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"1810! 1910! 2010!"

The Timeline for a New Mexican Revolution Comes Due

by JOHN ROSS

Mexico City

Fact: Every 100 years on the tenth year of the century, Mexico explodes in extravagant social upheaval.  In 1810, this distant neighbor nation declared its independence from the Spanish Crown, signaling monumental bloodletting – hundreds of thousands died, mostly people the color of the earth, fully 10 per cent of the census. 

In 1910, the Mexican revolution, the first massive uprising of the landless in the Americas, detonated in a geyser of blood and before it was done, a million were dead and a million more had been driven into permanent exile north of the border.

The 100-year timeline has triggered intense speculation about what’s ahead for Mexico in 2010.

Whether the 100-year cycle is a measure of Mexico’s political metabolism or merely an accident of numbers has scholars scurrying back to their history books.  Certainly objective conditions for insurrection are rife.  Mexico is wracked by the deepest economic contraction since the Great Depression; millions are out of work (one estimate calculates real unemployment as 40%), 72,000,000 out of 107,000,000 Mexicans live in and around the poverty line (three daily minimum wages), and income disparity is comparable to Africa.  The parties of the left,  right, and center are universally mistrusted and elections are tainted with fraud, canceling out a political solution to the ongoing crisis.

President Felipe Calderon who won high office in the fraud-tarred 2006 election is as unpopular as dictator Porfirio Diaz was a hundred years ago (Diaz himself repeatedly stole elections) and, like Diaz, he is spending billions to stage next year’s Bicentennial celebration of the War of Liberation and the 100th birthday of the Mexican Revolution.  The Dictator’s allocation of the nation’s social budget to mark the first hundred years of Independence in 1910 trip-wired his downfall.

Yet memories of the enormous human tragedies that accompanied 1810 and 1910 passed on from one generation to the next tend to make Mexicans cautious about the "R" word and revolution in 2010 is dismissed by many radicals as mere wishful thinking.

The notion that 2010 would usher in a new revolutionary chapter in Mexico’s complicated history was first advanced by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation’s (EZLN) charismatic mouthpiece Subcomandante Marcos in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle issued in June 2005.  The "Sexta" called for the writing of a new revolutionary Mexican constitution in 2010, a process to be accompanied by prolonged social struggle. 

To keep the pot boiling, the Zapatistas insisted upon the unity of all revolutionary forces and the creation of a mechanism – the Other Campaign or "La Otra" – that would develop and implement a plan of action.  Although "La Otra" was marginated by its own sectarianism and brusque polemics with the electoral left, the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign continues to look towards 2010 as a revolutionary watershed.

At a meeting of "Otras" from eight states and the federal district this past March in Tampico, Tamaulipas, activists considered the prospects for renewed revolution in the coming year.  There was general consensus that 2010 constituted an historical opportunity that could not be passed up but some participants stepped back from proclaiming a new revolution.  Carlos Montemayor, the nation’s top scholar of guerrilla movements, even declared the 2010 timeline to be a "trap" that the "mal gobierno" ("bad government") will capitalize on to infiltrate provocateurs into social movements and militarize the country.  Montemayor reminded the Otras and Otros that the War of Liberation and the Mexican Revolution only broke out in 1810 and 1910 and it was another decade before the killing had run its course with very mixed results for the "pueblo" ("people.")

By design or divine coincidence, Tampico is thought to be the birthplace of Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, born Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente, the son of a president of a local furniture store association.  Marcos himself did not put in an appearance at the Other Campaign conference and in fact has been missing in action throughout all of 2009 after showing his ski-masked face briefly last New Year’s at the rebels’ Festival of "Digna Rabia" ("Rage with Dignity") in Chiapas.  His elongated absence has led to suggestions that the pipe-chomping Zapatista Comandante is up to significant mischief.

In no other region of the country has the phantom of 2010 provoked more speculation than in Chiapas where the Zapatistas rose 16 years ago on January 1, 1994 in the very first hour of the North American Free Trade Agreement.  Governor Juan Sabines and his Secretary of Government Noe Castanon never weary of warning of "a social explosion" in the coming year.  Many like La Jornada’s veteran Chiapas correspondent Hermann Bellinghausen see their dire pronouncements as paving the path for the increased criminalization of social protest that has marked the Calderon years and a pretext for further militarizing an already militarized state.

Following a wave of scare stories in the Chiapas press, this past November 20 – the 99th anniversary of the declaration of the Mexican revolution and a national holiday- 5000 Chiapas state police backed up by Mexican army troops patrolled roads throughout the Zapatista zone of influence in anticipation of renewed uprising.  None occurred.

Several recent hyper-publicized incidents provide a glimpse of the psychosis that grips Chiapas on the eve of 2010:

This September 30th, in the highland Tzotzil Indian hamlet of Yebchalum hard by Acteal where in December 1997 49 members of Las Abejas ("The Bees"), a group aligned with the EZLN, were massacred by paramilitaries trained and financed by the Mexican Army, federal agents arrested local gun seller Mariano Jimenez and recovered a small arsenal that included three AK-47s ("Cuernos de Chivo"), 17 handguns, and 47 fragmentation grenades. 

The recent release of 20 paramilitaries convicted of the 1997 killings has ratcheted up tensions in the highlands – Mexico’s Supreme Court is preparing to release 30 more of the convicted killers, including four who confessed to perpetrating the massacre, due to judicial irregularities in their trials. Jimenez purportedly confessed to investigators that he was stockpiling weapons for the Abejas to defend themselves from the just-released killers.

The highly publicized "confession" was immediately denounced by the Bees, devout liberationist Catholics commited to non-violence who were created and fomented by San Cristobal de las Casas Bishop emeritus Don Samuel Ruiz.  Indeed, Jimenez’s "confession" invoked a touch of déjà vu – back in 1994, Bishop Ruiz was the government’s favorite villain, condemned as "Comandante Sammy", the real face behind the Zapatistas’ ski-masks.

A second incident reflecting a reinvigorated media assault on the San Cristobal diocese which is now under new management (Don Samuel’s successor Felipe Arizmendi is much more of a moderate) unfolded October 13th when federal troops raided a ranch near Frontera Comalapa on the Guatemalan border and confiscated 40 long guns, 300 grenades, and what the Federal Prosecutor’s Office (PGR) described as a "tank."  Three men taken into custody were pictured as "guerrilleros" and claimed that they had been trained by one "Comandante Uerto" of the "Kaibiles", a dread unit of the Guatemalan Army that functions as a death squad – "Comandante Uerto", the suspected "guerilleros" revealed, had been recommended to them by "a catechist in the San Cristobal diocese" (sic.) 

Reports in the Chiapas press, one of the most venal and for-sale in the country, suggested that the three were members of either the OCEZ (Emiliano Zapata Campesinos Organization) or the OPEZ (Emiliano Zapata Proletarian Organization) depending on which mendacious journalistic vision the reader swallows. 

Chiapas daily newspapers like Cuarto Poder and other scandal sheets finger Diocesan priest Juan Hurtado Lopez in Altamirano in the Zapatista zone of influence, for calling for armed revolt in 2010 from his pulpit, an unfounded allegation that has been taken up by Governor Sabines.  Other priests and catechists have allegedly encouraged takeovers of public buildings and attacks on banks.  Cuarto Poder accuses the priest of Nueva Galicia of preaching revolution and reports that local merchants "are scared" that their stores will be sacked.  Ricardo Lagunes, a lawyer for the Diocesan Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center founded by Bishop Ruiz was beaten by thugs in Jotola down in the hot lands, September 18th.

Adding fuel to this combustible ambiance was the September 29th arrest of veteran social activist Juan Manuel Hernandez, universally known as "Chema", a founder of the OCEZ and the House of the People ("Casa del Pueblo") in the central valleys around Venustiano Carranza.  Chema, a longtime lightning rod for that community’s recovery of 14,000 hectares from local ranchers, is a fiery indigenous leader whose political leanings are said to tilt more to the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) than to the EZLN.  Cuarto Poder insinuates that Hernandez was plotting revolution in 2010 but subsequent Chiapas state police arrests of OCEZ militants on guns and drugs charges failed to turn up any guns or drugs. 

Nonetheless, officials accuse Chema and his associates of running a criminal enterprise behind the smoke screen of the OCEZ.  Repeatedly imprisoned during land struggles in Chiapas, Hernandez was flown out of state to a maximum security federal prison in the north of Mexico "for his own protection" (sic.) After months behind bars, the charges were dismissed and Chema was finally released November 20th.

Despite the hullabaloo in the local "prensa vendida", the EZLN has remained notoriously closemouthed about what it has up its sleeve in 2010.  No communiqués have been forthcoming from the missing Marcos and the Zapatista leadership group, the Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee (CCRI) has been silent.  So are the Juntas de Buen Gobierno or Good Government Commissions that have become civil Zapatismo’s voice in recent seasons.  Even when the beleaguered Mexican Electricity Workers Union (SME) that once installed turbines and brought light to EZLN villages in the Lacandon jungle appealed for solidarity in its life and death struggle with the Calderon government, the Zapatistas remained mum. 

Enmeshed in bitter conflicts with other campesino groups over corn land the rebels recovered from ranchers after their January 1st 1994 uprising, the EZLN is under pressure on several fronts.  Governor Sabines’s plans to build a super highway that will divide up Zapatista autonomous villages has also increased their vulnerability and the rebels may well consider that a second edition of 1994 in 2010 would be political suicide.  Still, Subcomandante Marcos has often characterized the Indians’ impossible rebellion 16 years ago as "an act of suicide."

Given the odds, it is highly improbable that Chiapas will be the stage set for insurrection in 2010.  A more likely theater for revolution would be Oaxaca and Guerrero, two contiguous, desperately poor and highly indigenous states with rich histories of guerrilla uprisings.  The War of Liberation, whose bicentennial will be commemorated in 2010, blossomed in this hothouse geography and as recently as this spring, confrontations between the military and unidentified guerrilleros were reported in the Guerrero sierra where 40 years ago Lucio Cabanas and his Party of the Poor rose against the mal gobierno. 

The most prominent guerrilla formations in the region are the Popular Revolutionary Army which made its debut in 1996 with a series of murderous attacks on the military along Guerrero’s Costa Grande and whose cadre are thought to be drawn from Cabanas’s descendents (the EPR is now based in Oaxaca) and the ERPI or the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People, active in the Sierra and Costa Chica regions of Guerrero. Long incarcerated (ten years) ERPI founders Jacobo Silva and Gloria Arenas were recently released from prison and pledged allegiance to non-violent social struggle, aligning themselves with the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign. 

The most active public face of the ERPI, "Comandante Ramiro" (Omar Guerrero Solis), was reportedly slain November 4 in the sierra of Guerrero during a dispute between ERPI factions and buried in a clandestine grave.  

Other actors in the mix include the Armed Forces of Popular Revolution (FARP), the Villista Army of the Revolutionary People (EVRP), the December 2nd Revolutionary Organization (OR-2nd), The Viva Villa Collective (CVV), the Justice Commando-June 28th (CJ-28), the Democratic Revolutionary Tendency (TDR), and the Triple Guerrilla National Indigenous Alliance (TAGIN.)

All of these groups have claimed at least one armed attack and their range extends to Veracruz, Puebla, Morelos, Mexico state, and the Federal District.  While most of these "focos" express a Marxist-Leninist orientation, a handful of anarchist cells take credit for at least ten bombings at Mexico City banks and auto showrooms in September – one of the cells celebrated the name of Praxides G. Guerrero, the first anarchist to fall in the Mexican Revolution.                    

Another region  where uprising could be on the agenda in 2010 is the north of Mexico.  The 1910 revolution, in fact, germinated in this mineral rich region of deserts and rugged mountains.  The "barbarians of the north" – Pancho Villa, Pascual Orozco, Venustiano Carranza, and Alvaro Obregon among others – advanced on the center of the country squaring off against each other as much as they waged war against Diaz and his successor Huerta, and taking turns seizing power. 

In the 1960s and ’70s, urban guerrilla bands thrived in northern cities like Monterrey and Torreon, heisting banks and kidnapping industrialists.  Indeed, the roots of the EZLN are firmly planted in those two northern cities. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation grew out of the Monterrey-based Forces of National Liberation (FLN) whose original strategy contemplated the formation of the Zapatista Army in the south and the Villista Army of National Liberation in Chihuahua but the northern branch was not yet consolidated in 1994 when Chiapas grew ripe for rebellion.

The seven northern border states are the bloodiest battlefields in Felipe Calderon’s ill-conceived war on Mexican-Colombian drug cartels and narco-commando attacks often resemble guerrilla actions.  The coalescence of radical forces and the drug gangs could create a climate propitious for revolutionary violence in 2010. 

Mexico’s 1910 revolution was not confined to any one region.  Simultaneous rebellions sprouted up all over the landscape, the most celebrated of which was Emiliano Zapata’s Liberating Army of the Southern Revolution based in tiny Morelos state just outside of Mexico City.  Similarly, one scenario for 2010 proposes coordinated risings in the cities and countryside throughout Mexico.   Does the Mexican left have the numbers and organization to pull off simultaneous insurrection?

Although Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the most popular left politician in the land, is wedded to the electoral option, his millions of followers all over the country are less so inclined and massive civil disobedience and even armed struggle against the "mal gobierno" could be on the horizon given economic conditions and the level of social frustration.

One subplot for 2010 projects indigenous rebels seizing sacred sites like Palenque and Teotihuacan this January 1st, the 16th anniversary of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas.  

Revolutionaries in 2010 will have weapons their forbearers in 1810 and 1910 who fought hand to hand on central Mexican battlefields like Celaya and Las Cruces never dreamed of.  The Internet is a great facilitator of logistics that revolutionizes revolution in the new millennium.  Obeying this logic, the Zapatistas have become computer savvy both as a tool for internal communication and for broadcasting their word to the outside world.

Mastery of the cybernetic arts could unlock a Pandora’s box of sabotage, allowing hackers to access strategic infrastructure, shutting down electro-magnetic communications, paralyzing airports, and threatening the petroleum flow, Mexico’s economic lifeblood.

So is a new revolution on Mexico’s plate in 2010?  The Calderon government seems to be considering the possibility, beefing up its intelligence and armed response capabilities while distributing billions of pesos in "assistencial" aid like the Opportunities program to 26,000,000 Mexicans living in extreme poverty in a ploy to tamp down outbursts of revolutionary violence from "los de abajo" ("those at the bottom.") 

The September-October issue of El Insurgente, the EPR’s theoretical journal, reminds readers that revolutions are a "coyuntura" (coming-together) of objective conditions such as economic collapse, repression, natural disaster, and the hunger of the people, and subjective forces – i.e. the revolutionaries themselves.  Revolutions only happen when revolutionary forces are ready to carry them out.  The EPR’s conclusion: although objective conditions in 2010 are overripe for revolutionary upheaval, the objective forces lack cohesion and consolidation.  In other words, don’t count on a new Mexican Revolution in 2010.    

JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org  

Ross will present "El Monstruo" this Monday November 30th at the University of California’s Center for Latino Studies Research at 2547 Channing Way in Berkeley at 12 Noon.