A Seminar Held at the UNAM, October 30, 2002

Sponsored by: The North American Studies Center of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and Woodrow Wilson Center's Latin American Program

Speakers: Luis H. Álvarez, Peace Commissioner for Chiapas, Mexican Government; Samuel Ruíz, Bishop Emeritus of San Cristóbal; Emilio Zebadúa, Secretary of Government, Chiapas State Government; Alvaro Pop, CIRMA (Guatemala); Will Kymlicka, Queens University (Canada); Donna Van Cott, University of Tennessee, Knoxville (USA); Sen. Felipe de Jesús Vicencio (PAN); Rep. Jaime Martínez Veloz (PRD); Guillermo May, National Indigenous Congress; Miguel Concha, Human Rights Center; Gonzalo Ituarte, Parish Priest of Ocosingo, Chiapas; Luis Hernández Navarro, La Jornada; Miguel Alvarez, Serapaz; Olivia Gall, UNAM; Guillermo Trejo, CIDE; Natividad Gutiérrez, UNAM

The Woodrow Wilson Center and the UNAM hosted a full-day seminar to focus on the conflict in Chiapas and questions of indigenous rights in global perspective. The seminar included leading political actors and scholars from Mexico, Guatemala, Canada, and the United States. It took place at a time when the peace negotiations to resolve the conflict between the Mexican government and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) have broken down, and show little sign of being renewed.

In analyzing the complex nature of the Chiapas situation, the three keynote speakers—Luis H. Álvarez (the federal government's Peace Commissioner for Chiapas), Samuel Ruíz (Emeritus Bishop of San Cristóbal), and Emilio Zebadúa (Secretary of Government of Chiapas)—agreed that historical factors such as the lack of rule of law, near-feudal structures of political and economic power, unresolved land claims, racism, and intracommunal conflict had led to a situation of great tension which impeded progress in the peace process.

Bishop Samuel Ruíz, however, stressed that the federal government had not lived up to its agreements under the San Andrés Accords, signed in 1996 between the government and EZLN, and that the neoliberal policies that the administration of President Vicente Fox was pursuing only worsened the conditions that gave rise to the conflict in the first place.

Luis H. Álvarez, on the other hand, expressed the Fox administration's willingness to restart the dialogue and stressed the importance of rebuilding communication channels. He pointed out that the EZLN had broken off the dialogue and has maintained complete silence despite the government's willingness to open the doors to the Zapatistas' peace caravan in 2001. He argued that the government was seeking to address the underlying causes of the conflict by implementing social programs in the indigenous communities of Chiapas.

At the same time, Emilio Zebadúa, in representation of Chiapas Governor Pablo Salazar, noted that the conflict has several different dimensions that go beyond the state level and that there are national political obstacles that impede finding solutions. Nonetheless, he emphasized that there have been positive advances in ending the impunity with which paramilitary organizations operated since the first democratically elected government took office in 2000. However, he also recognized that the state government was limited in its capacity to reform the justice system and ensure public security.

Alvaro Pop, a Guatemalan indigenous leader, emphasized that his country has made significant advances in the social and political recognition of indigenous rights since the peace accords of 1996, but he noted that the indigenous movement pursues multiple strategies rather than speaking with a single voice on many issues. Will Kymlicka of Queens University mentioned that many liberal democracies have successfully implemented regimes of minority rights despite inherent tensions between group rights and individual rights. This has been particularly important in light of growing demands for recognition from ethnic, cultural, and linguistic groups around the world. Donna Lee Van Cott of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville compared the experience of indigenous movements elsewhere in Latin America, noting that indigenous rights have been recognized only when expansive state reform processes have taken place. Miguel Concha of the Fray Francisco Vitoria Human Rights Center described the evolution of the notion of human rights from one that addresses only individual rights to one that embraces the idea of collective rights as well.

Luis Hernández Navarro of La Jornada argued that the efforts of President Fox to solve the conflict have failed because he did not use the "democratic bonus" he had when first elected to make real changes. Hernández accused the government of not having a strategy for peace and of failing to address the needs of the indigenous communities and prevent the reemergence of paramilitary groups. Similarly, Guillermo May of the National Indigenous Congress and Gonzalo Ituarte of the parish of Ocosingo suggested that the conditions that gave origin to the Zapatista uprising have not changed substantially.

Sen. Felipe de Jesús Vicencio (PAN) was pessimistic about the possibilities for restarting the peace process. He noted that there is no agreement about whom the key actors should be in the peace process, what the causes were, or what possible strategies for negotiation might look like. Congressman Jaime Martínez Veloz (PRD) was more optimistic, suggesting that conditions existed for Congress to reevaluate the controversial indigenous law that had been passed in 2001 and approve additional reforms closer to those agreed on between the federal government and the EZLN.

Miguel Álvarez of Serapaz saw few opportunities in the current political climate for reestablishing the dialogue between the government and the EZLN, however. He emphasized that the nature of the conflict had changed profoundly since 1994 and that the forms of mediation and dialogue needed to be revised radically to adjust to the current conditions.