Interview with Cecilia Rodriguez

by Jim Smith

Cecilia Rodriguez is the official representative of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) movement. She is also U.S. coordinator of the National Commission for Democracy in Mexico. Rodriguez, 40, a resident of El Paso, was interviewed in Los Angeles Feb. 23, her eighth day on a hunger strike designed to draw attention to the plight of the people in Chiapas. The hunger strike has since spread to other cities in the United States and Europe.

The EZLN was a ten year old underground organization in the largely Mayan Indian state of Chiapas, when it startled the world with its uprising on New Years' Day, 1994. A 14-month long standoff with the Mexican army ended Feb. 9, when Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo ordered troops into rebel held areas. Rodriguez and others say the attack was at the urging of U.S. financial advisors. The Clinton Administration has underwritten $20 billion of a $53 billion loan to Mexico.

Although the Mexican army has declared a ceasefire, the National Commission for Democracy claims that an atmosphere of terror and repression exists in Mexico, including government raids of churches, offices and private homes and the issuing of nearly 3,000 arrest warrants against opposition political activists. A pro-government mob has even attacked the cathedral of Chiapas Bishop Samuel Ruiz because he has expressed sympathy with the Indian's cause.


Why have you begun a hunger strike?

It's to dramatize and bring some attention to the terrible situation that is happening in Mexico. We don't have access to the media to get the kind of coverage that is needed. The hunger strike is also a way to focus attention in Los Angeles, a very big and important city. It has a lot of significance for Chicanos and Mexicanos. Its a way of telling people it is time to come together and do something. And it's spreading. People in other cities including Sacramento, Austin, Washington and Oxford, England have also taken up the hunger strike.


What kind of response have you received in Los Angeles?

Its been very positive. The problem is getting the word out about what's going on in Mexico. But, there are a lot of internal problems in the Los Angeles political landscape causing people not to want to work together. One of our challenges is figuring out a way to overcome that. Unless we pull together as many forces as possible it's going to be very difficult to build the kind of opposition that the poor in Mexico need to have. This city is very important because of the fight over Proposition 187 and all the Chicanos and Mexicanos who are here. Los Angeles is like a mecca to Mexicanos. It has a particular significance to us.


Are you encouraging others to join you in fasting?

We have some people on 24-hour fasts and some on longer fasts. But, at this point it's pretty slow. A fast isn't something most people are ready to do. They have jobs and families to think about. But, rather than ask people to fast, I'm asking them to mobilize. That's why I'm here. That's why I'm fasting.


What can people do to help?

Anything goes at this point. The situation is so critical in Mexico that we need a lot of pressure on Congress. On human rights institutions, on the Carter Center and on the U.N. We're asking people to write letters, call. Public pressure must be put on a variety of institutions to denounce this witch hunt that's going on in Mexico.

We're also asking for humanitarian aid. People are sick and don't have access to food and medicine.There is so much military presence in Chipas that it has completely disrupted normal activity. So people are hungry. Those who don't want to take political action can contribute to a humanitarian aid caravan or develop one themselves. Food and medicine are urgently needed.


Are efforts underway now to get food and medicine to Chipas?

Yes, there is a caravan from Pastors for Peace getting ready to go down. They're stopping at different cities around the country. A couple of indigenous groups are sending medicine. At this point, people should just take their own initiative and find the easiest and best vehicle to do it. We're not interested in building organizational structures, we're interested in responding to this crisis.


Do you believe the U.S. Government was involved in the Mexican army occupation?

The U.S. involvement is focused on securing what they call a stable market environment. Which means low wages, a labor force that is pretty much under control. Access to the land and all the mineral resources of the country. It's the clearest case where foreign policy in the United States is being set by financial institutions. You have Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin who was an important Wall Street speculator and now is benefiting from the loan. Wanting a "stable investment environment" means having a rigid political structure. The current PRI government, or some kind of a right wing government, is beneficial to that kind of economic structure. The sad thing is that the short term investors are not going to be around forever. Its a fallacy that they will come in a invest and the country will benefit. At the touch of a computer they can take their money out as quickly as they came in. It's not as if they built a factory or built a road or developed some land. They do nothing except speculate. I think the U.S. government had a tremendous amount of pressure to favor the financial institutions and that is what they did.



Did the U.S. demand that troops be sent in as part of the price of the loan?

There are Chase Manhattan and Heritage Foundation position papers on this. The Mexican secretary of interior said almost verbatim the exact words of the Chase Manhattan letter. Zedillo said we're going to protect national territory. We're going to enforce the law. It's been difficult to find out if there were actual signed side agreements. We haven't been able to prove that. You draw conclusions. The clear words of those financial advisors and then you see the results in terms of the aid package and in terms of the military movement in Mexico. You can put two and two together.


What would you like to see the U.S. government do?

We'd like to see the U.S. not underwrite this $53 billion aid package. U.S. pressure to pull the troops out would alleviate the terror that's going on right now. Standing up for human rights. Asking Zedillo to notice that everyone in the world knows what kind of terrorism is going on in Chipas. Suspension of the aid package is one of the reasons we're on a hunger strike. That aid package is going to strangle the Mexican economy for many years to come. There's a lot of social unrest in Mexico. There are massive mobilizations every single day. People are taking to the streets spontaneously because they're so outraged at what has happened to the country with Zedillo's military moves and with the aid package. Mexicans are very clear that this is not going to benefit them in the short or long run.


Where and why are Mexicans demonstrating?

There have been demonstrations in Mexico City and all over the country. The southern part of Mexico has suffered the most brutal effects from the implementation of NAFTA and is having the most unrest right now. But also in Chihuahua, for example, you have the Parahumara Indians who die at a rate of 40 children every three months from starvation. In Sonora you have the same thing with the Yaqui Indians and all over the country there is the same kind of poverty, misery and oppression. But you have different levels of political development. In southern Mexico people have been mobilizing and organizing for many years. Its like a fire burning northward. Eventually it is going to come all the way to the United States.


What is the impact of the PRI defeat in the state of Jalisco?

Jalisco was a concession of the PRI. Politically it expresses the rejection of the PRI by the Mexican people. I don't think you can read much more than that into it because the electoral process is so manipulated to favor the financial interests. It's going to take much more before we can say there is democracy in Mexico. If Jalisco and three-forths of the country goes for PAN (National Action Party), what does that mean? The economic decisions are not being made in Mexico. They're being made in the IMF and the World Bank and in the United States. As long as those decisions are out of the hands of the Mexican people they do not have a chance for a decent standard of living or for democracy.

People in the United States think that democracy means you have the right to vote. Democracy means much more than that. It means that you have a government that implements the will of the people. That is a classic tenet of democracy, but many people think, "Oh yeah, they had an election and it was clean, therefore they have democracy." Democracy means the government will respond to people's needs such as health care and jobs. It means that the government implements economic policies in the people's interest. Look at the Salinas government. Did he develop the industry or the country or facilitate long term investment to build roads and develop the country? No. He built a house of cards, of get rich quick schemes, which were convenient to him and his cronies.


The Mexican government has been trying to discredit one of the Zapatistas' leaders, Subcommander Marcos. Has that had an effect in Mexico?

I think its been embarrassing to the Mexican government. The people haven't bought it at all. The government's gone through various means to discredit the Zapatistas. The first of which is to say the leader of the EZLN is a white, middle-class, well educated Mexican and then by saying that it was revealed by a captured woman prisoner, Maria Gloria Benavides Guevara. When she said she had been tortured, the government changed its story even though the statement had already been prepared for her to sign, saying the information wasn't from her, it was from someone else. Now they can't produce anyone to back up the statement.

The government never counts on the intelligence of the people to see through the manipulations. None of their attempts to discredit the Zapatistas has worked for them.


The media has portrayed the Zapatistas as creation of Marcos. Is this true?

The Lacadon jungle is a very severe environment that no city person can survive in. To live in the jungle, he or she has to learn how to walk, has to learn what to eat, has to learn to understand the jungle, its seasons, its creatures. The people who taught Marcos were the community.

The people who fed, clothed and made the EZLN grow were the indigenous community. It was not the other way around. In addition to that, the community built a fighting force of 12,000 over a period of ten years. It hid them, armed them and trained them. The combatants were trained not just militarily, but they were also taught to read and write in Spanish. What does it take to do that? It takes a lot of people, who's names and faces we'll never know. And without whose help the EZLN would not have developed.

Some people have a fantasy idea of how things happen. They don't understand that you have to have to get things from somewhere, such as, money and equipment. The EZLN is the Mexican people. During the 14 months that there was a truce, as the army shut down access to the area with its blockade, it was the Mexican people who took a huge caravan of 255 buses filled with food and medicine to feed the Zapatistas. What began as a clandestine operation all of a sudden became a national program.

The Mexican government doesn't even give a damn about any of this. If it were a rational entity, it would perhaps find a way to manipulate the situation. But it's not. It's a government that's in its death throws, propped up only by the United States.


How many peasants have sought refuge in the jungle?

Estimates range from 2500 to 5000. These are people who are probably not going to return to their villages because of the terror they have for the Mexican army. And this is precisely what the army wants to happen. They want to scare people to the point that the EZLN looses its legitimacy. Then they can say "you see, they didn't defend your villages and they left you to starve in the jungle." It's an evil way of attempting to destroy the Zapatistas' base. But I think they underestimate the intelligence of people who have created the Zapatistas and made it survive for so many years.


Why should people in the United States care about the Zapatistas?

One of the things that concerns me is a worldwide feeling that the theory of socialism and the socialist experiment has been discredited. People who did a lot of work around Nicaragua and El Salvador are pretty demoralized or lost. One of the difficult things is understanding the Zapatistas is that they have developed a new model. They have conduced their armed struggle in a way that hasn't been seen before because they are students of history. They learned from the Salvadorans, the Nicaraguans and from everyone. And this is their new approach to the decade before the year 2000. It is an amazing contribution to revolutionary theory and to humanity. And for that reason alone people need to fight for them. This model has arisen from their experience, or as the EZLN says, "in our clumsy walk we've done all these things." If people don't protect it and defend it then what's going to happen to others who may dream? What's at stake here is people's ability to dream, to develop new political thought, of new ways of relating to one another, of building a movement. That's what at stake. It's not only another bunch of starving people in the third world. It's a new approach to change. That's why people should support the Zapatistas.


Do you feel confident about the future?

This is going to be a very, very difficult task. Because of the political landscape and the burnout that exists among people who are progressive. Because of the deep cynicism in this country, its a herculean task. That's what makes me shake sometimes. But we have to breakthrough and make a difference, especially now that the situation in Chiapas is so urgent. I don't think we have any choice.


Is that cynicism also found in Mexico?

It's in Mexico also. I think that's why the National Commission for Democracy struggles so much. It's all over the world. People are tired and angry at this New World Order and its demagoguery, but they can't quite figure out what tools they need in order to change it. What tools they need most are their imaginations, their best instincts and their willingness to try something new. They need to leave behind some of the old methods of working that have done nothing but create divisions and have polarized the little forces that we have.


A version of this interview appeared in the Los Angeles View

Copyright by Jim Smith