Civil Society - EZLN - COCOPA dialogue

The national referendum and the future of the peace process

by Jess Kincaid

For the first time in nearly two years, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) sat down at the dialogue table the weekend of the Nov. 20 in San Cristobal de las Casas. This time, however, it was not to speak with representatives of Mexico's executive branch. Top-level delegates from the rebel army met with 3000 representatives of national 'civil society' - an umbrella term for non-government organizations, civic groups, unions and ordinary citizens. The EZLN delegates also met with the Commission for Peace and Reconciliation (COCOPA), made up of representatives of all of Mexico's major political parties including the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The separate meetings that the EZLN had with civil society and the congressional commission touched many topics, but both discussions revolved around one particular mission: a national referendum regarding the COCOPA's Legislative Initiative on Indigenous Rights and Culture. The COCOPA initiative is the legislative body's proposal for constitutional reforms that implement the San Andres Accords, agreements reached by the rebels and the Zedillo administration in February 1996.

The weekend's events confirmed that the national referendum will be carried out, most likely sometime next spring. The rebel army proposed sending one female and one male representative to each of the 2500 municipalities in Mexico in order to carry out the referendum on the COCOPA initiative. The EZLN hopes to educate the public and rally support regarding the plan for constitutional changes through this plebiscite.

The COCOPA Initiative

The COCOPA initiative has been stalled since December 1996, when President Zedillo refused to sign it despite both parties having agreed to accept the results of the COCOPA's legislative interpretation as a preliminary condition for the commission's efforts. The EZLN expressed discontent that, in its view, some parts of the San Andres accords were not included in the proposal, but signed it after consulting with supporters.

After the Minister of the Interior initially accepted the COCOPA initiative, stating that he only had to get the final go- ahead from the president, Zedillo rejected it, making public 29 specific problems he had with the initiative. Critics have pointed out connections between those 29 objections and the administration's economic interests in upholding NAFTA, trade agreements with the European Union, structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the developing Multi-lateral Agreement on Investment (MAI).

In March of this year, Zedillo introduced his own counterproposal to the COCOPA initiative into the national congress, which included changes consistent with earlier objections. The unilateral proposal by the government was immediately rejected by the EZLN and has caused many to question the point of the dialogue process.

Civil Society

The Zapatistas' ability to mobilize public support was in question after two years of suspended dialogue with the Zedillo government, a long silence by the rebels and other national issues such as the FOBAPROA banking scandal eclipsing Chiapas. These doubts have been quieted, as over 3,000 representatives from over 400 organizations met in San Cristobal, with national participants from 28 of Mexico's 32 states and observers from at least 15 countries.

While institutional party (PRI) officials dismissed the participants as not representative of Mexican civil society, many Mexicans were impressed at the number and diversity of the people present at the dialogue. Participation included non-government organizations, labor unions, environmental activists, artists, peasants, prisoners, students, gay rights activists, children, religious activists, workers, and for the first time, large business owners. Once again the Zapatistas served as the catalyst to bring together a broad spectrum of Mexicans from a wide variety of experiences.

Three discussion tables were initially arranged by the dialogue organizers - also from civil society - on the subjects of the national referendum, militarization and the peace process, and alternative economic, social, and cultural policies facing the crisis of the state. A fourth discussion table for youth was arranged at the last moment, including participation by local homeless children, public school students and punk youth from Mexico City.

The civil society delegates discussing the referendum approved the EZLN's proposal to send 5,000 delegates throughout the country and to facilitate the participation of Mexicans abroad as well. The EZLN stated that the success of civil society in organizing the dialogue indicated their capacity to successfully carry out the national referendum.


After a difficult first meeting, the second encounter between the EZLN and the 16 federal and state legislators resulted in concrete proposals, with members of both groups expressing positive feelings about the possibility for further dialogue. In an environment which they later qualified as 'cordial,' the parties exchanged proposals and agreed to respond publicly after analyzing them.

The COCOPA emphasized the need for a direct link between the two parties in order to avoid having to communicate through the media, and the EZLN delegation requested the support of the congressional commission in the realization of the national referendum.

The COCOPA questioned the Zapatistas about the possibility of reinitiating peace negotiations with the Zedillo administration. The EZLN reiterated the five conditions which it has maintained since September 1996 as the minimum necessary for returning to the dialogue, including the legislation of the San Andres Accords through the COCOPA initiative, demilitarization and elimination of paramilitary groups in Chiapas, and the release of Zapatista political prisoners.

The Zapatista delegation also mentioned the need for a new mediation body. The absence of the National Mediation Commission (CONAI), which facilitated the first meeting between the groups nearly two years ago, was apparent from the first day of the dialogue. The CONAI, headed by Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz, was disbanded in June of this year after Ruiz resigned stating that the peace process needed to enter a new phase and complaining of government attacks on the commission and the church.

Angered by the poor working conditions provided by the congressional commission, the Zapatista delegates issued a communique stating that the COCOPA had broken its word and that the treatment had racist implications. The COCOPA denied the accusations, but made effort to attend the specific needs identified by the EZLN.

The absence of mediation was also evident on the final day of the dialogue when the COCOPA attempted to deliver proposals from the Zedillo government to the EZLN. The Zapatista representatives refused the sealed documents, stating that they were not in a position to receive them because they did not recognize the congressional commission as a mediating body.

Both groups are expected to make statements regarding the proposals discussed during the dialogue later this month.

Round Up

The 29 EZLN representatives included Comandantes Tacho, David, Zebedeo, and Leticia, as well as Major Moises, the perennial companion of subcomandante Marcos, who did not attend the dialogues. Among the members of the civil society delegation were several famous Mexican personalities, including author Carlos Monsivais, human rights activist Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, lead singer Fher of the internationally popular Mexican rock group Mana, and Amalia Solorzano, mother of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. Other participants included former members of the CONAI, faculty members of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and representatives from Authentic Labor Front (FAT).

The weekend of the talks, demonstrations in 24 U.S. cities were coordinated by the National Commission for Democracy in Mexico in order to support the dialogue with the Zapatistas as well as a 5000-strong civil disobedience event at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

December 2, 1998                    
Vol. III, No. 21
               About Mexican Labor News and Analysis
     Mexican Labor News and Analysis is produced in collaboration
with the Authentic Labor Front (Frente Autentico del Trabajo -
FAT) of Mexico and with the United Electrical Workers (UE) of the
United States and is published the 2nd and 16th of every month. 

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