Chiapas Rebels Declare Autonomous Rebel County

Moises Gandhi, Mexico (AP - September 28, 1997) Unwilling to await the outcome of negotiations with the government, Zapatista rebels on Sunday declared an autonomous county in southern Chiapas.

The Zedillo government is unlikely to recognize the new jurisdiction, named in honor of the legendary Cuban rebel, Ernesto "Che" Guevara. It opposes the traditional Indian community rule that the rebels hope to establish there and elsewhere in the region.

In a traditional blessing ceremony in this Chiapas village, an elderly Tzeltal Indian woman in an embroidered blouse blew incense over four newly-appointed county officials wearing the ski masks popular among rebels.

Men in woven cotton trousers played a harp and guitars as an elderly man lit candles and shook rattles during a swearing-in ceremony witnessed by more than 200 representatives from communities throughout Chiapas, which borders Guatemala.

"We are the true heirs of the ancient Maya, inheritors of their struggle, their liberty and their dignity", said a masked man who led the ceremony.

"Che Guevara" is just one of several autonomous counties throughout Chiapas being planned by Zapatista rebels as part of the future Tzotz-choj Autonomous Zone, named after a former Mayan ruler.

Some areas are already operating with their own councils and small budgets for education, development and public works.

Since the Zapatista rebellion in 1994, autonomy for the region's Indians has become a key rebel demand and is currently the biggest stumbling block to the renewal of stalled peace talks.

A partial peace agreement signed by the Mexico City government and rebel negotiators in February 1996 calls for constitutional amendments that would authorize Indian autonomy.

Supporters argue autonomy would provide a political basis for improving the lives of Mexico's poorest citizens. But President Ernesto Zedillo has said the autonomy agreement as presently worded is unconstitutional.

He has called for renegotiating the accords, arguing they would endanger national unity and hurt Indians by creating impoverished reservations like those in the United States.

Arm The Spirit
Wed, 1 Oct 1997

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