San Andrés Accords, the Indigenous Horizon

Twenty five years ago, a new horizon opened up for the indigenous peoples of Mexico. The San Andrés Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture became the foundational document of a long-lasting phase in their emancipatory struggle, a core part of their strategic project, and an essential instrument for their reconstitution. The equivalent, to utilize a historical simile, to the Program of the Mexican Liberal Party in the Revolution of 1910-1917. 

Despite the passing of the years and the government’s failure to comply with the agreements, the accords maintain their relevance and support. What makes this possible? First of all, the route followed for its drafting. As explained in the document, Punto y Seguido, the Zapatistas turned what could have been a negotiation between two parties into an open, inclusive and encompassing dialogue, toward society and with the participation of the broadest currents of opinion (

San Andrés was a choral symphony, performed amidst a spectacular stage design, in which, summoned by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), the voices of the most important indigenous leaders and intellectuals were heard, together with religious leaders, anthropologists, lawyers, historians, philosophers and journalists, who had walked side by side with the native peoples for decades. Such was the conviction of his words that, frequently, the indigenous people invited by the government echoed its proposals.

The multiplicity of languages spoken there could easily have led to the failed construction of a new Tower of Babel. However, the final result was the opposite: an extraordinary synthesis that reclaimed the substance of the tireless indigenous mobilizations and reflections that shook entire regions of the country for many years.

Such a recap was made possible by the unquestionable ethical-political authority of the Zapatistas. They were the constant that tipped the scales toward settling the most bitter contradictions among their advisors and guests. In the negotiation, intense debates arose among those convened on topics such as the scope of human rights, the gender issue, the autonomous pluriethnic regions or the forms of political representation. But, despite the bitterness of the discussion at times, the rebel authority, coupled with its ability to listen, its prioritization of the essential and its summary, allowed that which was discussed to land in the agreements and in Punto y Seguido, with the consensus of the vast majority of the guests.

Beyond the multiethnic mosaic of the deep Mexico that unfolded in all its richness in these dialogues, the reflections from the field of the rebel advisors incorporated an international perspective, especially Latin American. The lessons and debates for the recognition of indigenous rights in the ILO (Convention 169) and the UN, as well as in several American countries (Nicaragua, Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador) were put on the table. Also, the experiences of peace processes in South Africa, Palestine, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru and Colombia.

The agreements do not have exclusively national elements as raw material. They are in synchrony (and in certain places, steps ahead) with the mobilizations and demands of the native peoples and legislation arising from a cycle of struggle in the region opened  between 1984 (first peace process in Colombia) and 1992 (500 years of indigenous, black and popular resistance). San Andrés was a kind of pre-constituent for re-founding the country. It established the need to modify the legal constitution of Mexican society by adding that of indigenous peoples at the beginning to that of citizens. It announced, in its own way, the inevitability of establishing a plurinational State.

The agreements anticipated new models of plunder and exploitation that would be perpetrated by neoliberalism and developmentalist neoindigenism. They sought to erect a legal retaining wall that could protect native peoples from the onslaught to dispossess them of their territories and turn them into overexploited day laborers on modern agroexport plantations. The unstoppable expansion of megaprojects, mining concessions, drug trafficking and agribusinesses challenge their survival today, as they did yesterday with landowners, large cattle ranchers, logging companies, political bosses, corrupt politicians, liquor distributors and the construction of large dams.

Beyond the construction of autonomy without permission that the Zapatistas initiated in their territories, in the name of the agreements, a host of indigenous communities in the country have formed community police and reconstituted their own justice systems, appointed municipal self-governments outside of the political parties, reclaimed their internal normative systems, promoted alternative education projects, made their languages and cultures flourish and forced the approval of legal reforms.

Despite the fact that 25 years have passed since they were signed, the San Andrés Accords maintain are very much relevant today. They have been and are part of the blood that runs through the veins of indigenous insubordination.

In memory of Ricardo Robles1, “el Ronco.”

This article was published in Spanish in La Jornada on February 16, 2021. This English interpretation has been republished by Schools for Chiapas.

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  1. Ricardo Robles, a jesuit priest and specialist in indigenous rights, had a notable presence and role in the negotiations of the San Andrés Accords
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