History, Rebellion and Recession
mayor of Mexico City, Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta, Subcomandante Marcos, Zapatista rebellion, Zapatista Army of National Liberation
In January 1994 an uprising in the state of Chiapas by a group of Native Americans known as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (known by its Spanish acronym EZLN) stunned the country and shook international confidence in the Mexican government. The group, also known simply as the Zapatistas, was named for Emiliano Zapata, an early-20th-century Mexican revolutionary leader and agrarian reformer. The Zapatistas captured four towns in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas and demanded economic and political reforms from the Salinas government. Although Mexican troops quickly recaptured most of the territory held by the rebels and a cease-fire was called soon afterward, the Zapatistas generated momentum for political reform in Mexico.
The 1994 Mexican elections were marred by tragedy when the PRI presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta, was assassinated while campaigning in Tijuana. He was replaced as a candidate by his campaign manager Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, who won the election in August.
Shortly after Zedillo took office, the government devalued Mexico’s currency. The devaluation, coupled with the Zapatista uprising, caused foreign investors to withdraw millions of dollars they had invested in the Mexican economy. The result was the near collapse of the economy, which was propped up by a multi-billion-dollar loan from the United States and prompt action by the International Monetary Fund. In return, Mexico had to pledge some of its future oil revenues.
To make Zedillo’s difficulties even worse, charges of massive corruption and involvement with drug dealers swirled around former president Salinas and his brother, Raul. The situation deteriorated further in 1995 when government prosecutors arrested Raul Salinas on charges of orchestrating the 1994 assassination of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, a high-ranking official in the PRI. Prosecutors charged that Ruiz Massieu was murdered because he knew too much about illegal funds amassed by the former president’s brother. Raul Salinas was convicted of the assassination of Ruiz Massieu in January 1999. Raul Salinas’s arrest created an open rift between Zedillo and the former president, further damaging the reputation of the governing PRI.
President Zedillo nevertheless pressed ahead with political reforms. In 1995 he replaced the country’s entire Supreme Court—which then began to rule against government agencies on a regular basis—and picked a member of the main opposition party to be his attorney general. He also began transferring some power from the office of the president to Mexico’s national legislature and 31 states. Zedillo oversaw a major overhaul of the country’s social security and health-care systems in 1995. He also managed to bring the Zapatistas and their leader, Subcomandante Marcos, to the negotiating table to seek a political compromise.
The Zedillo administration faced a broad array of economic problems throughout 1995 and into 1996, including soaring inflation, labor unrest, a decline in investor confidence, and a prolonged recession. Zedillo worked to implement the economic austerity measures that had been a condition of the U.S. financial bailout and continued efforts to privatize state-owned petroleum and transportation enterprises. Plans to sell part of the enormous state-owned oil monopoly, Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), prompted thousands of protesters to blockade oil wells in the southern Gulf state of Tabasco in early 1996.
In January 1996 the Zapatistas announced the formation of a new civilian political organization to be called the Zapatista National Liberation Front (known by the Spanish acronym FZLN). Leaders of the FZLN said that the new organization would seek to foster democracy through constitutional reforms. In February Zapatista representatives and the Mexican government signed the first of six peace accords that aimed to address the issues highlighted by the Zapatista rebellion. The accord proposed constitutional amendments that would give Native Americans in Mexico adequate representation in the legislature and exempt them from a law that a candidate had to be a member of a political party to run in an election. The PRI had used the law to limit political participation in Chiapas.
In 1996 another guerrilla group, the Ejercito Popular Revolucionario (EPR), or Popular Revolutionary Army, emerged. The EPR made its first appearance in the state of Guerrero when dozens of masked men and women carrying weapons appeared at a memorial service commemorating the deaths of 17 people who had been killed by police the year before. The rebels called for the overthrow of the government. In August the EPR launched simultaneous attacks on local police and military offices in the states of Guerrero, Mexico, Oaxaca, and Puebla, leaving at least 12 dead.
In September 1996 the Zapatistas again broke off peace talks with the Mexican government, claiming that the Zedillo administration had failed to carry out promised political reforms. The rebels also claimed that federal troops were violating a cease-fire agreement by harassing and threatening Zapatista fighters and their Native American supporters.
By the end of 1996 it became apparent that, despite the continuing economic and political crisis, President Zedillo was firmly in control of the country. Drastic economic measures, including steep cuts in social services, had helped to stabilize the economy. These cuts came at great expense to the majority of the Mexican people, who suffered from reduced government spending on education, health care, and price subsidies for basic food items. The austerity programs also raised interest rates and kept the value of the peso low, which resulted in many Mexicans losing their jobs or businesses. These actions enabled Mexico to refinance its foreign debt on more favorable repayment terms. In January 1997 the United States received the last payment on its emergency loan, three years ahead of schedule.
In February 1997 Mexico faced a major domestic crisis when the head of the country’s National Institute to Combat Drugs, Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested and charged with protecting one of Mexico’s most prominent drug traffickers. Gutierrez had been appointed to head Mexico’s antidrug efforts in 1996, and his arrest indicated the possibility that drug corruption in the country had reached high into the government.
In July 1997 voters dealt a major setback to the PRI, which lost its majority in the Chamber of Deputies for the first time in its history. The PRI also lost gubernatorial races in several states and lost the first election for mayor of Mexico City since 1928 to opposition candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano of the Party of the Democratic Revolution. (Previous mayors had been appointed by Mexico's president.) However, the PRI remained the dominant political force in Mexico, largely because political differences between the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution and the right-wing National Action Party left them unable to form a working coalition.
In late 1997 turmoil in Chiapas erupted again, when gunmen swept into the village of Acteal and slaughtered 45 Tzotzil Native Americans. Mexican authorities arrested dozens of people in connection with the killings, including Jacinto Arias Cruz, the head of the municipality in which Acteal is located. Many, including Arias, were members of the PRI.
In January 1998 the president dismissed Secretary of the Interior Emilio Chuayffet Chemor, who was in charge of negotiations with the Zapatistas. The Zapatistas criticized the federal government, particularly the president, for stalling implementation of the policies agreed upon in the 1996 peace accords. In response, in March Zedillo proposed a modified version of the Chiapas accord, angering Zapatista and indigenous leaders, who claimed that the president’s new proposal weakened the earlier agreement. In June Roman Catholic bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, who had served as mediator between the government and the Zapatistas, resigned as negotiator between the two parties, accusing the government of abandoning the peace process and launching a campaign of intimidation against his diocese.
Although a cease-fire remained in effect, incidents of violence took place over control of local government in several villages where Zapatistas had set up rival town councils. These councils, which were largely symbolic, operated alongside government-backed councils with little friction between the two groups. Several days after Ruiz’s resignation, a combined force of about 1,000 police and army troops stormed the town of El Bosque, arresting Zapatista officials and returning the government-backed mayor to office.
The inability of the Mexican government to negotiate an acceptable solution or to use force to suppress the revolt reflected the changed political environment of Mexico at the beginning of the 21st century. After NAFTA, international public opinion, particularly in the United States and Europe, increasingly played a role in Mexican domestic politics. Pressure to move toward a functioning democratic political system has resulted in the election of an effective political opposition in the Mexican congress and the consequent curtailment of presidential powers. Unilateral executive action is no longer possible.
Unaccustomed to a functioning political process, all parties have yet to define fully the role of congress and legislation in determining what the executive branch of government can and cannot do in governing the country. A drawn-out political process is characteristic of this stage of political development, serving as a useful, experimental stage of the emerging Mexican democracy.
In 1999, in an attempt to make the PRI more democratic and thus revive the party’s political fortunes, President Zedillo relinquished his right to pick the next PRI candidate for president. In November the PRI held the first presidential primary election in Mexico’s history. In the election, open to all registered voters in Mexico, Francisco Labastida Ochoa overwhelmingly defeated three other candidates to win the party’s nomination for the July 2000 presidential election. However, Labastida was defeated in the election by Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN). It was the first time the PRI had not won the presidency since the party’s founding in 1929.
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