On Sunday, millions of Mexicans went to the polls to vote in a national referendum sponsored by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), one of the last remaining guerrilla insurgencies in the western hemisphere. The official results of the so-called consulta were still unclear by press time, but the Mexican government has repeatedly promised not to heed what it denounces as a propaganda ploy by subversives hoping to "Balkanize" Mexico.
That didn't stop an estimated 15,000 Southern California-based Mexicans from voting on Sunday. In Orange County, Zapatista supporters held rallies and counted votes at Santa Ana's Madison Park and at the Truslow Mini-Park in Fullerton, where about 100 people had voted by midday.
"I've seen a lot of people come through here today," said Rosalinda Ramirez, an organizer with the Zapatista-aligned Brigada Daniel Rodriguez, which sponsored the Fullerton event with a local English-language school, La Escuelita del Pueblo, which provides classes to immigrant Latinos in Orange County.
The EZLN's high-profile referendum ended a year of near-silence by the Chiapas-based rebels, a year marked by escalating tension and military conflict in Mexico's poorest, southernmost state.
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Preparations for the consultabegan several weeks ago, when roughly 5,000 masked Zapatista officials scattered throughout the Mexican countryside, hoping to educate the Mexican electorate about their five-question consulta, which asks Mexicans to render a confidence vote on the Zapatistas on the fifth anniversary of their first appearance. On Jan. 1, 1994, the rebels launched their famous two-week offensive and occupied several towns in Chiapas, including famous tourist destination San Cristbal de las Casas.
The EZLN's campaign on behalf of the consulta reached its northernmost platform on March 14, when four uniformed Zapatista delegates showed up at the U.S.-Mexico border to meet with U.S. supporters. The beachside rally took place along a stretch of fence separating San Diego's Border Field State Park from the northwestern tip of Tijuana. Peering through woolen pull-over masks and through the rusty, wire-mesh fence, the four Zapatistas were greeted by some 100 banner-waving and slogan-chanting EZLN supporters from the United States.
The location of the March 14 border rally was more than just an exercise in symbolism. For the first time in the armed conflict in Chiapas, Mexican-born supporters of the Zapatistas who reside outside Mexico are being asked to weigh in.
One man who said he planned to vote in the consulta, a self-described "Mexican residing abroad," is Jesus Corona, a representative of the Los Angeles-based Zapatista Front for National Liberation who participated in the March 14 rally on the U.S. side of the fence. Waving a massive Zapatista banner and clad in a cotton tunic, a brightly colored wool serape and a leather sombrero, Corona spent more than two hours shouting slogans of support at the four semivisible Zapatista delegates who stood in silence on the other side of the border.
Not all were as boisterous or upbeat as Corona. "This is a drag," remarked Michael Sabato, who was joined on the U.S. side of the fence by a female companion, Travis Loller. Along with a third American, Jeffrey Conant, Sabato and Loller were permanently expelled from Chiapas in April 1998 after Mexican authorities arrested them at a Zapatista gathering in the rural rebel village of Taniperlas.
The border rally came just one day before the trio's final hearing in Mexico City took place; the judge's final decision won't be made public for several weeks. "We can't even go to our own trial," Sabato remarked sourly as he stared southward across the border.
Outside of Mexico, nowhere does support for the EZLN run deeper than in Southern California. While non-Mexican Zapatista backers were prohibited from voting in the consulta, numerous polling places were established throughout the region for eligible participants; among them were the downtown LA headquarters of Local 11, Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union, and both the LA and Santa Ana offices of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional.
Thousands of absentee ballots were also dispersed to potential voters throughout Southern California. Votes cast by Mexican expatriates in Southern California are being gathered and counted with the help of the Humanitarian Law Project, a United Nations-registered non-governmental organization that has monitored numerous elections in Mexico and other countries.
The backbone of U.S. support for the EZLN's consulta are more than 100 so-called brigades-loosely affiliated groups that have registered via e-mail with representatives of the Zapatista leadership in San Cristbal de las Casas, Chiapas.
"To become a brigade, all you have to do is fill out an application and e-mail it to the EZLN," explained Lydia Brazon, executive director of the National Coordinator of the Chiapas '98 Coalition, an umbrella group of 65 brigades that was formed after 45 villagers were slaughtered in the hamlet of Acteal in December 1997. According to Brazon, the brigades played an active role in shaping the consulta. "There were some serious objections up here because only people living in Mexico could vote in the consulta," she explained. "The Chicanos got all upset . . . so they got that [restriction] changed by the Zapatistas." As a result, all Mexican citizens over the age of 12 will be permitted to vote, regardless of where they live or whether they hold official Mexican voting certificates.
In the same way, the referendum itself was expanded to include one of the most controversial issues on Mexico's political agenda. The original referendum asked four questions about the conflict in Chiapas. After vociferous intervention by the U.S. brigades, however, the Zapatista leadership agreed to add a fifth question to the consulta: "Are you in agreement that Mexican men and women residing abroad should have an active part in the building of a new Mexico and should have the right to vote in elections?"
Officials in Mexico City have dismissed efforts to grant expatriate voting rights, but as with the rest of the Zapatista consulta, a strong turnout may help force the issue. "We're still divided by this stupid fence," said Corona, pointing southward with his red banner. "But if the Mexican government doesn't respect the [peace accords] and the rights of the indigenous people, then they are going to be hearing from us."