The Other Chiapas

by Paul Majkut

CHIAPAS, IF KNOWN OUTSIDE OF MEXICO, is these days associated with rebellious Mayans and revolutionary figures in hiding in the remains of the Lacandón rain forest, an ecological treasure now reduced to about 10 percent of its original area. The forest is situated in the mountain mists of Los Altos, the highlands of Mexico's poorest state. But there is another Chiapas: the rich agricultural lowlands and foothills along the Pacific coast. It is called the Soconusco. Despite many differences, the Soconusco shares the turmoil of Los Altos.

 The Soconusco is the primary coffee-growing region of Chiapas. It yields 42 percent of all coffee produced in Mexico. In the Soconusco, two very different men are locked in a struggle over this coffee crop and other matters. One is Carlos J. Bracamontes Gris, president of the powerful Chiapas State Coffee Producers Union. The other is Francisco Aranda, a leader of the Coalition of Workers, Peasants, and Students of Soconusco (COCES).

Trouble brewing

 Tapachula, a muggy sub-tropical jungle city, is the economic center and administrative hub of the Soconusco. It is there that the long-repressed contradictions personified by Bracamontes and Aranda have boiled to the surface in the last two years in angry petitions, arrests, demonstrations and street violence.

 On January 7, 1995, COCES marched on the municipal building of Tapachula. Five hundred demonstrators wanted answers to long-ignored questions about working conditions, environmental health, educational reform and political corruption. Led by Aranda, the activists started across town from the State of Chiapas administrative building, a building that COCES had been occupying for three months because it stands as a symbol of the state government COCES detests.

At the time of the building's occupation, the Mexican army deployed as many as 50,000 troops to Los Altos. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation's year-long rebellion in the highlands, based in the Lacandón rainforest, had not abated. Its romantic revolutionary leader, Subcomandante Marcos, was getting world attention for his wit and daring. The lowlands, for the most part, had been left to the federal police of Chiapas, widely known as the "blues," a reference to their dark blue uniforms.

These Blue-Shirt troops are more feared than the army because they have a history of violently enforcing the interests of the state's property owners. In this capacity, they are often assisted by paramilitary mercenaries hired by plantation and ranch owners and thugs and apparatchiks paid by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). These elites have ruled the Soconusco since the 1920s. Blue Shirts patrol the State Building and the town in new, dark-blue Ford pick-ups while the army is occupied in the highlands.

 The January 7 march was a culmination of more than 200 demonstrations, 25 sit- ins, and four hunger strikes that COCES had initiated in the past two years. This time, COCES was joined by other angry voices: the moderate appeals of those such as the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), who seek a fairer electoral system; the more strident demands of those who do not trust the system - most notably, the militant Emiliano Zapata Proletariat Organization; and numerous single-issue groups that gather under the COCES umbrella to advance their agendas.

 The Soconusco is a society deeply divided between those whose banner is "peace and justice" and those who call for "law and order." Centuries of economic polarization have solidified the recurrent struggle between haves and have-nots. Before the march across town began, Aranda repeated what has become a theme throughout the Soconusco, throughout the state, and throughout the nation. He explained that the government of the rich does not act in good faith.

 "The government says COCES is always fighting, but these are poor people in COCES. The government says there is no problem here," Aranda said, referring to innumerable petitions COCES has for years presented to municipal and state authorities. "Most of the time the government doesn't answer us at all," he said. He reiterated the medical, educational, labor and environmental needs of the poor of Soconusco.

"This region has been marginalized by a state government that has been centralized," Aranda said. "The government has forgotten the Soconusco. It's not the same for those people who have everything, who have their mouths and stomachs full. We have people who have nothing. They have tried to scare us, but we will defend ourselves. We are pacifists, but we will defend our rights that up to now have been stomped on."

Coffee rich

 Carlos J. Bracamontes has everything. He is rich, a man of achievement and stature in the Soconusco business community, perhaps the best-known mover and shaker in the region. He is in direct contact with the governor of the state and the central government of Mexico City. A fourth-generation coffee baron, Carlos is the grandson of Carlos Gris, the entrepreneur who, early in the century, created the Soconusco coffee empire that his offspring inherited.

Because of peasant and Indian resistance to the slave-labor conditions that were features of his master plan, Gris brought in outsiders - Germans, Italians, French, and North Americans - as investors and managers for the coffee plantations. The North Americans brought with them Chinese laborers from San Francisco to replace the rebellious Indians. When the gringos left at the time of the 1910 revolution, they left behind indentured Chinese workers, who spawned a legacy of Chinese restaurants in the Soconusco.

 Grandson Carlos J. Bracamontes' economic and social views differ from Aranda's. "We [coffee plantation owners] are suffering from a political crisis in Chiapas. It has created instability among producers because it has hit us directly," Bracamontes laments. He does not believe the heart of the political and economic crisis in the nation, Chiapas and the Soconusco is a result of the economic system. He believes it is the doing of unreasonable troublemakers and outsiders. He blames economic woes on the Zapatistas and COCES, though the present coffee crisis preceded them both.

A few days before the march on the municipal building in Tapachula, in the office of the Chiapas State Coffee Producers Union, Bracamontes reflected on the reasons for the current turmoil. "COCES is very radical," he said. "But the root of the problem is Ruiz," he said referring to Samuel Ruiz, the "red" Bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas.

"Ruiz has focused on the situation as a class struggle, not as a political movement that wants to help the poor. He wants the poor to take from the rich! But the origin of the rich and the poor has reasons," Bracamontes continues. "The poor don't want to work - and the rich have attained what they have through 100 years of work. I don't know where they get this idea that the rich exploit people." While the industrious Bracamontes discusses hard work in his plush office, coffee pickers tote 150-pound coffee sacks - about 4 million per year - up and down the steep hillsides on which the plants grow.

A few days later, the COCES march reached city hall in a clamor of shouts for peace and justice, led by Aranda. "These people," he said, referring to the marchers, "have had their consciousness lifted. Any of these groups, any in the Soconusco, will do a march or a sit-in. Our people will even openly take over a building." The march ended at the municipal building, with the Blue Shirts attacking. The ensuing riot resulted in two days of violence and looting, by far the most severe in the state's year-long crisis.

The Blue Shirts arrested and imprisoned Aranda. Others fled to the countryside to reorganize. One, Maria López, a woman leader who a decade before had been arrested, tortured and raped by the police, fled to Mexico City. But COCES resumed organizing. Within days, new demonstrations were organized for Aranda's release. People from throughout the Soconusco once again faced the Blue Shirts at the municipal building that dominates the town center. "Free Aranda!" they cried. Following more arrests and demonstrations, Aranda was released in February. He picked up where he left off.

Severed from Guatemala

 Until New World independence from Spain at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Soconusco was a separate province administered by Spanish authorities in Guatemala, Chiapas was another. To this day, there are those - particularly Guatemalans - who see the state as a part of Guatemala. Fr. Gonzalo Ituarte, O. P., the Vicar General of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a spokesperson for Bishop Ruiz, sympathizes with this sentiment.

 "Chiapas belonged to Guatemala," Ituarte says. "There was something like a NAFTA between Mexico and Chiapas in 1824. We know what happened to Chiapas. The economic and social structure of Chiapas is much more similar to Guatemala than Mexico. That's why the social revolution and the problems are similar."

"What happened" to Chiapas is that it became part of Mexico, first through economic union, then political. The parallels between the economic arrangement between Chiapas and Guatemala in the last century and the United States and Mexico today with NAFTA are ominous. In both cases, the working poor on either side of an international border lost.

 Although Chiapas became a part of Mexico, the Soconusco - an area that in pre- independence days stretched from what is today Mexico through Guatemala and along the coast of El Salvador - had different ideas of independence from what was then Chiapas, today's highlands. At that time, while Los Altos either attempted to maintain its independence or harbored strong pro-Guatemalan sentiments, the Soconusco favored either independence or annexation to Mexico.

Eventually, the two provinces were politically yoked together as one Mexican state. The old, independent-minded Los Altos capital of the original Chiapas, beautiful San Cristóbal de las Casas, was replaced by a new capital loyal to the Mexican central government. Tuxtla Gutiérrez, a town that British novelist Graham Greene called "the new ugly capital of Chiapas," became Mexico City's surrogate. The animosity between the old and new capitals can be felt today. Meanwhile, Tapachula, the heart of the Soconusco, was also subjugated to Mexico City via Tuxtla. It was then that the Soconusco became the Other Chiapas, a region of Greater Chiapas.

"Red" bishops

 The "red" bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Samuel Ruiz, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, modeled himself after the town's namesake and first bishop, Bartolomé de las Casas (1530), known as "Protector of the Indians." Both have records of uncompromising loyalty to the Indians of the area. The Mexican religious right, financed by its U.S. religious counterpart, has been fighting Ruiz for years. Juan Isais, president of the Mexican Confraternity of Evangelicals, has even petitioned Pope John Paul II to remove Ruiz. "He has brought no peace to Chiapans, and he has caused them great harm," Isais says.

Ruiz's devotion to the Indians and poor has deep ideological roots that stretch back to Las Casas in the sixteenth century. Bishop Las Casas was indebted to Thomas More's Utopia. The humanist ideas in More's book inspired Las Casas with notions of the noble savage and a primitivism that lead him to protect what he saw as utopian societies in Los Altos. Alma Guillermoprieto, in an article in The New Yorker last year, saw Ruiz as a man enamored of the same radical peasant utopia located deep within the rainforest. In 1970, early in his episcopal career, Ruiz had "The Book of Exodus" translated into Tzeltal, one of the local Mayan dialects.

 Dreams of primitive utopias have deep roots in the jungles of Chiapas and Soconusco, and Bishop Ruiz may just as well have been reading B. Traven's General from the Jungle as Las Casas or Thomas More. B. Traven (a pseudonym) was a mysterious U.S. anarchist, possibly of German birth, who wrote a series of six novels about Chiapas in the 1930s, The Jungle Novels. A popular novelist in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, he is best remembered today as the author of the novel on which the John Huston movie, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, starring Humphrey Bogart, was based. In the sixth and last novel of the cycle, General from the Jungle, set at the time of the Mexican revolution, an anarchist commune is created by peasant revolutionaries. The commune, Solipaz, or "Sun-and-Peace," mirrors the vision encouraged by Ruiz.

Trouble in the Lacandón rainforest is nothing new. Debt slavery has bred Indian rebellion since the Spanish first arrived. In 1558, Spaniard Pedro Ramírez de Quiñones led troops against Chiapan Indians in what has come to be called the War of the Cakchiqueles. Lacandón revolt was an off-and-on-again affair until the early 1700s.

In the town of Los Altos, the Tzeltals and Tzendals, two groups descended from the Maya, began a widespread revolt in 1712 that lasted two years. It was led by an Indian woman, María Angel, who claimed to have been inspired by the Virgin of Guadalupe. The Caste Wars, beginning in 1867, were led by another Indian, Pedro Diaz Cuscat.

The struggle continues

 Little has changed in the other Chiapas. When former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari divided Mexico into three economic zones, Chiapas was put in Zone 3. Workers in Zone 3 receive the lowest minimum wage in the country, set at $3 a day.

In 1989, the International Coffee Organization let world coffee prices float. Prices collapsed. Now only 200,000 Mexican and Guatemalan day workers - about half the pre- depression number - work the coffee plantations in the Soconusco.

 Growers in the Soconusco blame the five-year depression on the distant Zapatistas, though that insurrection began only a year ago, or "radicals" in COCES, which tries to organize independent unions. The struggle between the haves and have-nots of Chiapas, represented by Bracamontes and Aranda, continues. The Soconusco, the "other Chiapas," has again fallen under the shadow of events in the highlands, where Ruiz mediates the negotiations between the federal government and the Zapatistas. But each cup of Chiapan coffee contains the contradictions of this troubled state.



River of Toxins

COCES DEMONSTRATORS HAVE WON one partial victory in Tapachula. In the hills above the city, on the banks of the San Antonio River, Moscamet/Moscafrut, S.A., a multinational fertilizer and pesticide plant with financial backing from the United States, Guatemala and Mexico pumps out waste toxins in Metapa. Following COCES protests, the federal government appointed a Federal Commission to investigate long-standing COCES charges of toxic dumping in March 1995.

 The problems at Moscamet/Moscafrut began in early 1993, when a child swimming in the San Antonio River came out with skin lesions and ranchers began reporting dying and miscarrying calves. COCES asked experts at the Oaxaca Technological Institute to analyze samples. The Institute's analysis showed high levels of toxicity in the water and COCES began collecting anecdotal testimony from those who lived along the banks of the river. Interviewers discovered a pattern of complaints centered on skin disorders. When a sub-secretary in the governor's office in Tuxtla was presented with the information by COCES leader Francisco Aranda, he replied that "there were no problems."

 COCES believes the appointment of a Federal Commission in March - over the heads of state authorities - is a dramatic move in the right direction that it hopes will lead to pollution mitigation.

 - P.M.