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A time to celebrate?

With the fall of the PRIafter 75 years in government there is some hope that Mexico may change its military operation in Chiapas and withdraw forces to pre- 1994 positions. In light of possible changes in military posture, combined with the new presidents, commitment to neo-liberal economic policy, Harry Cleaver argues that human rights advocates must shift their understanding of repression in such a manner as to grasp economic as well as police and military based repression.

President Foxs order for a withdrawal of military forces from Zapatista communities should not only be seen as a step in the right direction toward the reversal of the Mexican governments terrorist policies in Chiapas it must also be seen, and appreciated, as a victory for the Zapatista communities that have held out with so much courage during these long years of repression.

Whatever happens next, these current actions, that reportedly include the dismantling of military checkpoints on roads and a pull back from Amador Hernandez, should be celebrated as the fruits of these years of struggle. Let us give credit where credit is due: to the communities, to the EZLN and to everyone everywhere whose actions have staved off worse repression and forced these reversals in government policy.

Assuming these first steps are followed by continued withdrawal and that Fox sends Cocopa's version of the San Andres Accords [the peace deal agreed in 1996 between EZLN and the Mexican government, but which was never implemented] to the Mexican congress and it passes, the Zapatista movement will gain greatly enhanced room for manoeuvre and autonomous activity.

At the very least, we can hope for the level of freedom from repression that the Zapatistas enjoyed before the February 1995 military assault. Hopefully, there will be more than that. If the military withdraws to its positions before 1994, rather than before 9 February 1995, things will be even better.

A time to stay on guard

At the same time, however, not only has that withdrawal not yet taken place, but there is a whole panopoly of other forces arrayed against the Zapatistas that need to be withdrawn. From the corrupt local, state and national police forces, to the paramilitaries they have financed, armed and allowed to act with great impunity.

The dismantling of this apparatus of repression and state terror must be accomplished, and, as with what has been achieved so far, it is likely to be accomplished only through continued pressure on the Mexican government. While we should savour each victory in this process, it is only through vigilance and continued mobilisation that victory will follow victory. It is way too soon to relax.

Moreover, while Fox has given the orders, he is also firmly committed to the pursuit of the very economic policies that led to the uprising in the first place: neoliberal policies that subordinate the desires of people to those of business for profits and social control. The Zapatistas rose up in response to such policies, including NAFTA, and they have continued to denounce them and oppose them. The encounters they organized, beginning with the Continental and Intercontinental Encounters in 1996 (that begat the Geneva, Seattle and Prague protests) were Encounters For Humanity, Against Neoliberalism. The reduction of direct police and military repression will not remove the more subtle repression of neoliberal economic policies. The struggle will continue in Chiapas as it is continuing in the rest of the world. And we can be certain that such state repression is not about to be removed from the capitalist bag of tricks neither in Mexico, or elsewhere as the police arrests and beatings in Prague made quite clearas so many examples of continuing repression constantly remind us.

Repression and cooptation

Foxs policies vis-a-vis Chiapas, and the grassroots movements throughout Mexico, seem likely to take the form of a mix of repression (currently we hope being reduced) and cooptation just like those of the PRI before him. His embrace of free market policies (an oxymoron of course) may involve support for small business in an attempt to differentiate people and communities, a la Hernando de Sota, buying time for the final enclosure of the countryside to take place (whose basis was laid by Salinas who ended protection for Ejidal lands). Foxs man in Chiapas, Pablo Salazar, due to take over as governor of Chiapas, has toured the US soliciting business investment in Chiapas, offering peace and cheap labour for maquiladora development. Another arrow in the quiver of neoliberalism, another arrow aimed at the heart of indigenous communities and everything non-capitalist about them.

It is impossible to say, at this point, exactly how Fox et al will pursue their goals (which were also those of Salinas and Zedillo and Wall Street and the IMF) but they will pursue them. Assuming their tactics shift from police state repression to more subtle means, so must ours. Unless human rights advocates shift their understanding of repression in such a manner as to grasp economic repression as well as police state repression as a problem, such changes in strategy may well strip the Zapatista support network of many of its militants. At the moment it seems unlikely that those who have volunteered as international observers to stand between the Zapatista communities and their oppressors will know how to replicate something like that role vis-a-vis neoliberal economic development. Up to the present, and probably for some time to come, their role has been vital, but if Fox really carries out these kind of shifts, then other strategies and other kinds of action will be needed.

Inspiring through vision

Beyond the problem of resistance, however, is the more appealing problem of building better worlds. Reduced pressure on the Zapatista communities will mean greater latitude for pursuing their own agendas, and greater ease for others to support those agendas. Beside inspiring through their courage, the Zapatistas have inspired through their vision of, and efforts to, create alternatives to the current subordination of humanity to capital. In domains as diverse as agriculture, education and politics they have pursued, as much as circumstances have allowed, alternatives paths.

There is no reason to assume that any strategy by Fox to undermine such efforts will succeed. On the contrary, evidence suggests that despite all the repression and expenditures by the PRI, Salinass efforts to undermine collective land in Mexico has mostly failed and indigenous communities everywhere continue to carve their own roads into the future. With less repression it will be easier for those of us elsewhere to learn about and learn from such efforts, as well as to share our own efforts with those in Mexico. Such accelerated circulation of experience should strengthen the struggle against capitalism everywhere as it becomes clearer and clearer that very real alternatives are possible.

Harry Cleaver is a Marxist academic working out of the University of Texas in the US. He is the author of the recently published Reading Capital Politically (AK Press 2000).