“We need a fresh interpretation of the San Andres Accords”
Francisco López Bárcenas, who participated in the dialogues that led to the creation of the Accords, highlights the bravery of the Zapatistas in ceding the space for a true dialogue about indigenous rights to occur, and signals that it is time to reassert their value, but from a new standpoint.
INTERVIEW BY LUIS HERNÁNDEZ NAVARRO (LA JORNADA) FOR ROMPEVIENTO TV
As a part of the “Tower of Babel” that participated in the dialogues that led to the authoring of the San Andres Accords 18 years ago, the Mixtec lawyer Francisco López Bárcenas explains that the Zapatista rebellion took place in a context of the emergence of indigenous people as important political actors.
López Bárcenas highlights the bravery of the rebels in creating the scene for a truly open and national dialogue about the rights of indigenous peoples without preordained solutions, and explains that the State only pretended to honour the pact that they signed, in order to not contradict the interests of international capital. “That is the sound of the world tumbling down that the Zapatistas are talking about”, he says.
Finally, he notes the capitalist battle now waged in indigenous peoples’ territory to take control of their resources, something which obliges us to reaffirm the value of the agreement of San Andres Sakamch’en, but in a new way, for this new context.
International Context: decline of the nation-state
The San Andres Accords have their roots in an indigenous rebellion that broke out on the First of January, 1994, and which was a response to the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Signing this pact with the United States and Canada into law, just as with the constitutional reforms signed into law (such as the reform of Article 27 of the Constitution) implied dismantling the social pact that had emerged after the Revolution of 1910, and which was expressed in the Political Constitution of 1917. This Constitution had been in place for decades, and the signing into law of NAFTA meant dismantling it, that is, a rupture in social and political terms.
Of course, this situation was not unique to Mexico; the same processes were taking place in almost every country at this time, and in practical terms they represented the dismantling of the nation-state, suppressing the social rights won in decades of struggle, and replacing social policies with individualist ones, strengthening capital. One of the Zapatistas who participated in the Dialogues of San Andrés, for instance, told me: “before we had a layer of protection that helped us all, and suddenly they took it away, they left us vulnerable, and that’s why people are protesting”. The same thing was happening in Latin America and in various States.
A year after the Zapatista uprising, for example, the Guatemalan government and the National Revolutionary Guatemalan Union (UNRG) signed the Chapultepec Accords in Mexico as a condition for peace; these accords incorporated indigenous rights. Shortly before, when the transition in Chile took place and the Pinochet dictatorship ceded power to the Democratic Pact, the first new president signed the Accords of Nueva Imperial. Years prior, in Colombia, brandishing the demands that Quintín Lame had made during his rebellion in the region of Cauca, Colombians reached an agreement to modify their Political Constitution. With all of these examples, what we see is that the national State, just as it was conceived in the nineteenth century, entered a terminal phase, because there was now a new actor, a new political force that was reclaiming rights and the spaces in which they could be exercised. This force was the indigenous peoples.
The monoethnic nation-state fell into a period of crisis, and had to start to discuss the constitution of a pluriethnic, multicultural State with a new actor. This happened in varying ways: through agreements, such as in Guatemala, Chile and Mexico; others reformed their constitutions, such as in the cases of Colombia and Ecuador; others, like Brazil, left such change in the hands of private initiatives, as if the issue were a private and not a public one, provoking violent reactions. What is certain is that in all countries of Latin America there was an attempt to reconstruct the nation-state, since the monoethnic, nineteenth-century State no longer worked. This forms part of the international context in which the San Andrés Accords were signed in Mexico.
Indigenous Mexican organization, corporatized
In Mexico, indigenous organization began in a very corporate manner. Essentially, it started in the 70s, with the National Association of Indigenous Teachers (ANPIBAC), which was formed by the Secretary of Public Education (SEP). Another such organization was the National Council of Indigenous Peoples (CNPI), also created by the State. These were vertical organizations, controlled by state power, but with the passage of time many of their members opened up, becoming true representatives of their peoples, whilst others ended up occupying institutional positions.
In the 80s, the political landscape changed, above all due to the influence of the debates that took place in Nicaragua about the creation of the Pluriethnic Autonomous Regions, and the discourse fomented in international bodies such as the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS), that sought to evaluate the benefits of approving the declaration of indigenous rights. In 1989, Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO), about indigenous and tribal peoples, was passed. Some organizations took up these debates and incorporated them into their own political demands. Nonetheless, the activity of these indigenous organizations was limited to the margins, both in action and purpose; almost nobody understood ethnicity.
One of the organizations that did most to drive the debate forward, using the Nicaraguan model as a starting-point, was the Independent Centre for Agricultural and Peasant Workers (CIOAC), above all in Chiapas. After this, the Independent Front for Indian Peoples (FIPI), that also began to pressure for these rights, was formed, followed by the National Indigenous Assembly for Autonomy (ANIPA). These groups sparked many debates in different states of Mexico, but in the end they failed to achieve their goals since, having formed on the basis of an external experience, they could not respond the concrete realities of Mexico.
There were other movements that had different types of objectives and were more “grassroots”, such as those from Oaxaca, a few from Michoacán and some of those from Guerrero. These groups started to increasingly value the community, because they were looking for ways to respond to and improve their everyday lives. The same debate took place in San Andrés Larrainzar during the dialogues.
In terms of recognition of indigenous rights, there was the reform to Article 4 of the Federal Constitution, which the federal government pushed forward in 1992 in order to mark 500 years of the arrival of the Spanish to the continent – which the indigenous movement denounced as an invasion. This reform, whilst recognising the existence of the indigenous peoples, only made them part of the pluricultural composition of the nation, not as individuals with rights. Other legal dispositions existed, above all to do with access to justice in state tribunals, permitting the participation of interpreters and allowing for usos y costumbres (indigenous customary law). But that was the extent of it.
Zapatismo altered the horizons of the indigenous peoples
Re-reading the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, we note that the Zapatista rebels grant recognition to indigenous peoples, even as this is not their central demand: “We are the product of 500 years of resistance”, begins the Declaration. It was evident that this referred to the start of Spanish colonialism and the colonialisms that followed it. Since then, the situation had developed no further. Meanwhile, the indigenous movements said: “we, as indigenous peoples, have these concessions”. Then, an interesting thing occurred, in which different groups, rebels, and movements learnt – from each other – to grant central importance to the national debate on the rights of indigenous peoples.
Zapatismo altered the horizons of the indigenous movement. We have only to recall that in many municipalities of Oaxaca, local town councils made public statements in support of the Zapatista uprising, which was something unprecedented at the time. In the state of Guerrero, marches to Mexico City supporting the Zapatista rebellion were also organized.
The rebellion awakened expectations among the indigenous peoples, and in the rest of society: we all saw that their demands were just, that it was what was needed, that it was what we wanted, but only they dared to rise up in arms to achieve it.
The Zapatistas created space for the debate
After 12 days of armed conflict with the federal army, there was a mass popular mobilization in favour of an end to the war, and the federal government found itself obliged to order a ceasefire, which was followed by an amnesty for all those that laid down their weapons (no-one obliged). In that period, the two sides started to approach one another to set up a first cross-party dialogue. Manuel Camacho Solís was named as representative of the federal government and, as such, sat down at the negotiating table opposite the Zapatistas in the dialogues at the Cathedral. From those dialogues emerged some preliminary accords that the Zapatistas took to their communities for consultation. These were rejected as unsatisfactory; they did not deal with the core issue of indigenous rights.
At that time, Zapatismo was beginning to have external influences. A document of the Mapuche in Chile was made public where they observed that territory, an issue fundamental to indigenous rights, was absent from the Zapatistas’ demands. A letter from Oaxaca was written with the heading “not all that glitters is gold”, which questioned much of what had been agreed. This weighed on the Zapatistas, and they responded: that’s not what this is about.
Since the indigenous peoples rejected the preliminary accords, the dialogues broke off. This was in June of 1994. After this, the Zapatistas were to organize the National Democratic Convention; a social energy was just starting to take hold. Jump forward to February, 1995, and Salinas was no longer president, but Ernesto Zedillo, who decided to betray the Zapatistas. He sent the Secretary of Government, Esteban Moctezuma, to meet with the Zapatistas, who realised that this was a plot to arrest the leaders of the rebellion, and withdrew just in time; when the army arrived they were no longer there.
Then began the incursion of the Army onto Zapatista territory. The Mexican Congress made a Law of Peace and Harmony (COCOPA), which obliged the two sides to dialogue in order to arrive at agreements to resolve the conflict and achieve a peace with dignity. In this new situation, the rebels and the Army agreed to set up a negotiating table. They agreed on procedural rules and an agenda of issues to discuss, the first of these being indigenous rights and culture. The government recognised COCOPA as a mediator and the National Commission for Intermediation (CONAI) as independent contributing body.
The dialogues began in October 1995. The first negotiation was on indigenous rights and culture and had three phases: one for each party to make the contributions they considered to be pertinent. The parties, that is: the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and the Federal Government agreed on the participation of advisers and invited participants. These were people that the Zapatistas and the government suggested that could come up with ideas that would nourish dialogue about indigenous culture and rights. But the Zapatistas were looking for more than that.
The first time that we went to the community of La Realidad, one person said: “they invited me as an assessor and I’m here, tell me what I have to do”. And the EZLN Command told them: “well, we don’t know what you can do, really, because we don’t know you and you don’t know us. Better to get together with your acquaintances and agree together what to propose to the government.” That was the problem. The Zapatistas wanted us to put together the proposal that they would defend in the negotiations, and their approach had a logic to it, in the sense that the criticisms of the accords that emerged from the cathedral dialogues had already been made.
The Zapatistas created the space for discussion, and in which a debate could be arranged. That is an approach that we ought to value highly. It aimed to be an unprecedented process, I don’t know if in Latin America, but certainly in Mexico, since the arrival of the Spanish to these shores. It’s a value of the dialogues that we must recognise, because what they told us was that national issues ought to be discussed face-to-face with the Mexican nation, and without anyone saying beforehand “we’ve already agreed on what should be done”.
The Zapatistas invited leaders, indigenous people, anthropologists and communicators, but above all many municipal and communal authorities, and leaders of organizations.
The negotiations were organized into three phases. Firstly, there was participation from all advisers and invited participants, who were members of organizations and authorities and had been invited by the government and the Zapatistas. Here, something interesting happened: the guests and advisers from both sides understood one another very well.
During the second phase, the proposals were analysed, and organized into groups of coincidence and groups of divergence – and among these, those proposals that could be debated and those which were unsalvageable – the government retired its initial advisers and invited participants, and brought in ranch owners and businessmen from Chiapas, they even got rid of the National Indigenist Institute, the government’s own official institute focusing on relations with indigenous peoples, because the people they had invited to begin with agreed, for the most part, with the proposals that the Zapatistas’ advisers and invited participants had made.
The central theme for discussion was autonomy, a concept which as the years passed became increasingly clear: it is the possibility for people to develop the capacity they have to decide on their life, present or future. The other discussion was over rights and justice (in which I participated, a negotiating table that I shared with Ricardo Robles Ronco, with Yaotzin Dominguez, and with Zapatista Comandante Zebedeo; we were there together trying to endure the government’s provocations). There was another table discussing communication, another discussing culture, and finally, a table talking about political representation. These were the central issues, and the Zapatistas did not come up with them, but they were surely informed before agreeing to discuss them.
We were all concerned to avoid a scenario in which due to the presence of so many people – there were about 600 people, advisers and invited participants – the dialogues turned into a sort of “Tower of Babel” situation, in which nobody understood each other. This concern started to increase, because there were people present that had not spoken to one another for years, since they held different positions on certain issues. But it was interesting to see the way in which the discussion was held, because there was opened up a great space where all could go and elaborate, freely, what they felt; these proposals passed to a commission whose task it was to systematize them, and the products of this process were brought to the table with the friends who were in negotiation with the governmental delegation. There were some who didn’t want to co-operate, who forced their own particular proposals through, but these were few and far between. In general, proceedings were cordial, and there was great tolerance between all participants. It was a very rich debate.
The key issue is in the accords signed by all parties: we need a new State, a new relationship between the indigenous peoples, the State and society, recognising new collective rights for indigenous peoples and new policies through which those rights can be exercised. These commitments can be found in the first document of the three that comprise the Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture, which are known as the San Andrés Accords. The first of these documents is a statement about the situation of the indigenous peoples, the second contains the commitments made to change the situation, and the third the specific commitments made to do with Chiapas.
Real reasons for not implementing the Accords
The government did not honour the Accords. In 2001 there was a constitutional reform that sought to implement them, but in the end they were excluded. The indigenous peoples refused to accept this; they went to the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation to request judicial intervention so that already-recognised rights could be respected in law, just as in the case of Convention 169 of the ILO, but the Court decided that, since this was a matter of constitutional reform, it could do nothing. All of the powers of the State turned their backs on indigenous people, who therefore decided, through the Indigenous National Congress, to construct autonomy for themselves. The Zapatistas did the same.
In the Zapatistas’ silent protest in 2012, which followed years of silence, when they said – referring to all of the problems that the nation-state confronts – “that is the sound of your world tumbling down, and of our world rising up”, they are referring to the fact that the State, in refusing to honour the Accords, not only violated the law requiring it to reach agreements in order to resolve the causes that led to the rebellion, but also wasted its opportunity to deal with national problems and avoid many future conflicts.
The question we ought to ask is: why did the State not honour its part of the deal? That is what is most important to understand, because it is the “sound of your world tumbling down” to which the Zapatistas make reference. From my point of view, the government did not honour the Accords because to alter the State would set the political class against the interests of capital; in other words, there exists a strong contradiction between the rights of indigenous peoples and the policies of neoliberal capitalism. At this point, the world faces these two stances: on one side, the greed of transnational business, and on the other, the need on the part of indigenous peoples to continue to be peoples.
The context is one in which capital has entered a terminal phase: this does not mean that it will end tomorrow, but that there is no longer any turning back. This has occurred because capitalism produced so much that there is no longer any demand to consume, and yet its very raison d’etre is production. This is its dilemma: should it stop producing, or create demand for what is being produced? It cannot do either of these two things, because its raison d’etre is to produce and pay as little as possible for the task. The solution it has found, then, is to commodify things that not even the bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, a period where the foundations of the modern State were laid, dared exploit.
In current common moral codes, there are still areas that cannot be privatized because they are necessary for survival, such as water and air, but the new neoliberal laws now permit their conversion into commodities. This is where the indigenous peoples enter the picture, because these resources are located in their territories. When indigenous peoples demand territorial rights, this is what they are getting at, and when capital mandates that these rights not be recognised, it means that they will deny them at whatever cost. This is the grand dilemma that we currently face, and this is the great sound to which the Zapatistas allude.
The linchpin of the struggles of the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Latin America is the defence of territory, the defence of water resources, of the jungles and of their spaces of production, because capital wants to get rid of these.
The political class claims that in 2001 the rights of indigenous peoples were put into law, and that they implemented the San Andres Accords, but the major problem is that all of that legislation is a simulation, because it does not deal with what was agreed. The San Andrés Accords say “reform the State”, re-found the State, recognise indigenous people as individuals with rights, recognise their autonomy, and highlight a series of elements that constitute their autonomy: social rights, plurality, sustainability. This was all forgotten in the reform of 2001 and in those that followed it, because many more reforms have been implemented in federal and state law. These are laws created to simulate an honouring of the Accords, but that at root cannot be implemented for one simple reason: their design does not correspond to the nature of the rights that they seek to regulate, as well as the fact that the institutions that might have been able to implement them were never reformed to do so.
Take this example. The legislation says that the indigenous peoples have the right to revive and revitalize their language, something that nobody calls into question. But it is not a declaration of the sort that is needed; it does not spell out how the State will be transformed to make this possible, what guarantees there are that might be put to use by the public, what state institutions will do to make this possible, what participation indigenous people will have in this process. A similar thing happens with the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, which runs programmes without having faculties to run them, something which permits it to use these programmes as a form of control, and to have a captive clientele with which to justify its activities with indigenous people.
Upon not implementing the San Andrés Accords, the State was not reformed, indigenous people have not been recognised as individuals with rights and what we are left with is a disjunction between indigenous peoples who want to continue being peoples, and a permissive State that has done all in its power to make sure that transnational capital enjoys the conditions in which it can appropriate the resources that these peoples want to preserve.
In these conditions, the demand that the San Andrés Accords be implemented continues to be made. We must be aware of this new context, because many things have changed, both on a global level and in Mexico. These new circumstances call us towards a re-evaluation of the Accords.
First published in Spanish on 17 February, 2014
Translated by Andrew Green