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by Pilar Franco
(IPS) MEXICO CITY --
over seven years after the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) declared war on the government, ski-masked rebels occupied the front rows of the lower house of Congress March 28 accompanied by representatives of local Native communities.
Addressing Mexico's Chamber of Deputies, Zapatista Commander Esther told the assembled delegates that guerrilla leaders were ready to talk with the government and draft an agreement to bring peace to the southern state of Chiapas.
"My name doesn't matter. I am a Zapatista, and that doesn't matter either. I am an indigenous person and a woman, and that is what really matters," said the guerrilla leader.
The message of the EZLN "is an outcry, but our word is one of respect," and we are not seeking to humiliate, defeat, replace, legislate, "or beg for alms," but to be heard, she added.
The podium of the legislative palace is a symbol, as is the fact that "a poor, indigenous woman was the first to speak out" in defense of a draft law that would enshrine the rights of Mexico's 10 million Indians in the constitution, said Esther.
"We have ordered (top EZLN leader) Subcomandante Marcos to arrange the mechanisms" necessary to prevent any military advance by the guerrillas on the positions from which the army was withdrawn in the past few days in the Zapatista-controlled parts of Chiapas, said Esther.
Mexican President Vicente Fox recently ordered the dismantling of the three remaining army bases in the conflict zone.
The withdrawal of army troops from seven bases in Chiapas, the release of all of the Zapatistas languishing behind bars, and the approval of the bill on Indigenous Rights and Culture, which would enshrine recognition of Native rights in the constitution, were the three conditions set by the EZLN for the renewal of the peace talks, which stalled in 1996.
"We will not respond to a signal for peace with a signal of war," stressed Esther. "The light of dialogue illuminates the darkness of the night into which Mexico's indigenous people are born, and in which they live and die."
Esther called on civil society at home and abroad to set up "peace posts" in the military bases from which the army was withdrawn, in order to verify that no warlike actions were being carried out by the Zapatistas.
The rebel leader explained that Marcos did not deliver the Zapatistas' keynote speech because "he is a subcommander. We are the commanders, who give orders as a community, obeying our peoples."
The charismatic Marcos -- the only non-Native "mestizo" (mixed race) EZLN leader -- was not present at the historic meeting with the lawmakers. Nor were the deputies of the conservative governing National Action Party (PAN), which voted against receiving the Zapatista leaders in Congress.
"We entrusted Subcomandante Marcos with the mission of bringing us to this rostrum" to offer "our word for a dignified and just peace in Chiapas," said Esther.
The EZLN -- which first rose up in arms on Jan. 1, 1994 -- ordered its leader Fernando Yanez, known as Commander German, to act as a courier between the rebels and the executive branch, in order to ensure "compliance with the last two conditions" for renewing the peace talks, said Esther.
In Congress, Yanez represented the 24 Zapatista leaders who set out in a convoy from Chiapas last month on their way to Mexico City to lobby for approval of the bill on Native rights.
The legislators have "the opportunity to see very far ahead" when they discuss recognition of autonomy for indigenous communities, which will enable them to build their own development, said Yanez.
Those who believe the aim is to create Indian reservations forget that "we have been repressed, marginalized and in danger of extinction," he added.
Historian Carlos Montemayor told IPS that "the Zapatistas' visit to the legislative palace is one more step in the strengthening of the movement of the country's indigenous peoples."
The presence of the rebel leaders in the Chamber of Deputies created the framework necessary for Mexico's Indians "to occupy a space in political, and not just cultural, terms."
The tension prior to the parliamentary vote that opened the doors of the lower house of Congress to the Zapatistas "was a reflection of what will happen in the debate" on the bill drafted by the parliamentary peace commission on the basis of the San Andres accords -- the only agreements signed by the rebels and the government, said Montemayor.
The historian, the author of "War in Paradise," recommended that those legislators who are "reluctant to approve the draft law" obtain "more information regarding the advances made in recognition of autonomous territories in countries like Canada, Colombia, Ecuador and Nicaragua."
Montemayor said that what has been happening in other nations can serve as an important tool for lawmakers when they discuss the concept of autonomy -- the portion of the draft law that has evoked the strongest objections in Congress.
Although autonomy is exercised in practice by some Native communities in Mexico, what the EZLN is demanding is constitutional recognition of that autonomy.
Commander Esther said the proposal to defend Native customs and traditions was also aimed at changing practices that represented pain, neglect, disdain and marginalization for women.
The EZLN was represented on the dais by Esther and commanders David, Zebedeo and Tacho, who defended the advantages of autonomy for Native peoples.
Conspicuously absent were seven Native people -- one who was killed, four of whom are in prison, and two of whom are facing arrest warrants -- whose seats were left empty among the spots reserved for the EZLN and its guests in Congress.
March 19, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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