Mexico’s “Two Very Different Views of Democracy”

YALALAG, Mexico – In April, Congress approved long-sought constitutional reforms designed to give Mexico’s 62 indigenous groups new constitutional rights and an official measure of autonomy to run their affairs…But what
emerged from Congress was a watered-down Indigenous Rights and Culture Law that even President Vicente Fox–who proposed the bill–no longer supports…The law, among other things, denies indigenous groups the right to control and profit from natural resources on their collectively held land, saying only that they should get
"preferential use."

YALALAG, Mexico – In April, Congress approved long-sought constitutional reforms designed to give Mexico’s 62 indigenous groups new constitutional rights and an official measure of autonomy to run their affairs.

The reforms, pushed through as a precondition to peace with the Zaptista rebels of Chiapas, were based on the San Andres peace accords reached with the rebels in 1996.

But what emerged from Congress was a watered-down Indigenous Rights and Culture Law that even President Vicente Fox–who proposed the bill–no longer supports.

The new law gives indigenous groups a measure of political autonomy but, citing the need for "one nation, undivided," insists that federal and state laws take precedence. The law,
among other things, denies indigenous groups the right to control and profit from natural resources on their collectively held land, saying only that they should get "preferential use."

The altered law, pushed through by congressional conservatives, has been a big relief to businessmen and non-Indian landowners in
indigenous areas. But Mexico’s indigenous leaders–including the Zapatistas–have uniformly rejected the legislation, which must be approved by a majority of Mexico’s 32 states to take effect.

"This law doesn’t correspond to the San Andres accords or to what Fox said he would do," charged Genaro Bautista, a spokesman for the National Indigenous Institute. "It’s a joke, a show of racism. Now things are worse than they were before."

In many ways, the battle over the new law comes down to a choice between two very different views of democracy.

For Mexico’s mestizo majority, which has tried without success for centuries to assimilate the nation’s Indians, indigenous autonomy represents a threat to Mexican unity and a rollback of human rights, particularly for women, who in some indigenous groups are not allowed to vote or hold leadership roles.

For Mexico’s indigenous inhabitants, however, democracy has less to do with secret votes and individual rights than with community consensus and focus on the good of the whole.

In many communities, such as Yalalag, public officials are elected by a show of voters’ hands, and candidates can aspire to top jobs only after having first shown themselves capable in lower-ranking posts.

Under the Zapoteca justice system, a man who attacks another does not go to jail, but instead is sentenced to pay the victim’s medical bills and a fine.

"Society benefits and the criminal isn’t destroyed," says Joel Aquino, a top indigenous leader in Yalalag.

Mexico’s indigenous communities are among its poorest. Many people survive on $1 a day, working at subsistence farming or as artisans in pottery, embroidery or wood carving. Emigration–largely to the United States to find work–is enormous. In
Yalalag alone, more than 1,000 former members of the community have left for jobs in Los Angeles and Chicago. About 80 percent of young men leave the community, locals say.

"There’s not much work here except in the fields," Aquino says. "This is a region completely abandoned by the state."

That doesn’t mean Yalalag, for decades a focal point of the indigenous-rights movement in Oaxaca, hasn’t fought back.

In 1981, indigenous leaders in the town ousted the corrupt caciques, or chiefs, who they charge had ties to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party and who for years had stolen what little state and federal money made its way to Yalalag.

Over the next 18 years, the new community leaders, following traditional indigenous custom, organized the townspeople into volunteer work parties to lay water pipe and renovate the old
City Hall. Pooling their federal and state funds with other nearby indigenous communities, they invested in a grader and other equipment to keep the dirt road to Oaxaca passable.

The changes "are all part of our culture and community organization," said Aquino. "We have to revalue our old systems,
become more self-sufficient."

Author: Laurie Goering

News Service: Chicago Tribune

URL: http://www.eco.utexas.edu/faculty/Cleaver/chiapas95.html