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Zapatistas Denounce Mexico's New Native Rights Laws

by Diego Cevallos

Autonomy, territorial rights cut from final version
(IPS) MEXICO CITY -- Over the objections of Mexico's rebel Zapatistas and their followers, new legislation covering Native rights and culture was formally enacted August 14.

The legislation, presented by President Vicente Fox following its approval by Congress and by a majority of state legislatures, was denounced by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) who called it "illegitimate, reactionary, anti-democratic," adding it would open the door to new violence.

The new constitutional amendments ban all forms of discrimination and guarantee specific Native rights. But the Zapatistas consider the laws on Native autonomy and on territorial rights far from adequate.

Further, they note, the congressional committees entrusted with the matter changed the original version of the reforms considerably, and articles guaranteeing the autonomy of Native communities were ultimately shelved.

"This legislation is illegitimate -- it fails to contribute to the creation of a truly democratic state," said more than 20 human rights activists, artists, social researchers and religious leaders, including Samuel Ruiz, former bishop of Chiapas state, home to the Zapatistas, who signed an open letter.

The legislation in draft form had been rejected by the Zapatista movement, Native organizations and the legislatures of states with majority Native populations, such as Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. But their opposition was not enough to prevent the bills from becoming law, following constitutional procedures.

Now, political observers maintain that the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and their supporters cannot complain because their demands were defeated in a process based on good faith and on rules that all parties involved had accepted beforehand.

Political scientist Jesus Silva Herzog took the Zapatistas and their supporters to task.

"When the institutions are on their side, they are full of praise about their representativeness and their profound knowledge on indigenous matters, but when the institutions say (the EZLN) is wrong, then (these institutions) are considered fraudulent, ignorant, arrogant and racist," he said.

It is undemocratic, he continued, to say Congress is an authentic and legitimate power only when it approves laws I like, but then describe it as illegitimate when it votes for laws I don't like.

Those who question the validity of the reform package can file their complaints with the courts or present other proposals, said Senator Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the National Action Party (PAN), which Fox represents.

Passage of the Native rights legislation brings to a close the latest chapter in efforts by Zapatistas and others to define and enact laws guaranteeing rights to land and empowering Mexico's Native communities. In a dramatic march to the national legislature last March, EZLN commanders demanded constitutional amendments to protect the country's 10 million Native people.

President Fox told them at the time: "Welcome to the political arena."

Before and after the Zapatista visit, Congress, universities, human rights organizations and other groups organized several forums to debate the new legislation.

In the end, however, a congressional majority approved its own bill which was backed by 17 of Mexico's 31 states, and signed by the Fox government.

Reacting to the new legislation, the National Indigenous Congress, a group allied with the EZLN, called the watered-down Native reforms a betrayal by the Fox government that would obstruct possibilities for dialogue and pave the way for violence.

For his part, Fox said he is working to re-establish dialogue with the guerrillas and to define new paths toward definitive peace. It will obviously require more time to resolve "the Chiapas problem" than the 15 minutes he claimed it would when he was running for president.

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Albion Monitor August 20, 2001 (

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