peace process after the Zapatista Uprising of 1994. Reflecting on the twentieth anniversary of the rebellion, he says that the conditions which inspired it persist today – worsened by the criminal violence that currently divides the country. Moreover, he claims that there is no distinguishable limit between the criminal gangs and the Mexican State.
“The Zapatistas anticipated it all”, he says. “The political, economic and social bankruptcy produced by Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s regime has been reproduced exponentially today, as Salinismo has made itself at home. It has returned to power – if indeed it ever left, that is.” He continues, affirming that, judging by the growth of neoliberalism in Mexico, “we can conclude that the Zapatistas were right, because they tried to stop a process that has now encompassed the whole country: the incorporation of Mexico into the world of ‘free market’ policies and the continuation of injustice in the arena of human rights”.
The Zapatistas rose up against rampant poverty, injustice, and the absence of democracy just as the North American Free Trade Agreement came into force 20 years ago. During that period of increasing neoliberalism, poverty has expanded to include 53 million people – 20 million of whom live in extreme poverty and 7.5 million of whom are youngsters. To make matters worse, these young people currently lack sufficient opportunities to break out of this situation. Two decades after the Zapatistas’ demand for equal work opportunities and rights for indigenous people, the Federal Labour Law does not only keep indigenous communities up against the wall, but also sinks the entire Mexican workforce into that situation, according to Vera.
“I met a cold government, uninterested in justice and welfare for indigenous peoples”, he adds, referring to his participation in the peace process. “Its only form of resolving the conflict was to dispatch the Army to the region and encourage the growth of paramilitary groups: the path of violence.” And things haven’t changed in the government’s approach to organised criminal groups, he says. “Their tactics are the same: ‘the Army will sort everything out’. Their solution is to fight a low intensity dirty war. That was always the path they chose and nothing has changed.”
Recently, the Supreme Court has given a boost to paramilitary groups in Chiapas by releasing those responsible for the Acteal Massacre. Vera sees this as the government once again denying justice to its people. “Just as the government launched the paramilitaries against the Chiapan communities to destroy their social fabric, we now see the disproportionate military spending in the war on drug trafficking”, he points out. With thousands of citizens and criminals being shot down in the streets, apprehensions and trials are the exception to the rule.
And if that wasn’t enough, no-one is investigating the politicians allegedly in collusion with the criminal gangs or involved in money laundering. “The Mexican political establishment belongs to a school of politics distinguished by its corruption, shady dealings, and authoritarianism… The old PRI is back in power and has learned nothing from what happened in Chiapas. Nothing.”
Vera continues, speaking of how the indigenous people in Chiapas live in a democratic and participatory world, where everyone’s voice counts. It is a “mature political vision” that the Mexican political class will never understand, he insists.
Vera arrived in San Cristóbal de las Casas in 1995, where the local bishop Samuel Ruiz was heavily involved in the peace process after the Zapatista Uprising and was in need of some relief. There were initially suspicions that his arrival was intended to dismantle the very political role that Ruiz had been playing in the region. However, they soon dissipated when Vera denounced government-backed paramilitarisation in Chiapas after the Acteal Massacre in 1997, calling it part of the State’s low intensity war against Zapatista communities. As a result, he would soon be threatened by paramilitaries and even chastised by the Church.
Bishop Ruiz, in Vera’s eyes, saw the “construction of the Kingdom of God” as one that started on Earth. It was a view that didn’t allow him to “be happy with abandoning the poor, the indigenous, the gay community, or anyone else vulnerable in a Church so close to the structures of power and the well-off sectors of society”. Instead of speaking about Liberation Theology, however, Vera prefers to refer to such political awareness and activism within the Church as ‘Latin American Theology’, mainly because of the revolutionary connotations that the former has come to invoke.
However, this type of religious viewpoint put Vera and Ruiz at odds with the Church hierarchy. Vera speaks of how he ‘signed his own sentence’ upon denouncing the State’s creation of paramilitaries in Chiapas. Likely a result of this comment, he was moved away from San Cristóbal in 1999, and told that he had “never been forgiven” for what he had said in 1997. He infers from this incident that the power structures of the Church were in collusion with the government. And judging by the fact that Samuel Ruiz had also almost been removed in 1993 by the Church for his progressive pastoral work, that link would seem ever more apparent.
Ruiz was a bishop who encouraged “community reflection” on the “divine law” that all worldly goods belong to everyone and that there should be equality and justice on Earth. This contributed to the politicisation of indigenous Christians, who became aware of their rights and began to resist manipulation by political parties. Ruiz was only left in San Cristóbal in 1993 because many other Latin American bishops had supported him and his work. He would later become a key figure in the negotiations after the Zapatista Uprising.
During his time in Chiapas, Vera and others in the Church suffered aggressions because they were “an obstacle” to the government’s preferred ‘violent solution’ to the Zapatista problem. “The paramilitaries closed our churches”, he says, and “the state police and the Army took control of them”. In 1996, the armed paramilitary group known as the ‘Chinchulines’ lynched a teacher, hanging him and setting him on fire. The state police did nothing, and Vera says that he himself was lucky to avoid being burned.
The Church in Chiapas had become a symbol of peaceful resistance, and “the army focussed in on us in the hope of taking away that symbol”, he affirms. It had proved itself capable of playing the role of interlocutor and of linking up with international civil society groups and even other religions, and that was dangerous for the government. In November 1997, an attack on Vera and Ruiz left three people injured, but they survived. To avoid being too closely linked to the Zapatistas, Vera says that he and Ruiz “could encourage political reflection but not support for any particular political movement… Our role was not to recognise the EZLN… [but to] ensure people received the rights bestowed upon them by God…, mediating a peaceful solution to the conflict so that justice could be obtained for all indigenous people.”
Twenty years ago, the government promised that Mexico would enter into the modernity of the First World with the help of neoliberal economic policies, and that all of the big national problems would be solved as a result. But the opposite has happened. Nonetheless, the same promises are given today as new ‘reforms’ are brought into force. They “always tried to generalise in order to avoid discussing the root causes of the nation’s problems: racist injustice, accumulation of wealth by the Few, and lack of democracy”. The Zapatistas, on the other hand, spoke openly about these things. And they “continue today with their proposal of peace, born from indigenous concepts of justice and wisdom”. Their weapons are no longer used, and what remains is their fight for “a straight-talking, truthful form of politics” which aims to deal with the problems of poverty and injustice that the government has failed to address.
Meanwhile, the State lives a form of hypocritical politics, according to Vera. Impunity reigns and the paramilitaries responsible for the Acteal Massacre are freed, but workers in the Supreme Court receive massive pay-cheques. Instead of ensuring justice for the Mexican people, they spend their time doing paperwork and jobs that should be done by apprentices. While “the Zapatistas have not resorted to violence again, the government continues to shoot”, says Vera. And that is how “the government has kept itself in power: through hypocrisy.”
Making final reflections on the motives behind the Zapatista Uprising, Vera affirms that the conditions the EZLN fought against twenty years ago have today extended to the whole country. Their movement is based on fighting injustice and poverty, and those circumstances, as they predicted, have only worsened. “Reason”, the bishop concludes, “is on their side”.
Translated and adapted by Oso Sabio from the article “They Continue with a Proposal of Peace” by Arturo Rodríguez García, found between pages 19 and 21 in Proceso’s Special Edition Number 43 – “20 Years Later: The Zapatista Uprising”