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  1. #1
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    Jan 1970

    Doors Are Opening for Mexico's Indians

    Doors Are Opening for Mexico's Indians

    Opportunities and conditions for indigenous citizens have improved since the 1994 revolt. But more reforms are needed
    When the Zapatista National Liberation Army burst onto the scene in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas 12 years ago demanding a fairer shake for Mexico's 12 million indigenous people, Daría Sánchez Girón was struggling to complete primary school in Bochil, an impoverished town with just 500 inhabitants, all belonging to the Tzotzil ethnic group.

    Today, Sánchez is 22 and is one of 580 students, 90% of them indigenous, at the newly created Intercultural University of Chiapas in San Cristóbal de las Casas. Sánchez, the only one of seven siblings to graduate from high school, is studying indigenous languages and culture, thanks to a full government scholarship.

    She wants to be a writer -- and a teacher. "Before the Zapatista rebellion, we didn't have the right to speak out," she says. "Now we can express ourselves freely, and the university is helping us preserve the culture and customs and languages of our communities."

    REVOLT RECAP. Last year the university started offering four-year degrees in ecotourism, sustainable development, intercultural communication, and languages and culture. Three other intercultural universities are operating in other Mexican states, and six more are planned -- all part of President Vicente Fox's pledge to triple the enrollment of indigenous college students during his six-year term, which ends in December (see BW Online, 3/10/06, "The Fox in Winter").

    On New Year's Day, 1994, the Zapatistas stormed San Cristóbal de las Casas and several other towns in Chiapas to protest the neglect of Mexico's indigenous groups and to denounce the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), saying it would do little for the country's poor southern states.

    The revolt, which was quickly controlled but resulted in 150 deaths, shocked Mexicans and cast light on the backward conditions in which most of the country's indigenous lived. The government quickly began peace talks, and within two years pushed through electoral reforms that helped Mexico establish a true multiparty democracy.

    But Congress balked at approving the ambitious indigenous rights initiatives drafted in the peace talks. When Fox won the presidency in 2000, ending seven decades of one-party rule, he immediately sent an indigenous rights bill to Congress.

    INDIGENOUS DEMANDS. He also named a respected indigenous businesswoman, Xóchitl Gálvez, as his top adviser on Indian affairs, later making her the Cabinet-level head of the new National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Communities.

    Gálvez, now 43, is an Otomí Indian from Hidalgo state who rose from crushing poverty to earn a university degree in computer engineering and create her own high-tech company that designs energy-efficient "intelligent" office buildings (see BW Online, 10/26/98, "Opinion Shaper: Xochitl Gálvez Ruiz").

    Gálvez has helped force the issue to the center of public debate in Mexico. "Before, the problems of indigenous Mexicans were not a national priority, but today they are high on the country's agenda," she says.

    Mexico has the largest number of indigenous people in all of Latin America -- around 12 million. Yet they account for less than 10% of the Mexican population, which is largely mestizo, of mixed Spanish and Indian descent.

    In Bolivia, Ecuador, or Guatemala, more than half the population is indigenous. Bolivia, which recently elected its first indigenous President, has limited economic resources to improve living conditions. By contrast, Mexico, an oil exporter and Latin America's largest economy, has been able to more than double spending during Fox's term in office to benefit the indigenous.

    FOX PAYS ATTENTION. The Zapatista revolt marked what Gálvez calls an "historic watershed" in Mexican history. Although Mexicans celebrate the richness of their Indian pre-colonial heritage, official policy had long been to assimilate the indigenous population into society. But the bloodshed in 1994 made it clear that "the indigenous don't want to be completely assimilated -- they want their rights, their lands, their languages, and their autonomy to be respected," she says.

    Headed by a charismatic, mask-wearing, non-Indian intellectual calling himself Subcommander Marcos, the Zapatistas demanded that the country's 62 native languages be taught in local schools, along with Spanish. They insisted that the customs of native communities should be observed as the local law and said Indians should retain the rights to natural resources found on their lands -- including oil, hydroelectric, and forestry riches.

    Although Congress refused to grant them full autonomy and control over natural resources, the Fox Administration is spending around $500 million this year to improve living conditions in the poorest 50 municipalities in Mexico, where nearly 93% of the population is indigenous. Most are subsistence farmers, with half having no income at all and the other half earning less than $100 a month.

    BASIC SERVICES. Government statistics show that 75% of indigenous people haven't completed elementary school, twice the national average, and more than 30% are illiterate, three times the national average. "They don't want welfare assistance -- they want real development," Gálvez says.

    The best way to help, she says, is by improving basic infrastructure: highways, electricity, schools, and hospitals. The Fox Administration created a fund that this year will spend nearly $400 million, added to $280 million from other government agencies, to pave rural highways and take electricity and water to indigenous villages.

    "There are many communities where people must walk for eight hours to get their children or a pregnant woman to the doctor, and they often die along the way," Gálvez says. "Farmers can't get their products to market. Without roads, we cannot bring in electricity, drinking water, or refrigerators, so women must cook three times a day, and they have no time to get an education."

    JOBS NEEDED. Under Fox, more than 1 million indigenous families have been connected to electricity and running water for the first time. The percentage of indigenous children finishing elementary school has risen from 72% to 85% in five years, thanks to a doubling of government stipends that 1.15 million indigenous families now receive if they agree to keep their children in school.

    The percentage of people living in extreme poverty -- many of them indigenous -- dropped from 16.2% to 11.7% of the population between 1992 and 2004, while the overall poverty level fell from 44.2% to 37% of the population in the same period, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America & the Caribbean (ECLAC).

    Yet while antipoverty programs have lifted many Indians out of misery, there still are not enough jobs to go around, and many have joined the exodus of Mexican workers to the U.S. "The average Mexican Indian wants a job, just as middle class Mexicans do," says Guillermo Trejo, a Mexican expert on political violence and social movements at Duke University.

    A CHIAPAS VISION. That's where the new Intercultural Universities are intended to help. Unlike mainstream universities, where only a handful of students are indigenous, they provide a discrimination-free atmosphere where students are free to speak their native languages.

    Pedro Hernández, 20, a Tseltal-speaking native of the Las Margaritas region of Chiapas, is majoring in sustainable development so he can find new markets for the skilled handicraft artisans of his community.

    "For years, we had authoritarian governments that imposed their vision of development on us," he says. "Now we are coming up with our own vision of how we want to develop our indigenous communities."

    PLACE IN HISTORY. The Zapatistas today live in 30 self-governing communities in the jungle of Chiapas, renouncing government aid and surviving through subsistence farming and contributions from abroad. Marcos and other Zapatista leaders are midway through a six-month nationwide speaking tour timed to end just before Mexico's July 2 presidential elections.

    They continue to speak out against free-market policies and globalization and express concern that the indigenous agenda is being neglected by Mexico's young democracy, in spite of Fox's spending. The country's indigenous, they say, must make sure they do not lose the benefits they have gained since 1994.

    That, says Xóchitl Gálvez, is not going to happen. Although she will step down in December and return to her engineering company, the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Communities will continue its work. And Marcos, she says, "has earned a valuable place in history" for having raised awareness in Mexico over the plight of its indigenous peoples. ... =rss_daily

  2. #2

    Join Date
    Jan 1970
    Southern Mexifornia
    The Indians revolted, and though it cost many their lives, the revolt led to an awakening of the plight of the indigenous people and to major changes.
    Mexico could use a few more revolutions within its borders. Time to clean house down south.
    “Homeland Security? What Homeland Security ?”

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