Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Government Proposes Resumption of Talks with Zapatistas

MEXICO CITY, Jan 7 1999 (IPS) - The Mexican government proposed a resumption of peace talks with the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), which have been suspended for two years, but with a shift in focus to include a “professional and non-protagonistic” national mediation process.

The government coordinator of the peace negotiations in the southern state of Chiapas, Emilio Rabasa, reiterated that President Ernesto Zedillo was willing to return to the negotiating table with the Zapatista rebels.

“We continue to maintain our open attitude to conversing with the other side whenever it would like,” Rabasa said this week. He denied that the government’s proposal for a national mediation process (without intervention or support from abroad) implied failure of its proposal for direct dialogue with the insurgents.

Rabasa said the government would propose “new political initiatives of rapprochement for resuming the dialogue and negotiations with a new, faster and more agile format” that would “get the answers flowing.”

Peace-brokering efforts by Bishop Samuel Ruiz, the head of the National Intermediation Commission (CONAI), ended in 1998, after he was accused by the government of bias toward the EZLN.

The EZLN rose up in arms in the southern state of Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala, against the government and in demand of respect for the rights of indigenous people on Jan. 1, 1994.

Armed clashes only took place until a truce was declared on Jan. 12, but at least 300 people have been killed in the region in assassinations and massacres related to the armed conflict.

With a population of around four million, 44 percent of whom live in rural areas, Chiapas has the highest poverty rate in the country. Government studies indicate that 47.5 percent of housing in the state has earth floors, 41.6 percent has no clean water and 52 percent lacks drainage.

Furthermore, 30 percent of the state’s population is illiterate – nearly three times the national average – 32 percent of local indigenous inhabitants do not speak Spanish, and life expectancy is 66 years, three years below the average for the rest of the country.

The peace talks broke off two years ago. The rebels refuse to return to the negotiating table, arguing that the government has failed to live up to agreements signed in the past, and has been steadily stepping up the army’s presence in the state.

According to Rabasa, the conflict has been “distorted and overblown” in some countries, and there is no kind of war, not even a low-intensity one, in Chiapas.

The government is keen on resolving the Chiapas issue by the year 2000, when the next presidential elections are scheduled to take place. “That is its aim,” said Rabasa, who repeated that the Zedillo administration had the capacity to resolve the conflict by its own means, and that it had no need for international intervention or mediation.

The EZLN, meanwhile, proposes to hold a nationwide consultation to allow the public to express itself in favour of enshrining indigenous rights in the constitution.

Rabasa argued that the consultation would not be such, because “I don’t believe anyone doubts that the rights of indigenous peoples and communities should be incorporated into the constitution. What is being analysed is in what terms they will be incorporated – and that is what the EZLN does not want to discuss.”

The Zapatistas said they would post some 5,000 activists throughout the country to promote the consultation, while Rabasa warned that they would not be allowed to circulate with weapons.

The government representative denied that former Salvadoran rebel commander Joaquin Villalobos was advising the Mexican government in its negotiations with the EZLN.

The rumour arose after Villalobos, a former commander of El Salvador’s now-legalised Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), said a solution to the Mexican conflict “does not merit a war.” He said his views on armed struggle had changed, and that he had made contacts with several governments of countries involved in armed conflicts in order to help them avoid bloodshed.

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