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Mexico's Surprise Revolt

HAPPY New Year, President Salinas. Just as the the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, a rebel group opposed to the pact attacked cities in Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas. Since fighting broke out New Year's Day, the death toll has reached at least 57, and rebels reportedly kidnapped a former governor of Chiapas.

While this outbreak does not necessarily represent a long-term threat to Mexico's stability, the fighting vents long-smoldering frustrations with underdevelopment, a lack of democratization, and fears of foreign domination that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his likely successor, Minister of Social Development Luis Donaldo Colosio, must address if Mexico is to progress and if NAFTA is to succeed.

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Many of the forces at work in Chiapas are evident in other Latin American countries. The state's economy rests largely on resource extraction; oil is the prime commodity. Yet the state's residents, largely indigenous Indians from the Lancandon forest, are among the poorest in the country. Development, but not jobs, is encroaching on their land, while economic reforms - which NAFTA will further encourage - have undercut a landholding system for peasants that was a hard-won benefit of the 1910 revolution. Absent jobs, land, or a significant social safety net, and with an atmosphere locally of intolerance and corruption as development moves into a region where residents have little political or economic power, many see violence as their only recourse.

Chiapas shares a border with Guatemala; it remains to be seen how much the rebel group, variously estimated to number from 200 to 1,500 people, is being influenced by guerrilla factions from Central America. But if Mexico City pays closer, consistent attention to local concerns, outside influences will have little or nothing to exploit.

Mr. Salinas is said to be an excellent ``damage control'' politician - as evidenced by a quick trip to Chiapas last fall to pledge ``solidarity'' money for the state when unrest there became too evident to ignore, particularly with US Congress set to vote on NAFTA. Many expect a quick, and we hope a peaceful, resolution to this crisis. But this must be accompanied by democratic reform and establishment of an effective social safety net. A segment of Mexico's poorest are crying for help; Mexico's North American partners are watching.

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