Lorna Scott Fox

‘The Zapatistas a the best. Because they eat snake. They eat lion, and birds, like that one,’ whispered the little girl. She had come running up with a fistful of woven bracelets, the minute we’d edged past our first soldiers into the square at San Cristóbal. Night had just fallen, and it was almost empty. The ‘problems’, as everyone called the war, were hurting the crafts lifeline of the Chamula Indians as well as the tourist industry: mass cancellations meant that when the last of the reporters had left, the town would he bankrupt. We bought our first bracelets, and asked the child which army she preferred. She squirmed before saying ‘soldiers’ and laughing at us.

‘There is Only One Army, the Mexican Army,’ warned a big notice in national red and green on a white wall where the city overlaps uncertainly, and now fearfully, with the country. Manuel Camacho Solís, the Peace Commissioner hurriedly appointed after the days of slaughter, has made a point of referring to the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) as an army: most of the media still use President Salinas de Gortari’s early rhetoric of ‘aggressors,’ ‘transgressors’ and ‘professionals of violence’ – as opposed to ‘our Mexican troops’. Quite a few people will tell you that the official Goliath itself engineered the insurrection in order to gain a more dignified profile by smashing it. Other popular theories, all contradictory and probably all containing a speck of truth, blame the Guatemalan underground/government/refugees; the CIA; the narks; the old guard of the Seventies radicals; the even older guard of the Mexican Revolution; the Catholic Church.

The current favourite is the Government, with some unspeakable reason of its own for courting international discredit. Seventy years of the Institutional Revolutionary Party – a cross between an octopus and a chameleon – have taught a dull kind of cynicism. ‘Wake up, stop being naive. Who else can be behind it?’ I’ve heard this over and over again from all kinds of people, unable to explain the armed uprising of thousands of peasants as anything other than a consequence of squabbles within the PRI.

Physically, the Army still held sway in San Cristóbal as the three-day-old ceasefire was shuffled rancorously into place. While Camacho, managing to sound both casual and weighty, begged the press not to make too much of continued military excesses in the villages, green padded soldiers with half-hidden, Indian faces marked the street corners like pillars. Under their vigilant eyes, the shops and New Age cafés were reopening; people walked more jauntily about their business, waving at the government helicopters, while Chamula women, small blobs of black, turquoise and indigo, squatted on the thresholds in their own ancient disguise.

The chorus from a euphoric Left has denounced all conspiracy theories as the racism that can’t conceive of dumb Indians organising their own rebellion, both systematic and passionate, against five hundred years of outrage. It was useless, though, to seek enlightening opinions on this in San Cristóbal. Prosperous mestizos, still recovering from the shock of the uprising, were eloquent about foreign agitators, and sorry for the Indians whom they had tricked. Our hotelier (not a nice man) made a wry face as he felt under the counter, producing a broken old rifle butt as if it were a scalp. A reporter, he said, had removed it from a corpse. Jagged and rotten as driftwood, it lay beneath a poster for Culturally Responsible Trips to Indian Villages.

The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in